Space is our birthright. So it is imperative that we have some of our own.
City dwellers confront this need in a way that those who were raised in nature (me) simply do not understand. But I’ve been away from the sparsely populated Pine Barrens and marshes of South Jersey for some time, and I’ve been living in cities and in small apartments with another person long enough to know that a corner of a room is essential to my sense of self and the only way I’ll ever get any true work done: the work of being human.
Ted Kooser—my first poetry teacher via The Poetry Home Repair Manual—recounts how he wrote many of his early poems inside a cardboard refrigerator box. He was young, newly married, and needed a space of his own in a small apartment. He taped drafts inside the box, and I always imaged the white paper fluttering as a breeze blew through, a divine moment when he was surrounded by clouds and rustling leaves of his own making, all lifted, briefly, by the blessing spirit of the wind.
While I’ve never had such an enchanting refrigerator box of my own, I’ve learned to make nooks and fill them with my favorite belongings and energy since childhood. For a while, I shared bunk beds in a single room with my younger brother, but I was always building tents in the living room. But even when I was older and moved to my own room, I kept my nooking habit.
My new room was, I thought, the best room in the house. It was also, for a time, the only way to the upstairs part of our old home. A soft, folding slider door with no lock was the only thing between me and the top stair. And the bottom stair went straight to the front door and kitchen, where everyone likes to be. So I was never in a space that was simply unavailable to anyone else. It never occurred to me that my entire bedroom, quite large if a-typically shaped, should really be all for myself because if it wasn’t my room, I’d be asking to cut through it all the time too rather than walk around the entire house to the other stairs.
My room was attic-like with slanted ceilings, a skylight, and all the posters I could want (many famous works of art, because my mother is an artist and art teacher). There was a little door that opened to a ledge, filled with antiques, where I could even kneel and peer down into the kitchen. Even with such a magical room, I needed a nook of my own. My favorite place was the space between the side of my bed I slept closest to and my book shelves, which functioned as a little altar for all my small and favorite things.
Perhaps Virginia Woolf would find me deprived without a lock on my door, but I’ve always felt like it was the opposite. Both parents gave me the incredible gift and ability to make anywhere feel like home, created from items that were new, old, used, or even re-done from the trash. We never judged where anything came from, only what magic we could make from it. Everything in my life was turned, often by all our hands, into something beautiful and useful.
Nathanial Hawthorne’s passage from The House of Seven Gables is the perfect summation of such a gift:
Little Phoebe was one of those persons who possess…the gift of natural arrangement. It is a kind of natural magic, that enables these favored ones to bring out the hidden capabilities of things around them; and particularly to give the look of comfort and habitableness to any place which, for however brief a period, may happen to be their home.
Phoebe’s gift is practically manifested in a haunted house and decrepit garden, but Hawthorne assures us that, were she dropped in an even more wild and untamed place, there would quickly be evidence of someone who transformed a small corner of cosmic wasteland into a cheery and livable nook.
My dad gave me this ability in equal measure to my mom, and each gave me a particular set of forms to work with. Not everyone has this ability to turn anywhere into a more practical and poetic place of habitation, but like most children, I assumed everyone’s experience was similar to mine. I thought everyone was constantly trying to create a physical space for their spirit to breathe in a chaotic and cruel world. I wasn’t entirely off. They are, or at least they are trying to. But not everyone was taught by the behavior of their parents—two artists no matter what jobs they worked—how to make space for the soul.
When Virginia Woolf was asked to give a speech at Oxford on “Women and Fiction,” she ended up with a collection of essays, delivering her philosophy on what the creative life requires but with a particular emphasis on women.
Woolf argues women must have a fixed income of 500 pounds a year (roughly a $30,000 universal basic income in today’s terms) and a room of her own with a lock on the door because it is only with independence and solitude that women will finally be free to create. Of course, Woolf understood this is what freedom meant for any person because men already had it. Women being Woman simply had less recourse to their own resources. But gender here is more useful if we focus it around a class of people.
Woolf draws the picture: women working in the middle of a living room with a thousand practical interruptions, ten children to see to, and a sheet of blotting paper to cover the shame of wasting time with “scribbles” (as Jane Austen did whenever someone outside the family came into the drawing room). Yes, there was a house to keep and a family to raise and guests to welcome. But how is that any different than anyone who, in our moment, has artistic dreams and ambitions that require Leisure: space and time and solitude without existential financial dread?
Women were a class of people predominantly serving the needs of those who had the resources for leisure. But let’s play it straight.
Woolf was asked to speak at Oxford. She was born upper class. Her peers were women living middle to upper class lives. They had servants even if they had to manage them. When asked to write the introduction for the book Life As We Have Known It, a collection of testimonies by women of the Cooperative Women’s Guild, Woolf was, to say the least, ambivalent about the lives of working-class women. Woolf admits that any sympathy with less affluent women was pretty much a fiction because upper-class women “pay our bills with cheques and our clothes are washed for us.” And she had no qualms publishing complaints about the boorish, according to her, language of her servants which she suffered so much to hear. Sounds like Woolf had leisure to me.
Thankfully, we also have the work of Charles Dickens who loved and understood the lives of lower-middle and working-class men and women, for he was born into the middle class himself and well acquainted with the lower class. Read any novel of Dickens’ and you will feel such love and understanding for those without maids or meat on their table. No political pamphlet is more harrowing or persuasive than a Dickens’ novel for social reform. Above all, he hated the modern emphasis on life devoid of imagination and the hypocrisy of middle-class morality, nowhere more poignantly addressed than in Hard Times. Dickens knew (and therefore characters like Oliver Twist and Stephen Blackpool knew) that no matter the body’s station on earth the soul feels keenly and is divinely royal.
So the stable life—one tapped into its spirit and imagination and creating—is not the privilege of gender: it is the privilege of money. And Woolf had it. “Food, housing, and clothing are mine forever,” she proclaims, remembering “with bitterness” the days before she had 500 pounds per annum left to her name with no work required to earn it.
But she knew, too, that a woman in a mansion was in a gilded cage: the money was always her husband’s legal property, along with the children, the house, and the land it was on. In short, there was nothing to her name. Perhaps this is why she says, emphatically, that being single with money means that men can no longer hurt her, that she has no reason to “flatter any man; he has nothing to give.” (I suspect Woolf would be delighted to know that women can choose to remain single and work jobs and live their lives without a man, if they choose.) But the class of people bound to servitude has, perhaps, expanded beyond what Woolf could ever imagine.
How many middle and upper middle-class homes feel bound by both partners working a 9-5, plus raising children and managing a mortgage and medical bills and elderly family members who need care that only the time of other family members can provide? Who has a room of their own in such a life? I doubt the men who are anxiously trying to give their family a better life. Certainly not the women, who still bear more domestic work.
The lack of physical space is not separate from one’s lack of inner space. It’s why even the wealthiest can lack a rich, creative inner life and why someone like Ted Kooser living in a small apartment in Nebraska writing in a refrigerator box became one of America’s poet laureates.
Space will always cost us, be it time or money or both. And we will die slowly without it because leisure, as explained by philosopher Samuel Loncar, “is for soul-making.” Woolf knew women died that slow death of the soul.
But don’t most of us?
Women’s rights are human rights. Are not the working poor and tired masses made to feel how their birthright to create and to expand their soul is made so much more difficult by circumstance? Woolf understood that it is only when we have a room of our own—read financial security and solitude—that we begin to do the work of becoming human.
And yet, women did write in the drawing room (Austen, the Brontë sisters, Dickinson). Sure, these women were middle and upper class, but what about Louisa May Alcott, who worked her whole life till an early death? She was never financially stable because she wrote to pay off her family’s high debts, give her mother and father a nicer life in their old age, and to donate to those with even less than her.
Or Mary Shelley (daughter of the famous woman’s rights activist, Mary Wollstonecraft) who was widowed and faced with the need to support her family through writing, that shared passion she held with her beloved husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Necessity to fend off poverty gave us the revised version we read of Frankenstein.
Or Alice Walker, who was raised by sharecropper parents in the South but who insisted that she would be a writer and needed her mother’s blessing. Walker’s will to write and create brought us not only her own insights but recovered the work of Zora Neale Hurston, another woman whose spirit blazed in her art and, though she had some success in the Harlem Renaissance, died in poverty and obscurity. Still, Hurston’s sympathy for those who are small-hearted and unable to live well is recorded for posterity in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
A nook of our own might be all we can carve out of a room or afford, whether it happens to be a used desk from the thrift store in a corner of the living room or a cardboard box large enough to hold a man and a typewriter. But whatever the cost, it is always worth the price.
My Nana B—bless her memory—always told me that “money doesn’t solve all your problems, but it makes them a lot easier.” And she would know, being born and raised in absolutely hellish conditions in 1930’s New York City. When rats and hunger and filth and abuse are all around you, only a fool would say that money couldn’t solve a few of those problems. And yet. Once problems like money and discrimination and abuse and all manner of external obstacles are solved, or temporarily removed, we’re still left with the self to deal with. (James Baldwin’s “Introduction” to Nobody Knows My Name is a startling two-pages on this reality.) And the self is no small obstacle.
The desire for a single hour alone is the soul’s desire to be safe with itself and to feel itself without worry or care, if only for some small measure of the day. Men and women have worked and sacrificed and suffered to have that space, especially when it wasn’t made easy by cooks and servants and fixed incomes. We admire them—I admire them—because in their stories we see the whole reflected: the journey to that hard-won inner space where we begin to face the essential question: Who am I, and why does it matter?
Alexandra Barylski is the Executive Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, a poet, co-founder of The Writing College, and a producer at the Becoming Human Project. She completed her Masters of Literature at College of Charleston, her Master’s of Religion and Literature at Yale Divinity School, and she is currently pursuing post-graduate philosophical studies at The Guild.