As a boy, I had my own bedroom. I also had another room. This one was special.
Located in the basement, we called it the ‘ping pong’ room. No one played ping pong there anymore. The room had a wooden floor which was dry rotted in spots. There were two casement windows on opposite walls – one opened to the outside and the other, oddly, opened to nowhere except a cement wall. During the time of my adolescence, I spent hours in the room alone, processing photographs in a darkroom I’d contrived. I’d listen to music. Occasionally, I’d invite friends to come and watch Donald Duck movies on Castle Films with an old 16mm projector.
A model schooner stood along one wall. Exquisitely crafted, it was maybe four feet from stem to stern. I never knew who built it. It was magnificent and I’d sometimes just look at it and dream of sailing around the world as I’d read Joshua Slocum had. It was my space to make photographic images and to dream and I loved it. I was safe there. Happy.
In Virginia Woolf’s iconic essay, “A Room of One’s Own” she advocates specifically for recognizing a woman’s need for “a room of her own.” She needed her own space and the economic means to give expression to who she was, in her case, a gifted writer. Even from privileged families, Victorian society didn’t recognize women’s skills nor were women allowed rights of their own, particularly rights to their own space.
What has been a luxury of the privileged is now a recognized necessity for everyone. In both a metaphorical and literal sense, everyone needs a room of one’s own.
Even today, Woolf’s concern extends beyond gender equality and well beyond literature. Having one’s own safe personal space without intrusion is a requisite for sanity, for a balanced and fulfilling life. Economic inequality, gender and racial discrimination have deprived many people from realizing their inner potential. They have been deprived of a room of their own, like the millions of immigrants fleeing oppression to seek a safe space; to find a safe haven of their own and the means to live there with dignity.
I have adequate means. I have a room of my own. It’s a studio converted from an old tool shed. I do much the same in that space as I did when I was a boy in the ‘ping pong’ room; I dream and make images – photographic images and create the thousand words that might describe what the pictures are trying to say. There’s a small model of a square rigger I bought for ten dollars at the early attic store in Royal Oak. By the window is a marble top table from my mother’s house where the model sits. From my chair, I can look out past the model on the table and watch the busyness of marsh creatures doing the things they love to do. Having a room of one’s own is a blessing.
Speaking of personal space, marriages need it. . . if one wants the marriage to last. It doesn’t take long for the bonding quality of first love to lose some of its adhesive properties. The adhesive quality eventually gives way and couples find they need room of their own, their own space whether literally or metaphorically. My studio provides me my own space. Occasionally my wife suggests I might like to go there for a while. Having my own space has inadvertently given her the space she needs. An old wheeze puts it this way: “For better or for worse, but not for lunch.”
Respecting others’ space is not a social convention that many observe any more. It’s most evident in social discourse and today’s political rhetoric. Violating one’s space is now the name of the game, and the venerable practice of extending respect to others is as arcane as a man deferentially tipping his hat to an acquaintance. There are few boundaries left. Respecting the boundaries of personal space are critical for maintaining good will and helping us to get along.
To make space for others is the oldest of the social conventions that human beings have practiced – not as often as we might have wished – but practiced, nonetheless. You and I know this convention as hospitality.
A significant form of hospitality can be seen practiced here in Easton. It is an organized expression of love in action. This hospitality is extended by the Talbot Interfaith Shelter. They provide room for the people who have none. They offer safe space for the vulnerable and extend respect for those whom society has marginalized.
“For it is only framed in space that beauty blooms–only in space are events, and objects and people unique and significant –and therefore beautiful,” writes Anne Morrow Lindbergh in her classic essay: Gifts from the Sea. Her observation is relevant to much more than just the shells she discovers on a beach. She’s describing a way of life.
Bonds of affection originate when we welcome others into our space while being welcomed into theirs.
My first awareness of the effects of making space, happened in a creative writing course I took years ago in college. Mr. Atkinson was the professor. He invited us to write an essay of our own choosing. The only caveat was that we had to write what we really thought, not what we thought would just look good. Big words wouldn’t cut it – just how I really think, would. There was no topic.
The assignment confused me at first; almost my entire school life I was meeting standards, trying to assimilate the facts others introduced, doing assignments right, working at being correct. Now I was on my own. In the best sense, it was all about me.
Mr. Atkinson looked at my first attempt. In the kindest way, he smiled and said to the effect: You’re not telling me what you really think. That’s all I want to know. Try it again, and tell me in your own words how it was for you in that incident.
Simply put, he was offering me the space in which I might be who I was. That’s all, just who I was. His gesture was both heartwarming and disorienting at the same time, but looking at it years later I understood. In retrospect, I often feel a profound sense of gratitude for this man’s hospitality. By finding myself in his space, I was being encouraged to enter my own and perhaps know it for the first time.
It’s good to have room of one’s own. It’s even better when we know we’ve helped others to find theirs.