A Room of One's Own: Revisited

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

Living, working, and caring for family members in a pandemic is not easy for any of us. Anytime that I get frustrated with the conditions, I remember that comparatively speaking, my situation is pretty easy. But that hasn’t stopped me from returning to one of my all-time favorite works: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

Technically, I have more than a room of my own in our new house: a living room area and a bedroom. But when your roommate has dementia, clear boundaries between areas are neither understood nor respected, by no fault of the offender.

For example, while in Zoom meetings, it doesn’t matter the level of importance of the interaction, my father makes an appearance. Sometimes he’s asking me questions about what things are or where they go, or bringing me coffee (yes, please) or a peanut butter cracker (no, thank you), while other times he’ll start playing with the dogs, which can quickly become a symphony of dog barks, whistling, squeaky toys, and laughter. And it's not uncommon to find him in my bedroom, trying to understand who lives there or claiming to be looking for something to hide his confusion.

Things could be worse, no doubt.

But I need a room of my own. A place where I can shut the door and not be disturbed except in an emergency. The new house currently doesn’t offer me that as neither the rooms where I work and live do not have doors, a situation I’m changing as soon as possible: door purchased, hardware ordered, drill charging, brother solicited to help.

In the meantime, I’ve pulled out Virginia Woolf, wanting to remember what she wrote. Woolf was a British writer born in the late 19th century, but writing in the early 20th. She was mostly known for her fiction writing, and while I respected her novels, they didn’t rock my world the way this work did.

She essentially told women to have their own rooms and their own money and to write. Woolf was not interested in the gender-sparring of many feminists. She loved literature and paid tribute to the men who created it. But she also saw how women had become the subjects of literature but never the authors of it. She saw a disconnect between the pedestal where men placed women in their writing, and the brutal reality of what it meant to be female at that time.

But she also wasn’t the kind of feminist who believed women should be more like men. “It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and the variant of the world, how should we manage with one only? Ought not education to bring out and fortify the differences rather than the similarities?”

Instead she thought women should explore their own worlds and write about them. "I ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject how trivial or how vast." She believed if women had the freedom and courage to write exactly what they want without worrying about what people thought about them, literature would benefit overall as we learn and grow from each other.

My younger self responded with a ferocious hell yeah. I've always been my own breadwinner, and I have had rooms of my own, gardens of my own, houses of my own, and even business ventures of my own, with no mind to what the neighbors might think of any of it.

Yet now I see the shortcoming. If you can afford it, having a room of your own is an easy way to carve out the space to create, explore, write, remember, solve, experiment, or whatever other things we need to do. You can literally shut out the world, a physical boundary that can provide a mental one too.

Yet how do people carve out that mental space when they can't afford their own room, or when circumstances require that they give up their space to care for family members with special needs? How do people stay open, thoughtful, and grounded when they can't just shut out the world?

Mental boundaries seem to be much harder to construct. It's easy to get frustrated and blame it on my father's interruptions or violations of personal space. But that only makes matters worse, as my frustration can agitate him or make him defensive, when all he wanted was to do something nice for me.

While I'll still be installing doors, the room of my own that I have to construct is a mental one. And isn't that the ultimate freedom? No matter what's happening outside ourselves that we cannot control, we can still be free in our minds. Or as Woolf would say, "there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind."

And that's my work to do.

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