When I was five years old, during a routine game of hide-n’-seek, I hid in the cupboard in the spare room, amongst the hanging fur coats and long sequined dresses my mother would never wear again. I was there a long time. Even when my seeker had ‘given up’ and rallied the adults to help find me, though I heard people calling my name, I kept silent, not wanting to betray the sanctuary of my hiding place.
Hide-n’-seek is based on the understanding that children love nooks and crannies – attics, basements, or the broom closet under the stairs. Being discovered is, of course, the low point of the game. It’s the hiding we all love. Speaking for myself, curtained in that nest of darkness, where all I could hear was the sound of my heart beating in my chest, I fell in love with my own privacy.
Soon after this, I told my mother I needed a room of my own – and this was long before I ever read Virginia Woolf.
‘What’s wrong with sharing with your sister?’ she wanted to know. Though we played ‘tickle-toe’ before bed and the sound of her breath as she slept was reassuring in the lonely night hours, Carolyn wanted a night light on and I preferred darkness. She liked greens and I was a pink girl through and through. The ‘spare room’ had nothing but a big desk in it and was only used to hang laundry up when it rained. It was practically begging for me to have it. I nagged my mother. With Rotweillian stamina. My granny suggested I throw in a promise to keep it very tidy despite my obvious failings in the neatness department. Finally my mother relented.
I spent a huge part of the next eighteen years of my life in that room. When it came time to put in new carpets, I got my way with a fluffy pink one, a pomegranate-coloured indoor grass. I chose rose patterned drapes for the windows. I stuck a huge cork board on one wall which became a canvass on which I stuck the various badges and posters of my kaleidoscopic obsessions. I spent a decade of hours lying on the floor, reading, dreaming and writing there. In my late teens, I drilled holes on opposite walls and suspended a hammock a boyfriend gave me from one end of the room to the other.
My father had a ‘no closed doors’ rule, which was his way of ensuring we were connecting as a family. He didn’t like ‘secrets’ or the harboring of grudges he believed could sprout like mushrooms after rain behind closed doors. But like all households, ours was not always an easy place to be. I retreated to my own room and closed the door against the dramas of my family life, as a protest against my father’s rule, as an act of defiance but mostly because doing so offered me a portal to my own sanity. I understand now, as a parent, why it is healthier for our doors to be open to each other. But because my father never knocked if my door was closed; nor did he ever quite understand that a door is a boundary, a membrane to filter out the contaminations of icky family dynamics, I am a die-hard ‘room-of-one’s-own’ kinda gal. I am convinced relationships would work better, and people would be happier if everyone just had a room of their own. With a door that can be closed, or even locked if needs be – unless your name is Rapunzel and you’ve spent the first eighteen years of your life locked in a doorless turret, in which case you’ll be wanting a commune or a dorm.
So when, in my late twenties, Zed suggested we move in together, I faltered. I loved him more than enough. And it’s not that I don’t like to share – I’m a fabulous sharer, of the food on my plate, the clothes in my wardrobe, and even my ute which just about everyone needs to borrow at some point in their lives. But the ‘forsaking all others until death do us part’ bit scared me less, than the thought of having to share a room with another person. Forever.
Fifteen years later, this is my verdict: the marital bedroom can be a lovely place. At times. But I like clutter and Zed is a minimalist. I like incense and it brings on Zed’s sneezing attacks. I like silence and Zed is a natterer who regales me with every detail of his day without sifting the information for relevance. He thinks out loud, ‘I wonder if I should pack my running shoes today, in case I get time for a run. Where is my Six Foot Track shirt? I thought I washed it yesterday, geez, I wonder if I left it somewhere… or maybe I should take my new NIKE shirt?’ In the grips of PMS, I have been known to snap, ‘Could you just think three times before you decide whether I NEED that information.’ Some things, I believe belong behind the closed doors of one’s lips. Joan Didion, the American writer, writes about marriage as a place of ‘neighbouring solitudes.’ And I always think fondly of Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera’s unconventional marriage arrangement, where they lived in separate houses adjoined by a little bridge.
Now married with children, a room of my own, is an issue of affordable mortgage repayments. I do not have a room of my own, sharing both my bedroom, and my workspace with Zed. While he’s at work and not physically there, it is technically MY room. Except for his stuff on the other side. My friend Kaaren who lives in an old renovated pub in Surrey Hills has a bona fide room of her own. The bona fide-ness of it comes down to the deep purple colour she painted it, as well as those chiffon curtains. It is HER room. It bears no traces of compromise. Hence the bold colours, and the flowers wherever you turn. It is a room in which men start to twitch and feel the need to go out for a round of golf or a beer. It is her room as much as the shed at the back of the garden is her husband’s. I am all for a ‘shed’ so a guy can go and bond with his power tools and garden equipment. Good luck to any bloke who needs time alone with his lawnmower and pitchfork. Some devotions are difficult to explain. And there are some things we can only do on our own, in a room of our own.
Take Laura Brown, for example. She was pregnant with her second child. One day she left her three year old with a neighbor and booked herself into a hotel room for the day – her infidelity? To read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in peace and quiet away from maternal domestic chores and obligations. In his book, The Hours (made into a fabulous movie with Meryl Streep) Michael Cunningham describes the hotel room as this ‘hushed remove, this utter absence inside the continuing world.’ He writes, ‘Having this room to herself seems both prim and whorish. She is safe here. She could do anything she wanted, anything at all…. She reaches for her book.’
Can a woman’s autonomy be so tenuous, that she will clock out of her daily existence to simply be alone in a room of her own – even if she has to pay for it?
It’s no coincidence that Laura Brown is reading Virginia Woolf, who in 1923 when asked to address the Arts society in Newnham on the topic of women and fiction wrote the essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ which begins, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ In an era when women were their husbands’ property, and women writers nothing but sad misfits who failed to master their betrothed, maternal destinies, stating a woman should have a room of her own was a bit like suggesting she needed a wife of her own. It has subsequently become an iconic feminist manifesto explaining women’s absence from the history books.
Woolf was saying something deeper than that women need independence and more profound than that artists need quiet time to create.
In his book The Three Marriages, the author/poet David Whyte suggests that to live as a full human being, we need to nurture the three core relationships in our lives – with our partners, our work and our selves. For Whyte, it is about ‘belonging.’ ‘We all desire to belong to something larger and deeper within ourselves,’ he states. Being faithful and loving are not only commitments we make to others, but also to ourselves. It’s a repackaged notion of personal space, a concept developed by anthropologist Edward T Hall, defining the region around us we regard as psychologically our own. A room of one’s own, therefore, is not only a physical space, but also an internal space, a corner of the psyche into which we can retreat, like a child does in a game of hide-n’-seek.
Introverts are said to need time alone to recharge their batteries lest they evaporate into a puddle of exhaustion in company. That’s me. Give me silence over conversation, tv, radio or music. To know what I think, I need to know who I am – who I really am when no-one’s looking and I am free of others’ expectations. In my case, I meditate. Sing. Talk aloud to the cats and the potplants. Fantasize. Write in my journal. Alone, I am a quiet person. A vegetarian. A unrehabilitated romantic. A nudist. I know these parts of myself. They are my secret selves.
Alone we inhabit the shape we truly are, avoiding becoming the people Oscar Wilde spoke of when he said ‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.’
In a room of our own, we resuscitate our dreams, ask the hard questions, interrogate our choices, plan our escape, cry over spilt milk, act like a spoilt brat, wish for more, ask forgiveness, break our vows, figure it out, make it work, and slowly remember what life is asking of us. In a room of her own, a woman reaches for her book… breathes into the forgotten chambers of her being …. puts her brush to canvas…. cries in silence…. looks at herself in the mirror and says, ‘It will be okay’…. dreams of what else there might have been …. while watching The Notebook for the fifteenth time. In a room of her own, a woman never ever apologizes.
Maybe adults need to learn to play hide-n’-seek again. It’d make a great change from the conversational incarceration that is the modern ‘dinner party.’ Personally, I think it’s why women are always excusing themselves to go to the ladies room.
A bathroom of one’s own – that’s next on my agenda.
Published in Vogue, Australia, 2010
Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?