This essay was first published in:
Killing the Angel, Issue 1 – 2012
Solitary walks are my highs, my source of strength and renewal. They help me to think or escape from my thoughts, solve problems or shun them, give sway to imagination, introspection or moodiness. A solace in times of trouble or a reinforcement of health and well-being.
Nearing fifty, I went through a period of discontent—I was unmotivated, unproductive, unfulfilled. Work had lost its joy and challenge; I wasn’t stretching myself intellectually or creatively; a long-term relationship was foundering. I yearned for solitude and seclusion, a place to be alone to sort out my life, to rediscover and reinvent or at least fine-tune myself.
I lived with my partner and his daughter in an established, well-groomed neighborhood. A busy artery ran through the center, with antique shops and restaurants, a dilapidated but still functioning movie theatre, the library in a small park with a playground. The north side was fashionable and upscale, wide streets with sprawling Spanish-style houses and canyon-side mansions. We lived on the south side, one block in, among modest but comfortable homes; two blocks further south the neighborhood brushes up against a dicey crime-infested area. The area was walkable if you stayed on the north side, but not very interesting. Other than its joggers, dog-walkers and baby-stroller-pushers, there wasn’t a lot of pedestrian activity, and it had a settled, suburban feel to it.
I started driving to different parts of the city for my morning walks. I would explore the dignified older neighborhoods, the kind dotted with historic markers; the once-rundown districts newly gentrified, the properties renovated by wise and on-the-rise speculators; the shabby-chic communities most recently wearing the mantle of hip and trendy; the ones that were still funky, a little run-down but with a higgledy-piggledy charm. I avoided the suburbs—new tract developments or middle-class post-war ticky-tacky housing, where people drive everywhere—and areas I thought unsafe, those with histories of gang activity and drive-by shootings.
Village-like pockets are my ideal, with shops and schools and parks and churches and a diverse pedestrian population going about their daily rounds. I would follow people with a curious gaze and imagine their lives—like the old woman walking her toy poodle in a shopping cart; I wondered if she would carry her groceries or if the dog would have to give way and walk home. I studied the houses and apartments, soaking up the ambience, and among the gusts of thought that flitted through my mind were stirrings of possibility. I saw myself living there. Alone. How my life would be different, I would be different, more centered, self-contained.
A vacancy sign at one of the handsome houses that had been converted into apartments in a chic and cultivated older neighborhood caught my eye. I took to sauntering past it regularly, admiring the weathered brick façade, the graceful magnolia in the front yard, the shaded walkway with ferns, ivy and flowering shrubs that led back to a small covered patio. This could be it, I thought—my private refuge. I saw myself stealing away and coming here for quiet afternoons, peaceful Saturday mornings.
I imagined a compact space that I would furnish sparsely, with a comfortable chair, good lighting, bright colors. A small bookcase would embrace my favorites—Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Jane Austen novels, Alice Munro stories, and the thick, meaty novels I like to reread, to feast on at leisure: Middlemarch, House of Mirth, Howard’s End. There would be goodies—fruit and cheese, olives and almonds, nut butters and jams and buttery crackers, shortbread fingers and bittersweet chocolate, several teas and a dry sherry, a red wine and a white, good ones, not Charles Shaw or the five-dollar bottles I usually buy. I would have a chaise longue on the patio, some potted plants and a hummingbird feeder of pale green glass. And I would read and write and sketch and putter and ponder. Might this be where I would finally venture into Proust?
Walks are strengthening and restorative, but literature is stimulation and inspiration. Whether I’m up or down I find what I need in books—other worlds and lives, ideas and direction, validation of life’s bounty; if needed, a rope ladder to lift myself out of the abyss. I find corroboration or escape, and insights into the human condition, including my own. Especially my own. So my ruminations about a room led me to A Room of One’s Own, in which Virginia Woolf asserts that women need privacy and financial independence in order to exercise their creativity. Woolf’s exposition has become a call to arms in the decades since she wrote it, and her words have been the inspiration for novels, stories, and poems, memoirs, essays, and self-help books. Plus a Canadian literary journal, a Madison Wisconsin bookstore, a retreat space on Lake Superior, and an organizing service in Boston.
Contemporary writers have appropriated this symbolic space, literally and metaphorically, with serious intent and with tongue in cheek, to articulate dawning realizations and mirthful observations, frustrations, unfulfilled needs and emotional voids of both real and fictional characters, women who dream of, seek and find the haven of that proverbial room in order to have peace and rest, to be alone, to do creative and meaningful work or to do nothing at all, to weep and rage, even to take their lives.
Carol Shields evokes this image with a wry reference in Happenstance, two novels combined into one, a Rashomon-like account of a marriage told separately by both parties. In The Wife’s Story, Brenda is exhibiting her quilts at a handicrafts show. She overhears a conversation at the opening reception, someone complaining about women’s lack of creative time and space. The woman tells how she solved the problem for herself by laying down the law, as she put it, and getting her own studio, thanks to “good old Virginia … she had her head on straight.”
In Alice Munro’s story, “The Office,” the protagonist tells her husband that she wants an office to write in. It seems self-indulgent, hard to justify even to herself—she has a house with plenty of rooms and a view of the sea. She doesn’t even know if she would write; she imagines herself sitting and staring at the wall, a pleasant prospect in itself. She finds and rents a space, but the experience rapidly sours as it becomes a battle for control with an insufferable and abusive landlord. She gives up under his harassment and abandons her office. I wonder: did she try again, or was she too disheartened by defeat? Did she feel she’d overstepped herself and was being chastised?
I got my room, but not as a secret hideaway or part-time getaway. My ten-year liaison ended over conflicting needs and goals and an inability to communicate them, much less surmount them. The life and the fun had gone out of our relationship, and we both wanted more. My partner needed the extra space for his daughter, who was thirteen then and dealing with so many life changes; it was easier for me to move out, and I was eager to make a fresh start. The apartment I found was in the converted garage of a lovely old home in the neighborhood I had admired, where I had imagined myself. A profusion of trumpet vines lined the narrow corridor that led past the house to my two tiny womblike rooms. Cobalt blue tiles in the kitchenette greeted me from the front door; windows all around provided lots of light, but it was private, separated from the main house—and the owners’ with their five young children—by a lush garden of tall shrubs and meandering paths. A hydrangea with bluish-purple blossoms flourished in the shade next to my covered porch. Dregs of furnishings, some begged and borrowed, my odds and ends, books, plants and cats made it mine.
Tucked into my bright feathered nest, I read and idled and dreamed. I started a journal and wrote most mornings. I planted pots on my porch and learned through trial and error what grew best in shade and filtered light. I walked and explored. I was in a pedestrian Eden, with downtown and Old Town, parks and museums, bookstores, boutiques and restaurants all within walking distance.
I felt light-hearted, weightless as I floated through the days, but it was a time of reflection, too. Too much introspection can lead to brooding, but I wasn’t at risk; nothing could keep me down. I’m not inclined toward depression even in the worst of times: years back, a boyfriend accused me of being shallow because I didn’t wallow in worries; my grief was too brief. Now my solitude was like a spa in which I bathed and pampered and powdered myself. Refreshed and invigorated, it wasn’t long before I was ready to poke my head out of the pocket into which I’d retreated. I joined a women’s group, a mix of ’70s-style consciousness-raising and book discussions. Five of us would gather every few weeks to rant about the ways of the wicked world one minute and laugh at our own foibles the next. I took Chinese cooking classes, volunteered on political campaigns, enrolled at a gym. Living alone provided the seclusion I needed. I think of myself as battery-operated—I perform admirably as long as I recharge regularly. I plug into my wall socket, my home, for as long as it takes to get back to full power.
Fiction’s rooms can paint a darker picture, as in Doris Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen.” It tells of Susan, independent, successful and single in 1960s London. Until she married, soon became pregnant, gave up her job, and moved to the suburbs, where she stayed home to raise four children. Over time she starts to feel oppressed and looks forward to the time her children would all be in school and she will be free, but when that happens she spends whole days sitting in her room, inert, incapacitated. There are still domestic interruptions, and they annoy her; she longs for a place where no one can find her and bother her. She rents a room in a seedy hotel—by the day, no questions asked—three days a week, then five. She sits, day after day, her mind a blank canvas, soaking up emptiness like a coat of primer. Unable to cope with her despondency and to maintain the web of lies she has been forced to resort to, she makes a last visit to Room 19, seals the room and turns on the gas.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham is the story of three women, one of them Virginia Woolf herself while she was writing Mrs. Dalloway. Another is Laura Brown, a suburban housewife in 1949 Los Angeles. One morning she lies in bed reading Mrs. Dalloway. Reluctantly she puts the book aside; her young son needs her, it’s her husband’s birthday, she has a busy day ahead. Moody already, she becomes distraught by her pathetic-looking birthday cake, its layers crooked and the frosting slopped, and by an uncomfortable encounter with a friend. She deposits her son with a neighbor and drives off, no destination in mind, nothing with her except the novel. She checks into a hotel and is given Room 19—a sinister foretelling or homage to the Lessing story? She feels both “prim and whorish” but safe. She reads, and she thinks about death. She could choose to die. She rejects the idea but feels comforted, validated, by having weighed the options and made her choice.
What about the stories about women and their rooms, real or symbolic, that have a more positive spin, that express satisfaction and fulfillment? I came up empty-handed when I scrutinized my memory and my shelves—perhaps it’s my reading choices, or perhaps happily-ever-after endings are no longer the stuff of riveting or even contemplative fiction (although solving problems and growing up often are). Perhaps we are left to conclude that it’s not about the room anyway; it’s about choices. A woman who opts to remain single in order to travel or to pursue a career, who refuses to risk her autonomy in a prescribed role.
Throughout history women have been denied choice—they’ve been shuffled from their parents’ house to their husband’s or to the proverbial nunnery. There’s a longing, a hunger. Is it an endemic female frustration, a chronic condition of old and young, rich and poor, expressed euphemistically as the desire for a room of one’s own? Fiction tells us that it’s not new. Set in rural Canada in 1914, Mary Swan’s “In the Story That Won’t Be Written” tells of a young woman happily anticipating her marriage. It’s a cheerful story. They’ll start out in a little red brick house, have three or four children, move to a bigger house. But what does she want then? A room of her own.
Human beings have always lived in groups, families and communities, necessitated by the rigors of daily life, the need for cooperation and the desire for companionship, for safety. Craving solitude is natural and healthy, but seclusion isn’t for everyone. In the play “Separate Tables” a long-term resident of a boarding house tells the manager that the new woman won’t “stick it” because she’s “not the alone type.” Is anyone, asks Miss Cooper? You are, says Miss Meacham: “I’m not saying you won’t fall in love one day, and get married, or something silly like that. I’m only saying that if you don’t, you’ll be all right. You’re self-sufficient.” That’s me, I realized, the alone type. Self-sufficient.
People haunt coffee houses, the ubiquitous corner Starbucks or a cozy neighborhood nook. These have become their rooms, a different kind of getaway for many who, in spite of being in a public place, welcome the privacy, the sense of solitude in the midst of strangers. Some are fleeing the trappings and responsibilities and perhaps the lack of privacy of their homes and lives. Some go there to escape loneliness in nameless safety. There’s a comfort knowing that these anonymous others are as indifferent to us as we are to them as they tap on their laptops, scratch or sketch in notebooks, turn pages of books and magazines, or stare into space.
I bought a small house, a home of my own, just a few blocks from my apartment refuge. And after a four-year interlude of living alone, my soon-to-be-husband moved here from out of town. Our bungalow is a mere 750 square feet, a challenge for two. My mate shares my reclusive streak, so we give each other plenty of privacy and space to stretch. We’re cozy and compatible. We have created areas where each of us can work, or not work, in relative isolation. He has converted the garage into a painting and music studio; I have the den, an extension of our living room, where I’ve gathered my twigs and bits of fluff into another bright feathered nest.
The desk I’ve had with me for more than thirty years—no drawers, just open cubbies like in a pre-school coat closet; a friend’s father made it for her, and when she had to part with it she vowed to find it a good home—sits in a corner facing a window on one side and a sliding glass door on the other. I look out on the deck and the canyon beyond. It holds the fruits of my puttering and dabbling, an artful array of succulents in colorful clay and ceramic containers, whimsical animal statuary and a live squirrel who seems to have made it his home, bird feeders that entice the finches and doves out of the palms and eucalyptus that shield us from the busy thoroughfare on the other side of the canyon.
Did I say I have the best of all worlds? I believe I do, but I still find that I work and think best alone, and I relish those occasions when I have the house to myself. And sometimes when I don’t feel affable or when I’m interrupted in the middle of a page, well.…
I still go on long solitary walks, and occasionally some cute little place will catch my eye. Not that I’m looking, mind you, I’m content with my lot. Would Bill Gates go raking the beach for pennies? Would a sated gourmand stop for a snack on the way home from a sumptuous six-course meal? But just last week I saw a “for rent” sign in front of a boxy two-story apartment building on a busy street. Nothing much to catch the eye, but I noticed that it the sign was pointing to the back of the structure. I followed a curved walkway to a dollhouse, a buttercup yellow cottage with white trim, self-contained, secluded. My heart started thudding—I felt like a recovering alcoholic confronted by a frosty-cold Corona on a hot day. I took a deep breath, retraced my steps, and kept walking.