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Possibly the best birthday present I’ve ever received was a room. (I share a birthday with Virginia Woolf, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it was indeed a room of my own.)
For much of my childhood, I shared a bedroom with my younger sister. Five years and eight months different in age, my much younger sister. We got along just fine, however, even if Jane’s collection of Strawberry Shortcake and her many odiferous friends sometimes took over most of our floor space. I mostly wanted to read anyway (the childhood of an English professor—shocking, I know).
Generally, we lived on Army posts in quarters—but for one stretch, we owned a house off-base: a modest three-bedroom 1970s ranch. It certainly never occurred to me to think about having my own room there. Where would such a thing materialize from? So I never asked for one. But as I approached my 12th birthday, my parents thought that as a 6th grader I might like to have a space of my own. They wanted to find a way give me some privacy and independence as I moved into adolescence.
They told me they wanted to give me my own room for my birthday.
And that’s how the breakfast nook in the kitchen became my bedroom.
Looking back, it was probably smaller than many jail cells, but it gave me tremendous freedom. The width of the room was the width of my twin bed—which fit perfectly under the window between the refrigerator and the wall. I was super excited (as only a child of the 70s can be) that my parents let me hang a silvery metallic butterfly poster on the side of the refrigerator at the foot of the bed. I selected a mustard yellow “pillow chair” for the other end and was given a lap desk so I could do my homework, luxury of luxuries, sitting on the bed (this in a house where sitting on the bed was firmly discouraged).
My mother made new curtains for the room and then used the same fabric to cover a wooden screen that formed the “wall” between my bedroom and the kitchen. In front of the screen stood a small green metal bookshelf that held my record player and books. On the opposite wall, my parents bought a large, wooden combination chest of drawers/closet to house my clothes. And on the wall across from the bed was a tiny wicker love seat. I could stand in the middle and touch everything in the room.
And I could not have loved it more.
As I look back on it as an adult, I’m struck by the effort my parents went to to make it all happen. Not just the work to make my room—but how that one decision meant that the whole house got rearranged, too. For example, the door that used to lead from the kitchen through the breakfast nook to the dining room was now blocked by my bedroom “wall” screen, so the old family room became the new dining room and vice versa. My sister got her space refreshed too—my mother made her a set of Strawberry Shortcake curtains.
I’ve been thinking a good deal of late about how we give “space” as a gift to each other. In a society that crowds and over-connects, that resists solitude, perhaps it’s difficult for us to not believe that the solution to every situation, especially painful ones, isn’t more togetherness. And that certainly has a very important function. But I think it also sometimes leads us to wrongly believe that it is our presence that is doing the ultimate work of healing and transformation.
Instead, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says that we must “leave comfort root-room.” How we do that for those we love signifies how willing we are to rearrange the furniture of our own lives and to acknowledge the work of God in even the most humble places.