A room with a bed, a table, and a chair…
I’m reading The Copenhagen Trilogy, and just captivated, like everyone else who’s encountered this book. Ditlevsen’s extraordinary writing leaps off the page, taking the reader pell-mell through her life. Nothing is too trivial to include, and she suffuses everything she experiences with meaning and emotion. I’m on p. 154, where, as a youth, Ditlevsen longs for “a room with a bed, a table and a chair, with a typewriter, or a pad of paper and a pencil, nothing more. Well, yes — a door I could lock.”
It made me think. I, too, have always longed for such a room, and it sounds crazy to say I still haven’t found or created it. How can this be? I’m not crammed into a tight apartment with nosy, pedestrian parents who have no understanding or sensitivity for poetry or literature, as Ditlevsen was. I’m a 53-year-old homeowner who, for some incredible reason, still has no office to call her own, nor even a proper writing desk.
I pace my own home like a lion, searching, searching for a plain on which to stretch my legs and run. Searching for a corner of my home with a table that is not too tall, a chair that is not too short. Each year, I buy and discard office chairs with controls that break, making it impossible to lower the plastic arms. Chairs that push my shoulders up to my ears, causing my trapezius to shriek. Or chairs that are just too ugly to be tolerated.
I’m forever picking up desks from yard sales, from neighbors, from Craig’s List. There was the handsome oak desk that was too tall, the sleek and diminutive black one that was too rickety. The handsome, black-and-white specimen with drawers that cut into the tops of my thighs when the chair was raised to the level required for my fingers to float above the keyboard without my neck and shoulder hitching up painfully.
It seems I’m stymied, every year. Every year, I try, and try again. Every year, I tell myself this can’t be rocket science. I ponder, briefly, what it might be like to rent a room somewhere as a writing studio. Or erect a shed of some sort in the back yard. I’ve tried the laundry room: drafty and bad internet. My children’s bedrooms: drafty and bad internet, plus, the darlings have a way of returning home. The dining room: table too tall, chairs too short and too hard.
Now I have the standing desk I bought over Christmas. It’s not bad, and I’m using it now, but I must confess it hurts just as much to stand over a period of hours as it does to sit over the same period. After some time, I lower the desk, and warily eye the two office chairs cast to the side of the living room. They are too deep, the arms are too high, and my feet hang in a way that pulls my back, and here we go again. I don’t even try them. I ignore them, day after day.
Also… the standing desk is where I work 9 to 5 for the corporate world. I have an instinctive aversion to mixing my “corporate” work with my creative life, and self. I don’t want the world of business to touch what I truly value, to taint what I find most beautiful and rich in life: books and nature, people and food, art and cooking, love, and poetry. Birds! Nutmeg! History and philosophy. Dreams. None of these have anything to do with business, finance, technology, or the bottom line.
But, I suspect there’s another, more profound reason I have not found or created my writing nook. I suspect it’s my cagey approach to honoring my own Self and creativity. To respect my own desire to write. To plumb my own depths, or reckon with my own fear and shame. You see, like many writers, I’m drawn to writing, and when I’m actually doing the deed — writing, that is — it’s not hard at all. But the build-up, my God, the build-up is terrible. I spend heaps of time — hours, days, weeks, often months — trying to bring myself to the page.
If I had the perfect room, corner, office, studio, I would no longer have an excuse. I would be obliged to claim my calling, to stand up in the world as a writer, recognized or not, acclaimed or not. And that has proven difficult to do.
What I seek now has more to do with how to live one’s life than anything else. It’s an attitudinal shift. It’s permitting myself to open up and think big, dream big. I seem to have a strong Catholic streak (which would be no surprise considering who my mother was) that forbids me to unfold, to take, to expect, to demand, to embrace the world. To do what I want to do. I tread cautiously the tightrope between cultivating gratitude for what I have and reaching for more. I desperately fear that asking for more will cause the whole shaky edifice to come crashing down. How dare I?
So, which is it? Cultivate gratitude, or go for my dreams?
The truth has to be, it’s both. We must appreciate and be grateful for all that we have, of course. But, we must also strive to fulfill our potential, to actualize our Selves. That is also our responsibility, according to Abraham Maslow in his famous 1943 paper “A theory of Human Motivation” where he laid out his hierarchy of needs. Self-actualization is achieving one’s full potential, being true to oneself— independent and autonomous.
I’ve identified as a writer since I was ten years old. Yet, I’ve just as stubbornly shied away from actually writing, actually stepping into the skin that was laid out for me at birth. Instead, I’ve let life buffet me about. I’ve fallen into jobs, relationships, and opportunities randomly, and truthfully it’s worked out fairly well. I’m lucky that way. And yet. I’ve also let myself down. There’s no doubt about it.
For my next act, which is starting now, now that both my kids are launched and my body rebels against doing work for the man for more than a handful of hours, I intend to be more intentional. Writing and reading now take pride of place. I’m learning from Maria Popova how to read seriously, and how to take myself seriously as well. It’s not frivolous. Laundry is not more important than reading Kafka. I’m allowing my dreams to pipe up and make themselves known. I’m gathering the determination to create a studio in which I can flower, and the courage to honor my dream to live abroad in a post-pandemic world. And so can you: Put your dreams front and center. And don’t wait, because, as Sam Horn says, “Someday is not a day in the week.”