(Head)room of One’s Own

Virginia 1Last year I finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s extended essay, A Room of One’s Own, and I find myself still pondering her words today. Although it was first published in 1929, so much of what Woolf wrote rings true ninety years later: it is a feminist manifesto, delivered gently yet powerfully, bringing the place of women in literature and society into laser-sharp focus.

I’ve mulled Woolf’s words over. I’ve disappeared down various rabbitholes as her words and life have cropped up in other books I have read, most notably in Drusilla Modjeska’s beautifully written memoir Second Half First. I’ve read more of Woolf’s own works, including the brilliantly conceived and executed Mrs Dalloway. I’m planning on re-reading The Waves and To The Lighthouse, volumes I have not delved into since my university days.

And yet, despite all this investigation, I am still struggling with Woolf’s central premise in A Room of One’s Own:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I firmly believe Woolf’s statement to be true.

But what, I wonder, would she make of women’s lives in the twenty first century?  Ninety years after the publication of A Room of One’s Own, many things have improved for women in the western world.  Our access to education has improved, along with our employment prospects and our control of our own lives and bodies.

What I think women in the western world have lost control of, however, is our minds.

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I would love to embrace this idea as a true representation of my self and my life, to punch my fist skyward and proclaim that my mind is entirely my own, that my freedom is guaranteed because I am not shackled by cerebral restrictions.

But I can’t.

Not quite.

I may have money I earn myself and a place to write (even if it is not an actual room), but do I have space in my own head?

There is just so much…stuff…to remember in any given day.

Remember to schedule a dental appointment. Drop off the dry cleaning. Pick up forgotten ingredients for tonight’s dinner. Replace a child’s gluestick for school. Sign permission slips for an excursions. Meet a work deadline. Return the library books on time. Change the bedclothes. Find light blue cardboard for a child’s project (no, not dark blue or royal blue or navy blue). Collect that undelivered parcel from the post office. Arrange a playdate before netball training and remember to buy oranges for the game. Pay the gas bill. Replace yet another gluestick (what, do they eat them or something?). Phone the electrician to get the laundry light fitting replaced. Feed the fish. And the cat. And the family. Buy a present for an upcoming birthday party. And a card. Take out the garbage and know which bin needs to be curbside on which day. Update the credit card expiration date on — wait, what was the password for that account again?

Virginia 2Our lives are so full, and are lived at such a relentless pace. We bandy around words and phrases like “mindfulness” and “mental load”, but do we ever have time to stop — let alone to imagine?

How can we write fiction if we have no headroom to allow the stories to form? How can ideas flow and characters develop and whole realms emerge from such cluttered minds?

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I know my own fiction writing is informed, in part, by the life I lead — regardless of whether I am writing a children’s picture book, a longer story for older children, or working on the young adult novel I have been aiming to finish for some years.

Much of the time, however, my fictional projects lie immobile, suspended in that spider’s web as I attend to the myriad minutiae of everyday life that encroach upon it from all four corners. And more often than not, my own innate need to create is ignored in favour of other, far more basic needs — not just of my own — and it is not until I sense my fictional worlds are hanging by a single thread that I make time to write.

Virginia 3Even so, I remain hopeful.

I would rather snatch a moment here and there to write a paragraph, to edit a word or two, or to scribble down a new idea than to fill my pockets with stones and walk into the nearest river.

I am learning, slowly, to prioritise my fiction writing, even if it is — by definition — not real.

Because it is real to me, and gives my life deeper meaning.

And despite her own untimely end (which I may comprehend, but cannot ever condone), I think Virginia Woolf knew exactly what it was like not to have room in her head. Even so, in spite of this — or perhaps because of it — I believe she would have continued to encourage women generally, and writers particularly, had she lived to see our present day and age, just as she did in her lifetime.

Money is one thing, I think she would tell us.

But the room of one’s own — that sacred space needs to exist in your mind as well as in your world.

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

 

Every Single Day…

habitSome time ago, I was reading a book by Gretchen Rubin when I came across this phrase: The days are long, but the years are short.

These words resonated with me — not least because at the time that I read them, I was the mother of two pre-schoolers. My days seemed to be filled with repetitive, mindless tasks that revolved around keeping my children happy, healthy and (by obvious extension) clean, and that work — because it definitely is work — was often relentless and mind-numbing. The days were long (and the nights could be even longer), but the years were flying by with alarming rapidity.

Don’t get me wrong: being a parent is — without question — the single most rewarding role I have ever taken on, and this post is not about to descend into an extended diatribe about just how hard those long days and nights can be. (Besides, in my experience, even when a child has behaved absolutely diabolically while awake, that same child can somehow, miraculously, completely restore your faith in and love for them once they are soundly asleep — particularly if they stay that way for an extended period.)

No, the reason I recall that maddening yet magical part of my life is because I chose HABIT as Blue Jai’s Word of the Month for August.

What now? Parenting is a habit?

Not at all. But I have been reading Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, which tackles habits and habit formation head on, and brought to my mind the wisdom of the ancients, specifically this observation from Aristotle:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Now that my children are growing up and increasingly self-sufficient, I would prefer not to think about the tasks I performed with increasing Aristotelian excellence when they were smaller, save to say — as a random example — that I reckon I could wrangle just about any kid into a five-point harness car seat while blindfolded. Possibly even one handed.

habit 2Aristotle’s adage did make me think, however, about the things that I repeatedly do now — because these, my friends, are my habits. Sure, there’s all the obvious basic personal hygiene and basic living habits like showering daily, cleaning my teeth morning and night, eating a decent breakfast, that sort of thing. But what else, I wondered, do I do every single day?

Well, I read…and I write…and…if I’m totally honest I probably check my social media accounts…

I mean, what do you do every single day?!

And that brought me to another one of Aristotle’s little gems: Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.

When we know ourselves, we know what repeatedly do. We recognise our habits, good and bad, and know which of these we want to cultivate with further repetition and which we want to eliminate. One of my friends, for example, makes a habit of keeping a gratitude journal, of taking time each evening to record what she is grateful for every single day. She also encourages her children to say what they’re grateful for too, and even if they don’t yet write it down she’s hoping, by repetition, to help instil the same habit in them.

Another friend makes herself a properly brewed cup of coffee every single morning. For her, this is a good habit: not only is it something that she enjoys drinking, but she also enjoys the ritual of making it. For her, it is an important act of self care (not to mention the fact that it provides a caffienated kick-start to her day). And that’s where self-knowledge kicks in too — my friend also knows that drinking coffee all day long is not good for her (or anyone), so she relishes that morning cup all the more.

Needless to say, the same combination of repetition and self-knowledge can assist in a business setting, too. Religiously checking your business bank balance won’t improve your cashflow, for example, but billing clients regularly, offering multiple methods of payment and chasing your debtors often will all help. It’s about knowing what you need to do, and repeating the necessary actions to make those things happen.

So I ask again: what do you do every single day?

Does it match up with what you know you could be doing every day?

Because, just like when I wrote about eudaimonia and human flourishing, I think those ancient Greeks were onto something. Sure — for a modern take on it, check out Gretchen Rubin’s book (she really does unpack the whole habit bag, even if I did get slightly annoyed about her frequent references to wearing yoga pants all the time), but I think — as usual — what we’re all aiming for is what human beings have been aiming for for thousands of years. And yes, the Greeks had a word for it too:

 

habit 3

So I wish you well with all those things you do repeatedly this August, and with the habits your self-knowledge asks you to cultivate in the future.

Sophrosyne here we come!

Tabata di Casa

old ways

True, that…

Have you ever reached a point in your life when you knew that something had to change? When you know that what you’re doing is not quite working, but you’re not entirely sure how to make the necessary alterations to your life or adjustments to your headspace to bring about the transformation you desire?

Oh dear, I hear you cry…this is not an auspicious beginning…please tell me Blue Jai hasn’t completely lost the plot and started writing a self-help tome…

Relax, people — I’m not having some kind of breakdown. I’m not about to begin documenting a life-changing journey of self-discovery, and I’m not selling anything, either.

All the same, I’m betting you know the feeling I’m talking about: the one where you feel either slightly squirmy in your stomach because you know something’s off somewhere and you need to get it out of your life? Or when someone asks you a seemingly innocuous question and you find yourself unexpectedly bursting into floods of tears in response? Or when you’re just monumentally frustrated?

Well, I think I had all three of those reactions this week.

And it was all to do with…drum roll for mother-of-all first world problems, please…my gym membership.

I know, I know — really, I do.

I know that really, technically, this doesn’t even begin to count as a problem at all.

Except that it does…

What I have been struggling with is that even though there are parts of going to the gym that I truly love (particularly my weekly yoga class, the brilliance of which I’ve written about before), I was faced this week with the realisation that there are other aspects of going to the gym that are driving me absolutely nuts — and, if I’m perfectly honest, they have been sending me round the twist for quite some time.

When I was working out, for example, I felt like I was trapped on a treadmill (which was, quite literally, going nowhere) in front of screen upon screen of soul-destroying daytime television. And when I was planning to do a class, it seemed that (more often than not) I was staring blankly at the weekly timetable trying to figure out when I could actually fit myself into one of those tiny little time-constrained boxes.

Where, exactly, is the soul in all of this, people?

Since when did we have to spend our days fitting ourselves into tiny boxes?

And so, this week, I snapped. (And cried…and lay awake until the small hours of the morning…and various other things…)  

I knew something needed to change.

So, on Tuesday afternoon, I came home from work and got a big piece of paper and wrote out a Tabata Challenge for the kids and I to do in the back yard. They were slightly bemused at first, watching me doing sets of burpees and triceps dips and woodchoppers and all manner of other things, but then they started joining in, too. We called it “Tabata di Casa”, and we laughed a lot, and they learned a lot, and it was fun.

Imagine that?

IMG_3027

An actual, real, soul-filled photo from my walk. Breathe in…breathe out…ahhhhhhh….

Then, on Thursday morning, I decided to take a walk — outdoors, in the glorious sunshine, no less — from my house down to the beach. Now, I’m beyond blessed to live where I do, but it felt like an absolute revelation to bung my runners on and my earphones in, and to take off towards the beautiful blue of the ocean and walk beside it, hearing the sound of the surf, feeling the sun shining on my face and the wind blowing through my hair. And, underneath it all, I could also feel my heart swelling and hear my soul singing.

They’re such simple pleasures, aren’t they? But they are precious, too.

So, from now on, I’m not going to force myself into tiny boxes any more. I’m not going to do things that don’t nourish my spirit or feed my soul. And, bizarrely enough, I’m not going to give up my gym membership either — because there are certain things I can’t control, and I know that I want to have the option of exercising whenever I want — even if it’s raining or blowing a gale.

What I am doing is choosing to change it up.

And that, my friends, feels good.

My Little Friend

First World Problems.

It’s a catchy phrase, one that is probably as annoying as it is overused. But it doesn’t change the fact that, positioned as we are in our lives of relative privilege, we all have them.

Anyone who has dipped into the small, sometimes straggling stream of consciousness that is this blog with any regularity will know that I am prone to referring to inanimate objects as my friends, particularly if those objects are books. It’s even more likely if the books in question are about food or music (or more even more books).

Yesterday, however, I came to realise that there is one inanimate object in my life that falls into a category far beyond casual acquaintance. And while I will try to stop myself (in my moments of pseudo-grief and virtual mourning) from waxing lyrical like Anne of Green Gables about kindred spirits, it is with deep sadness that I have to report that my humble laptop — my cherished companion of several years, with whom I have shared many quiet and productive hours — is seriously ill.

I know, right? First World Problem — and yes, with Capitals for Extra Emphasis to acknowledge just how ridiculous this is.

But really, there’s a lot to like about my laptop. Until yesterday, and unlike my children, it did exactly what I asked it to, it didn’t answer back or throw tantrums, and it always stayed exactly where I left it. It didn’t mind when I used it to make up stories, or pour my heart out, or spend hours staring at its screen (sometimes blankly, other times distractedly if I happened to be looking at pictures of Tom Hiddleston or Tom Wlaschiha). As a freelancer, I can safely say it was my most reliable work colleague (with whom I may or may not have had various one-sided conversations), that it made an excellent travel buddy, and that it never, ever complained. Not even when I asked it to work stupid hours or make an impossible deadline.

It was with a heavy heart that I made the trek to The Bloke’s office yesterday, with my little friend tucked up in its favourite travelling case, to visit The IT Guy. Honestly, it felt a lot like the time I took my cat to the vet the week before the vet was kind enough to return the visit with a fateful (fatal) house call. I did, I’ll admit, phone The Bloke for several updates during the course of the day, but eventually The IT Guy admitted he was stumped, and began muttering darkly (or not — I wasn’t actually there, after all) about diagnostics and various other things.

And so, my little friend has been taken away.

I remain hopeful that we will be reunited, preferably in this world (I’m not certain they have blogs in the next one).

But please know that you are cordially invited to my First World Problems Pity Party, when we can all raise a glass wherever we might be in this world, whatever our particular petty predicaments may be.

Who knows, by then I might even have figured out how to add pictures to my blog posts while using the iPad…