I am supposed to be working on a grant request for the MN Arts board, but I came across this earlier essay that I wrote while applying for a grant from A Room of One’s Own–the title of an early Virginia Wolf book. I decided to post it here. It has a lot of sincerity.
Virginia and I
Funny, I sit here and stare at the grant guidelines like a school girl, wondering what the teacher wants to hear, wondering what the words mean to me, wondering about the decades that separate a north woods girl from Minnesota from Virginia Woolf, an educated woman from England. She is as foreign to me as the moon. I cannot grasp her private obsessions, her loneliness, her anger, which she claims to leave behind but is not always successful at doing so. She writes from the perspective of a woman who has 500 a year…and a door that locks.
I grew up on the edge of the wilderness in the middle of eight children. My family subscribed to Reader’s Digest and National Geographic, and that was it for reading material. My childhood romance with books was a private thing, pursued behind a curved sectional couch, under the blankets at night with a flashlight, or with a book unfolded in my hands as I walked to school. Secretly, in my soul, the time I took for reading felt like stealing coin from the coffers of my family’s time. I had many chores with five younger brothers. My “nose in that book” was my greatest transgression as a child. But it was not killed, that desire to follow trails of print into other worlds, but only grew stronger, more discerning, more speculative. Life, for me, was not that of a pampered parlor girl but a child in what Virginia would call the working class.
Of the eight children, I am the only one with college degrees. None of my family attended my first college graduation. Always, I felt as though I swam against the current of my family, harboring hidden guilt about doing so. This hidden guilt perhaps presents the greatest obstacle to my writing life. I deal with it, but wonder about that girl. Why her insatiable curiosity, why her tender heart that bled as the contents of her books wandered into the dark territories outside her beloved forests? Treblinka, Mila 18, War and Peace, The Idiot, Tess of the D’urburvilles; those books a foreign food to her hungry soul.
Five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate . . . a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.
The issue of women writing flows much deeper, perhaps, than money or privacy, flowing instead through the soul, those mysterious unknown waters. Stripped of money or privacy, I would still write, have, in fact, written in the face of all those obstacles. Oddly, had I been given 500 a year and a lock on the door, perhaps I would not have written a word but taken some more complacent, comfortable stance, perhaps found no voice at all in the dimly lit space. A woman writes of her world, not from silence but from noise, from the blasting, blaring, entangled world she finds herself in. Even today I write in coffee shops, preferring the white noise of activity to the silence of a locked room. A woman creates the room in which she writes.
From the moment my first child was born, I was sleep deprived. Not because of midnight feedings or restless fevers but because I could not blow out the candle of my day without pen, paper, a hot drink, and a single hour to myself. I needed to digest each day, to compost its contents and turn all thought and experience back to soil and then see what new seeds would take and sprout.
In today’s world, a woman writing, sitting in silence, sitting still is an anomaly, an oddity. I earn my living working with people, mostly women seeking their own voice in the noisy world. It is, for the most part, a sad landscape. Whatever world we have created as women, it is not the ideal world that Virginia Woolf so desired for her sisters; the university, a place on the page, the realm of thought and learning. I fear a hundred years of progress has twisted our graduate robes into something as potentially binding and restrictive as a corset. We cannot breathe. We cannot move. And we blame ourselves.
The women I see each week in my office and workshops worry me. The huge, maternal, creative, energetic force that is a woman’s soul has turned inward, becoming an obsessive, neurotic, plucking, parasitic thing. She is pale, anxious, feels she didn’t do it right, doesn’t do enough, can’t get there fast enough.
Last night I went to Safeway and the woman at the checkout counter was a woman I worked with twenty years ago in a juvenile care center. “Have you left behind the human services field?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I have become a woman of independent means. This is my second job.”
I cannot describe the gray wall of anger around her. She is a social worker, has dedicated her life to helping youth, growing a family, serving others. For her “a woman of independent means” means divorce.
Her anger equals, no exceeds, that of the pampered ladies in the English drawing rooms of Woolf’s experience. She has been there, done that, and now truly does find herself in a room of her own, a house of her own. Alone.
The woman’s movement, once an explosion of freedom-seeking woman has become an implosion, a disastrous moment in our long history as women. Now we must work two jobs, succeed at work and at home, fight for a living wage, and take our place in the new and blooming statistics on poverty. Our poverty has deepened. We are like the begging children of the third world given abundant food for a week and then left to face our hunger alone.
I return to the child I was and ask again what fed that insatiable curiosity and allowed my unfolding mind and spirit to thrive and flourish? My family. What now is most threatened by the economic and social movements of the day? The family. And who is the center and the soul of a family? The mother.
Oh, if Virginia could hear me now, perhaps she would roll in her grave and weep. Can it be that we have come full circle and found ourselves at the beginning again, at the seat of human evolution, at the soul of a compassionate world that says that if humanity is to survive, it must have a mother.
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