Like everyone else here, I’ve come to realize that the things I will miss most once I’ve lost them are not objects that can be bought with money. I really think the things that give me the most joy (besides the presence of other beings: my spouse, our furry children, my two grown stepsons) are space and time.
Spending eight hours a day in monotonous, entry-level jobs taught me the value of time for myself. Between semesters at university, I worked in various government offices as a clerk-typist in the time Before Computers. My office uniform had to consist of dresses or blouses and skirts with nylon pantyhose that stuck to my legs in summer heat. (If memory serves me, this was also the time Before Air Conditioning.) Tappity-tap-tap was the dance my fingers did on a keyboard all morning and all afternoon. By evening, my mind didn’t feel capable of producing an idea for a poem, a short story, a play or even a letter to the editor. I thought of myself as someone who once had the ridiculous ambition of becoming a writer (especially after winning a national student writing contest in high school: clearly a fluke). But now I was in my twenties, so I had to grow up and accept the reality that my life would never improve.
I thank Whomever that it did. Teaching jobs have been the perfect complement to a writing life. Teaching gets me out of the house, it brings me into contact with other people, it actually forces me to discuss ideas and analyze other people’s writing, and then – best of all! – it provides me with unscheduled time. I don’t know of any other paid, structured job that includes “free time” within working hours. Teachers at the university level are expected to produce something more tangible than knowledge in the minds of our students, so we are provided with time and office space to do “research,” whatever that means to intellectuals in various fields. For English instructors, it usually means either scholarly or creative writing.
In 1929, Virginia Woolf famously claimed that women writers need rooms of their own, and the assumption that women don’t need or deserve any such thing helps explain why so many women eventually lose their creativity, or never express it in any way other than sewing curtains or knitting afghans.
I never really understood the significance of having space of my own, mine, all to myself, until I acquired my own office at the university AND a room in my house that we call the “library” because it is stuffed full of books, but where I spend time at the computer while Spouse uses her laptop. Something in the air of both rooms was inspiring, and I rediscovered writing. 1999 was a watershed year, when my miserably-paid marginal teaching job was transformed into a middle-class career (thanks to an aggressive academic union), my new income qualified me for a mortgage, Spouse and I moved into a character house (built in 1914) in the artsy neighborhood of our choice, and I got my first erotic story published in an anthology with the work of writers who seemed vastly more famous.
In the new millennium I’ve had ups and downs, but I’ve never sunk to the levels of despair that threatened to drown me in the past, when I was often told I was at the peak of my life, and that women’s lives go downhill after they turn twenty-five or maybe thirty. Ha.
Who knew that I only needed time and space of my own? Those are the things I would miss the most if I had to give them up.
Everyone on earth needs a room, a shed, a nest, a den or a cave of one’s own. And everyone needs a few hours to spend there, not tending to anyone else’s needs. There should be a new drinking toast in every language. Instead of “To your health!” friends should drink “To your space!”