When I was 11 and we moved to a new house, what my sister and I were most excited about was getting our own bedrooms.
Susie and I got along just fine, but we couldn't have been more different. I escaped boredom by lying on my bed, working my way through an ongoing rotation of library books. Susie dealt with hers by staging elaborate, imaginative scenarios with dolls and teddy bears. One of us was tidy. One of us was not. And like probably every set of siblings who've ever shared a room, at least once tape was employed to draw a border between our respective sides.
It's easy to see now that our needs weren't so much about physical space, but mental space. It doesn't make you an anti-social kid to crave some time alone.
Of course, that's no less true for adults. I will never forget a Valentine's Day story that ran in this paper interviewing longtime marrieds about the keys to happiness. A Rossmoor couple agreed that in addition to the expected reasons, their secret was his monthly fishing expeditions. One of the couple's daughters is a friend, so I knew there was nothing fishy about the husband's trips. And even though my husband is my favorite person in the world to hang out with, I understood why the wife appreciated having the house all to herself a few days a month.
I've been thinking about the concept of space -- physical and mental -- a lot lately, because for the first time since I was a teenager living under my parents' roof, I finally have, in the immortal words of Virginia Woolf, "a room of one's own."
Our children have been out of the house for years, but it wasn't until this past summer that I decided to finally take over one of my daughter's bedrooms as a study. Maybe a little sentimentalism was involved, but mostly I just couldn't face the stuff.
Then some changes at work -- where for many of us the line between home and office life blurs more every day -- made me realize it wasn't really fair to my husband that I was using the living room's most comfortable chair as an ongoing satellite bureau for the newsroom. Besides, the growing pile of work-related electronics and accompanying detritus was offending my own sense of aesthetics (yes, I was the tidy one).
So we faced the stuff. We replaced the bed with a futon from Craigslist. We culled and consolidated bookshelves. Soccer trophies were stashed, marathon medallions rehung in a spot out of the way. We hauled bags and bags of donations, rearranged and rehung family pictures and posters, including one I'd long loved but never had a place for.
My company happened to be discarding old furniture, so I snagged a dented but still functional filing cabinet and draped it with an old but still beautiful Provençal tablecloth.
Last but not least, we hauled the desk up from the family room and, as a final touch, planted the fattest book in our library, "The Annotated Works of Edgar Allan Poe," on the top of it, as a platform for my laptop.
Yes, my first home office was cobbled together pretty much like my first college apartment. And I love it in that same "it's a dump, but it's my dump, in fact my very own dump" kind of way.
When I sit down to work, my view is not on the universal fantasy view of a meandering river, maybe even some breaking waves. No, I look straight into the desk shelves to a calendar. Still, if I turn my head to the right, there's the Japanese maple I watched change color from lime green to brilliant yellow to blazing red this fall. When it's not morphing colors like a glowing bar, it's a playground to a family of squirrels. And when I go to my room and shut the door to get some work done, that's all the companionship I need.
I love having my own room -- a girlcave, as my friend Jackie calls it -- that I can't believe I didn't do this years ago. And here's what puzzles me.
As soon as we knew our then-college-aged son's room would be available, my husband converted it into his study. He'd had one at the house he'd lived in before, when he was a single dad, and the need for his own space was a given. The thought of a study had never occurred to me. I spent plenty of time at the office -- what more did I need? I was mostly just grateful to have a house my daughters were happy to be settling into and, after living in a condo, a yard for planting flowers. For many years, I think, that was my room, and any gardener will appreciate what a sanctuary for personal sanity that can be.
Still, why I didn't value my own needs for such a work space -- especially once it was so easily available -- now comes as a great surprise.
I was a college senior when I read Woolf's thoughts on a woman's need for independence. It was published in 1929, based on a series of lectures she'd given to female college students. At the time, it mostly made me appreciate how much better the world had become for women. I didn't dismiss it, but my take-away was a smug smile thinking about how far women had come. It was the late '70s, and the women's movement was shattering role expectations. Equality was just around the corner.
Today, the equality issue is still being debated in the U.S., though it's undeniably a far better place than the one our sisters from developing nations live in. For that I will never pass up an opportunity to express my gratitude to women such as Woolf, who took what was at the time a decidedly "unfeminine" view.
Nor do I take for granted my ability to write, in my first grown-up room of my own.
But the fact that it took me so long to figure that out shows we've still got a ways to go.
Life Stories is a rotating column by Bay Area News Group writers and editors. Lisa Wrenn is Executive Features Editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at email@example.com.