Virginia Woolf insisted that in order for a woman to write she needed money and a room of her own. So upon graduating from college, I set out to make a room of my own to write in. I chose an available space in the top of the family shed that had accumulated an excess of ancestral junk: photographs, a chainsaw, an antiquated metal grape press, all coated in dust. On top of all this, the room has doubled as an art orphanage since I was in eighth grade.
I relived the eighth grade art classroom last night while I cleared the space. I recalled the catharsis of holding charcoal, of rinsing the brushes—after the frustration of not having captured the thing you wished to capture. You could talk, could see what others had created, could share materials, then finally take your creation home.
I never understood why anyone would leave his or her own art project behind. To me it felt like leaving a child. So I routinely brought home all the art projects the other eighth-graders abandoned.
And now I have this attic full of pink papier-mâché cows and watercolor paintings of frogs, homemade stamps and—most important—a self-portrait in pencil by my friend Mary. But Mary’s needed adopting more than any of the other projects—because, I thought, no one’s face should be left behind.
We all had to draw enormous self-portraits in pencil during the eighth grade—which, you’ll probably remember, is the worst period of life in which to be compelled to capture your own face. Especially when the teacher will grade you on it and then hang it in the hall for everyone to laugh at.
The teacher, a blond woman in her 60s, told us we could include no acne, no freckles, and no braces—a good thing, since drawing our own acne and orthodontia would cause a hemorrhaging in our adolescent souls.
When Mary first drew it eight years ago, I told her it was nice, that she had followed her hand and made a fair rendering of her face. It even had mischief in the eyes. That mischief, I thought, marked Mary at her chief dignity. But Mary left it behind, so the art teacher gave it—along with all the others—to me for the orphanage.
Last night, as I expelled item after item through the hole in the floor of my new writing space, Mary’s face still peered at me from the wall, the crown of the orphanage. Bees nest behind it now. I’ll wait till next week to muster the will to take it down.
My childhood friends chuckle when I tell them that I’ve chosen the top of the shed for my writing room. “That room?” they say. “That room where you have to climb up onto the chest freezer, through the hole, up the wall, then through the hole?”
Yes, that room. Last night while I cleaned I found not only Mary’s face but also two tiny gray kittens nesting on the perimeter with no mother in sight. They spat at my foreign hand while rain beat on the aluminum roof. Like Woolf’s “room of one’s own,” this one produces life I can’t account for.
Back inside, the power cuts out, making this the first personal essay I’ve written by hand in candlelight. I wonder if the kittens huddle alone out there, hissing at the thunder. Ever an adopter, I hope their mother has returned, then blow out the candles one by one.