Two Rooms of One’s Own

February 17, 2010 at 12:02 am (read)

I recently wrote an essay for the Pomona College Magazine’s winter issue, themed around “shelter,” about how long college grads should hold on to their childhood rooms. The magazine is finally out, and you can download a PDF here. I encourage you to check out the whole issue, but to be simple, you can read my article below. Have any experiences of your own you’d like to share?

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My dad loves The Beach Boys. When I was young, he taught my sister and me how to harmonize to the high, pure melodies that celebrated surfer girls and little deuce coupes. We also sang “In My Room,” a paean to the private world within a bedroom, and to the importance of a place to call your own.

Upstairs at my parents’ house in Sacramento, on the door at the end of the hallway, is a blue-painted sign with wobbly carved letters. The product of a seventh-grade woodshop class, it declares “Anne’s Room.”

That bedroom is one of nine I have had in my life. It’s not hard to give up a college dorm with standard-issue furniture and cold linoleum floors, or a room in Madrid belonging to a host family who ate dinner in near silence across a long glass table, or one without AC rented from a young couple during a sweltering summer in New York. But I’m not nearly ready to close the door on my childhood room.

This reluctance knows no age limits: Last year, 85-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt and a designer recreated the room she lived in at 16 for a decorator’s show house. Hers had silver leaf wallpaper and a 19th century grandfather clock. Mine has softball trophies and cardboard-framed pictures from a Hawaiian-themed school dance, a desk with a pile of 104 movie ticket stubs, and a mini trampoline that I would respectfully never bring to my second-story apartment, even though the downstairs neighbors throw parties that devolve into freestyle rap competitions at two in the morning.

I live in Sacramento, 10 miles from where I grew up. I love having my own place, but spend many Saturday mornings at my parents’ house. As we drink coffee and chat, I slide into home life so easily that sometimes I feel like there’s a part of me that never left my old room. My shadow self puts on the worn zebra print slippers, curls up on the bed and grabs the February 2004 Vogue from the nightstand drawer. Maybe she goes out on weekends carrying the vintage clutches and metallic purses that dangle on hangers in the back of the closet. Because if she’s not using my stuff, why do I need it?

When I was three my parents threw out all my pacifiers on the advice of a buck teeth-fearing dentist, and I cried until my dad retrieved them from the garbage. I didn’t need braces anyway, so I trust that I can make it to adulthood well-aligned and well-adjusted even with satin-skirted Madame Alexander dolls crowding my bookshelf. It feels childish and even selfish to still want that room and those things, especially against a backdrop of foreclosed houses and rising homelessness. But if my parents asked me to clear out I’d be an infant again, wailing because my anchor had been yanked away.

“It was horrible,” my friend Evan Pardo told me of giving up his room when his mom moved during senior year. As they packed up Lego models and unearthed childhood memories—some apparently better than others—he and his mom had their single biggest fight. He lost a second room, at his dad and stepmom’s house, when they turned it into an office the very day he moved out after college. “It’s totally a fair thing to do,” he said, “but the abruptness of the whole thing meant there was no mourning period.”

Still, seeing your old room converted may be better than finding out it’s been forgotten. “My ceiling collapsed and nobody noticed for days!” exclaimed Brittney Andres, my freshman year roommate, when I asked the state of her room in Illinois. Her parents had shut off the room, and after a bad storm last winter the attic floor broke through, spilling boxes of cat toys and other junk onto her bed. “It was all wet and smelled funny,” she recalled.

For those who haven’t been flooded or officed out of our rooms, how long do we hold on? Is there a helpful equation to set an end date, like [(age + salary) x miles from home] ÷ square feet of current apartment? Some people, like Ramsay Edwards-McNear, simply take things bit by bit. “Whenever I come home, my mom asks me to remove something or clean out somewhere,” he said. “At this rate, I will be totally moved out by 2024.”

Many recent grads occupy this vague space of in-between-ness and transition. We’ve gotten jobs and apartments and navigated the frustrating waters of non-family-plan health insurance, but haven’t cut the rope to float untethered into an uncertain, frankly kind of scary future.

So my old room is not just a storage space, or something I’ve been too lazy to deal with while I clutter up a new location: it’s tangible proof that I can come home again. There’s a tricky balance between a safety net and a restraint—it’s hard to apply for jobs in New York or move to Buenos Aires when you’re still rooted in family—but ultimately I hope I treat my room as a license to take risks. Dreaming big, traveling far, and chasing challenges could pay off, or might leave me broke and bruised. I’m lucky to know that if I need a room—a world to “lock out all my worries and my fears,” as The Beach Boys sang—there’s one with my name on it.

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