When I was in college, a friend came with me to my childhood home for a long weekend.
“It’ll be so interesting to see where you came from,” she said after she bought the ticket. “I feel like I’ll understand you better.”
I was a freshman, and I wanted very badly to be understood. I think back on that year in the same way I think back on middle school sleepovers: endless nights of whispered confessions and anecdotes and abridged life stories, only this time those secrets were exchanged with people I’d just met. It was understandable, too. We’d just been uprooted from the things we’d known all our lives and found ourselves yearning for familiarity from our Twin Long beds.
My friend was one of the people who whispered with me late into the night. I looked forward to the weekend she’d spend with me because I, too, wanted her to understand me. I thought that if I let her inhabit a space as intimate and telling as the house I grew up in, our connection would deepen — that from that point on, when I’d say something or react in a certain way, she’d be able to instantly recognize the roots of my feelings and, even when I was in the wrong, she’d understand.
She gazed out the window for all five hours of the bus ride to New Jersey, and from the minute we stepped onto the sidewalk to the minute we left, she looked around in fascination and a bit of bewilderment. She treated everything she touched gingerly and poked cautiously at the food my mother made for us. And at night, she wrote in her journal, hunched over, her left arm wrapped around the book as though to obscure my view.
Her quest to understand me began to feel less like an effort toward intimacy and more like an anthropological study. She looked around at everything in my hometown, my house, and my bedroom like she was sizing me up; trying to figure me out. And suddenly, for me, everything about the space, from the books on my shelves to the Green Day poster on my ceiling, became some manifestation of my soul. It revealed too much.
At one point, she confirmed, “You make a lot more sense now,” and I wanted to throw sheets over all my belongings like people do in movies when they abandon their homes. My psyche was splattered on the walls and draped over the furniture and lined up atop my dresser, and I realized that in letting my friend (who, I then realized, was more of an acquaintance) into this private space, I’d relinquished control over what she knew about me and what stayed hidden.
It’s not that my home reveals any dark secrets — or any secrets of any sort, for that matter. It’s a standard enough house, and apart from a particularly strong childhood preference for dolls along with a teenage taste for Radiohead, my childhood bedroom says little about me that my friends don’t already know. The issue is more so that I’d allowed an outsider into what I now realize is a sacred space, and that not everyone should be entitled to the places where my soul is scattered about.
I was right to feel uncomfortable about this friend, of course. She went back to campus and said, of her trip to my home, that it was “interesting to see how the working class lives.” But that’s another story.
Every Instagram therapist and self-help guru will readily extol the virtues of boundary-setting, as will any creative person. I’ve read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Stephen King’s bit on “writing with the door shut” in On Writing. I understand the value of being alone, and recently signed a lease on my first studio apartment so that I can bask in my solitude as frequently as I want. But I think that effective boundary setting goes beyond limiting others’ access to one’s time and energy — I think that it also means deciding who gets access to certain physical spaces. Spaces like my childhood home, which are too sacred to be invaded by just anyone.
I hate, for instance, when people sit on my bed, or in front of my laptop, or in front of the easel I’m using to paint. I hate it when people poke through my records or my books without my permission. To me, these things are like my childhood bedroom: Physical manifestations of my soul, in some way or another. Private spaces. On some level, these spaces hold the key to who I am beneath the polite show that I put on — that we all put on — when leaving the house in the morning.
Already, we hold up so much of who we are against the fluorescent light of social media. Our friends and hobbies and opinions are constantly subject to others’ interpretation and approval, to the point that many of us delete photos that don’t garner enough likes or judge people based on the popularity of their posts. In a world where there no longer seems to be such a thing as privacy, it’s incredible to feel like some part of myself remains beyond others’ judgment. Like there’s something — or some place — that’s still sacred.