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locks and doors

October 29, 2012

Concerned about how Hurricane Sandy might interfere with my plans, I managed to finish my grant application a few days early. This morning when I dropped it off at the post office, I faced only normal heavy rains; the monsoon like downpour and gale-force winds probably won’t show up until tonight or tomorrow.

Spouse’s office is closed because of the storm, but he still has to work, so he’s in his home office today. His home office fills most of our one big front room. Wedged into a corner, a 6 foot screen forms a third wall. What would be the fourth wall is open space; storage on the left side and a printer table on the right frame a doorway without a door.

I would never be able to immerse myself in my own concerns if my studio or my office (currently the same room) didn’t have a door. Spouse easily shuts me out without the aid of tangible barriers. He emerged from his office a little while ago to enter the kitchen for lunch. I kept him company while I ate a banana. He told me his office would be closed again tomorrow, so I lamented having to share my headspace for at least another day. Then I told him I wrote about the headspace issue in one of the essays I wrote for the grant application. I said that writing the essay dredged up things I’ve never realized connected to my needing to be the only human being in the apartment when I’m creating. If it can’t be helped, days like today when he has to work from home, I go into the bedroom and close the door. Even though he’s in the other room, and he’s not thinking about me at all, and I’m down the hall in another room, with a closed door between us, still, I feel inhibited from thinking about certain things.

As I explored that feeling today, I realized that even though I would initially describe it as ‘disloyalty’, for thinking my own thoughts, the actual problem is something else. It’s fear.

Writing this post, I have to concentrate on my breathing so I don’t panic. In my mind’s eye, I see paths of thought that menace and threaten me against setting foot on them. I persist anyway, but it’s hard to catch my breath. Fear rises all around me.

When I was a child, we kids were not allowed to lock our bedroom doors. My parents preferred that we keep our bedroom doors open at all times. I dimly remember some incident where my father came looking for me or my sister, our bedroom door was closed, and we didn’t want to open it. Not only did we have to open it, but we were told that my father would respond to a second such incident by taking the door off the hinges.

We were allowed to lock bathroom doors, and I often escaped into the bathroom with a book, staying there for hours. There was no place else in the house that was safe. Except for the basement crawl space, but that was overrun with big hairy spiders, festoons of their cobwebs, and other arthropods I was afraid of. And yet I spent time in it as well, hiding precious possessions from my mother, who otherwise would throw them out while I was at school. She said it was because I didn’t need all those things, or they were too babyish, or I was ‘too attached’ to them. And also, she said, everything in the house had originally been bought by my parents, and therefore everything in the house belonged to them. Everything in ‘their’ house, she was at pains to point out; not ‘our’ house, or gods forbid, ‘my’ house. Nothing of mine could be reliably kept as long as I wanted it unless it was hidden away in the scariest place I knew. My mother would confiscate and trash even gifts from other people, like my grandparents or my aunt. Even books.


In my parents’ house, I only remember locking someone out of my bedroom once. Someone ran me to earth in my basement bedroom, but I got there with enough time to lock all the doors. While he pounded on them, trying to get in, I, ever more frantically, tried to figure out how I could get out. The only way was the windows, but I didn’t think I could fit in the window well, even if I could figure out how to remove the glass panes. I feared for my life.

My mother was elsewhere in the house. She wouldn’t have heard me, even if I screamed, but in no case would she have helped me. In fact, she’d helped him find me.

In those days, I was haunted by a particular vision in my mind’s eye: him cornering me where no escape was possible, threatening me, and my mother handing him a weapon.

She liked him better when she found out how scared of him I was. Finally someone had gotten through all my barriers! I’m sure she wondered why she couldn’t. She’d known me longer. She was the first person I ever interacted with. So how could she not know all my secrets? How could she never have figured out how to breach my innermost defenses? He had bested her, so she respected him as an opponent, in a way never accorded to me.

But what I never told her—he didn’t breach my defenses. I invited him in. I trusted him.

A very costly mistake. But I had to trust somebody. And my strategy worked reasonably well for 14 years, until things changed, and I found out I shouldn’t trust anyone I was related to.


Spouse doesn’t police my thoughts; generally he doesn’t care what I’m thinking (In A Good Way). An hour ago, he told me I should feel free to close the bedroom door if I just wanted to be alone (not because I was dictating, my usual reason). I’ve never done that. It feels . . . wrong . . . somehow.

But until I wrote about headspace in the context of Virginia Woolf’s words on locks on doors, I’d never connected the dots.

Later in that same essay, I wrote that the third time I tried college—and the first time I wanted to be in college—was the first time (and also the first place) it was safe to think. Indeed, college encourages you to think, and to follow your thoughts down rabbit holes. Maybe it’s no surprise I stayed for 12 years. Maybe it took me that long to realize there were other places in the world where it was safe to think for myself. Not have to hide it. Not have to be afraid all the time.

That’s why I like plants and animals and rocks. And clouds and fungi and streetlights. If any of them try to hurt me, it’s because I’m food and they’re hungry, or they are defending their territory, or I seem to be threatening them or their loved ones. But they don’t try to hurt me because of something I said. Or something I didn’t say that they thought I should have.

I don’t know what they want from me, if anything, but treating them respectfully and kindly often leads to reciprocal behavior. That’s much chancier with humans.

And even though I sometimes pick up on their emotions, it’s relatively easy for me to keep straight who is feeling what. I’m not going to get my own feelings confused with feelings from a bird, or a rock, or a river. So around nonhumans, it’s safe to keep my boundaries fluid. Which has the added benefit of making it easier to connect with them. And, given my history with human predators, I don’t believe in human exceptionalism. I’m willing to be charmed by (almost) anyone.


I’m working on allowing myself to think perilous thoughts even when Spouse is home. When there are no doors shut between us.

I’m not sure what to do about my face. Do I need to do anything? When I talk to Spouse about emotional issues or events, he often refuses to engage with my feelings, and sometimes he just doesn’t respond at all. Times like that, well, I’m right back in my parents’ house. So I do what I did then—I shut down emotionally. It wasn’t until today that I realized that I dissociate then to protect myself from further emotional hurt. Or worse things. Because if a predator notices you’re reeling in shock or you’re otherwise suddenly vulnerable, they move in for the kill. I was really young when I learned how to wipe all emotion off my face. By dissociating. Almost as good as a locked door.

I like doors and doorways. I’m not wild about needing locks. I’d like to find more people that I don’t need locks with.

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