A long time ago (ok, seven or eight years) in a galaxy far far away (ok, Cambridge – so a parallel universe, really), I wrote a list. Back then, as now, I was wrestling with the question of how to live, and what I really wanted from this whole existence business. My husband, no doubt vexed with the faint odor of Burning Martyr that wafts around a person who doesn’t know what she wants, told me to go and write a Want List. “Write down what you want,” he said. “In big letters. Now.”
I went away, thought a bit, and duly came up with a list of everything I could think of that I really wanted – the important, necessary things, not the “nice-to-haves”. Most of the items on this List of Wants were intangibles: things like “I want to be creative in a variety of spheres”, “I want our kids to feel completely loved and secure” and “I want a lifestyle minimally controlled by the clock”. Of the eleven “wants” I came up with, only two referred to concrete, real-world entities.
The first of these object-wants was simple: “I want a really comfy bed with a rustly duvet”. While this might seem an odd life-priority, even for somebody who loves sleep as much as I do, it made good sense at the time. With five humans, two cats and a business packed into our nine-foot-wide, two-bedroomed terrace house, we had been forced to make various space-saving innovations. A key micro-design flourish involved creating a “bedroom” for our baby daughter by filling our own tiny, low-ceilinged bedroom with a double loft bed – a platform on stilts – and installing her cot, wardrobe and general vast assemblages of infant pruck underneath it. This left our bed with about two feet of head-room, so I presumably wrote my List of Wants on one of those mornings when I’d sat up and smacked my head on the ceiling again.
The other item on the list was more challenging: “I want a study/office/workshop with space, airiness, good organisation and scope for privacy”. I hadn’t had a “room of my own” since 2001, and I really felt the lack of it. I’ve lived on my own quite a few times, in situations ranging from tiny bedsits to three bedroom flats, and I’ve always enjoyed it. In particular, I’ve relished the sense of having a “defensible space”, a little corner of the world that’s all my own and that I can organise as I like. Being an introvert, I need a good deal of solitude, and my creative practice seems to rely on it – I find it harder to get “into flow” when I might be interrupted at any moment. In other words, if we’re talking Capital-W Wants, then having a self-contained space of my own has always been a bit of a no-brainer.
As soon as we moved to Scotland, we acquired the comfy bed and the rustly duvet. (Actually, we acquired the most ecstatically comfortable posh “memory foam” mattress, but my husband found it inadequately bran-and-bed-of-nails-austere for his post-Protestant asceticism, and it was duly exchanged for a suitably lumpy-porridge futon – but the duvet at least still rustles). The study/office/workshop was more problematic.
Our new house had only just enough bedrooms for its inhabitants (which was admittedly a big improvement on having only half-enough bedrooms in Cambridge). Claiming one for myself as a study would mean forcing some subset of the children (with widely different ages, temperaments and standards of tidiness, not to mention hygiene) to bunk in together, which was clearly going to be burdensome for them. Even though the eldest eventually left for Uni, she still needed “her room” over the holidays, and we didn’t have space, budget or indeed inclination for an extension. I figured I’d eventually get to take over one of the bedrooms once all the kids were living independent lives, and I decided to put all thought of a study out of my head until then.
What changed my mind was two things: seeing the garden cabin that a friend had built by a local firm, and receiving a lovely poetry commission from the Human Race project. Suddenly I could see a way to have an affordable study, one that I’d “earned” by honest craft, and that involved sacrificing a corner of swampy lawn rather than somebody else’s personal space. Perfect! Plans were drawn up, planning permissions laboriously obtained (ah, conservation zones! – purple paintwork was definitely out), and by early January I was in proud possession of The Shed.
It’s clear from my old Want List that I always knew I needed a space of my own, and yet it’s surprising me now just how much I evidently needed it. I feel almost transformed by having this simple little cabin; in a sense, it really does make life feel “complete”, and that I truly do have everything I need.
I realise now that the lack of a private space continually gnawed at me, and exaggerated some of my worst character traits: that sense, which always made me feel profoundly guilty, of “competing for resources” within the family, and a related and egregious tendency towards meanness and over-control of money. The most noticeable change, since getting my shed, is how much easier I now find it to be generous, and to express a sense of abundance through small but transformative acts. I’ve even started buying flowers for the dining table each week. I have a shed, and I am truly grateful.