This week, the Res Life office at my college determined it was time for me to transition from summer housing to fall housing. They gave me the weekend to condense entirety of my single room into a collection of boxes labelled in a semi-logical way and move the whole thing… about three suites down the hall.
Though my move was small, it got me thinking about space, ownership, and identity in a way that was probably far more serious and philosophical than the task demanded. I wondered, at what point did my new room become my room, rather than a room? Did it start when I signed off to receive my key? When my roommate and I determined who got what side over text? When I put the first of my many boxes into the space? Or did it only start after I finished hanging up my photos and posters, ripped off the last strip of washi tape to add the final touch to my interior design? Or maybe this room will never be mine–I mean, if we’re being technical, my college owns the building, and I’m just one of many who will occupy the room for a time.
Earlier this summer, I spent a little over a week living in a dorm room on a university campus for an academic conference. It was about as spare and impersonal as it gets: bare white walls, empty desk, unused shelves. There was neither the time nor the resources to decorate the room. The bed was already made with white sheets and an oatmeal-colored blanket. The wardrobe had a set number of metal coathangers physically attached to the closet rod, and there wasn’t even so much as a spare pushpin left in the empty bulletin board for me to hang my name tag on at the day. While unpacking, I had the overpowering sense that I was putting my clothes in someone else’s drawers, that my laptop was sitting on someone else’s desk. The only sign that the room belonged–or rather, was occupied–by me instead of anyone else was my luggage.
While my particular collection of shoes strewn about the floor and absurd number of toiletries standing on the shelves would indicate to an outside observer that the room was mine, that wasn’t enough for me to feel like I owned the space in a significant way. What would it have taken to make me feel comfortable? A couple posters hanging on the wall? My own bed sheets? It would seem that any decorations would have to be mine (or at least in my style) to confer ownership. That explains why an elaborately composed hotel room or airbnb rental stuffed with tchotchkes don’t feel like home. But in my own home, the posters on my walls and knickknacks on my shelves haven’t changed for over two years, some longer–for all intents and purposes, it’s like someone else put them there–and I still feel like it’s my room. In that case, there’s the obvious argument for familiarity in making a space feel like your own–but does that mean that, given enough time, even the white walls and utter lack of personalization of the dorm I stayed in would become as welcome to me as my childhood bedroom?
All this said, I’m incredibly lucky to have a space to occupy and attempt to fill with my essence at all (regardless of whether it’s really owned by my parents or a college). As unsure as I feel about who I am as a person sometimes, I can usually point to my walls plastered with broadsides and needle points of constellations, my bookcase filled with works I’ve loved, been assigned, or have yet to read, my bed with its ever-changing collection of throw pillows, and say, this is who I am, or, at least, this is who I was when I moved in. I’m able to project my personality into something tangible for myself and others to interpret (correctly or incorrectly). The truly difficult question (fit for someone thankfully secure enough in her space to let her mind wander to other things) may not be when does this space become mine? but rather, who am I without this space?