A Room of One’s Own: The Secret Room Inside Our Soul

“Children create miracles when they read.”
Astrid Lindgren

“‘I’ve got special powers,’ she smiled.
‘All this is down on me.
I’m just a little girl, a child,
But my mind has moved the sea.’”

– Tove Jansson

It is morning, too early for sunlight, I am sitting at my desk on the second floor of our old house. In a room of my own. Actually, it was meant to be a room for our youngest boy. But some kind of a ghost dwells up here. Not that I’ve seen it or heard it, but anyone who sleeps in here, has the worst possible dreams. Soon I moved into this empty room with my notebooks and ideas and started to write. Whatever it is and if it exists, this quiet poltergeist seems to love art. I can concentrate on my work in this southern room with a triangle ceiling above me like nowhere else.

Today is the Baltic Sea Day. It happens to be on my birthday. I close my eyes and make a wish for the sea at my doorstep to be healthy and thrive. And I make another wish: for children near and far to fall in love with books, to imagine, to dream and to be what they want to be.

I sip my hot black coffee and look at a pile of old books stacked on my desk under a lamp. I count the books, even though I already know, they are five. As kids recount dear finds over and over again. As if naming or counting could make things stay. All five books are well-worn. All five are much older than I am. On the back of each book is a price printed with tiny black numbers: these titles once cost 26, 28, 30, 32, and 44 kopecks. In Soviet times everything had a fixed price. Every aspect of a citizen’s life was fixed, except for souls in a constant flux under concrete blocks. My mum and her sisters grew up with these books. Later I grew up with these same books. How incredible it is if you think for a while how we move on and on but words in the books stay unchanged. Until you start to read your books later again and the stories are not as they were before. You can’t read one book twice. You can’t look at one artwork twice. You can of course, but it won’t be the same again. Art changes under your gaze. But be careful: it can alter you too.

These five finds are written by two women writers, Astrid Lindgren and Tove Jansson, once living by the Baltic Sea in Sweden and Finland. Pippi Longstocking with braids in the colour of a carrot, the cake-loving Karlsson who dwelled on the roof, Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter who hides in a forest, and Moomins, who loved the sea, were my childhood heroes, vivid characters overflowing with freedom and anarchy. The Baltic Sea was also their sea, even if not highlighted as such as much. These same waves that have washed the Sea Library ashore, have lapped on the edge of the imagination of Astrid and Tove.

The Baltic Sea Day, launched by the John Nurminen Foundation, is an annual day of celebration in honour of the sea. The objective of the day is to encourage people to enjoy the unique sea that belongs to us all, and to take concrete actions that benefit the sea. Last year Moomin Characters Ltd together with its partners launched an #OURSEA campaign to save the Baltic Sea from blue-green algae. This summer they reached the goal of one million euros. Today the cheque will be handed to John Nurminen Foundation to help save the Baltic Sea.

I had left and forgotten these favorite copies in my room. In my previous room, the one I grew up in. There as well the roof was right above my head, so steep, that I often banged my head against it. We lived in an attic turned into a studio apartment. I shared a room with my sister Katrīna. Our room had glass walls and glass doors and we could see mum and dad, two artists, creating wonderlands with their hands. Recently I revisited it.

Parents were moving out and everything had to be taken or trashed. I hadn’t been there for years. Not that I didn’t visit my parents, but they also had moved to another apartment a while ago. The attic had remained as a studio. To enter my old room felt like entering my brain, like walking inside the memory compartment, if only you could do that. The room had been transformed into storage for over a decade. It was filled with things that didn’t belong to me or my sister. At the same time, the shelves were stacked with our belongings as if it was just yesterday when we played in here.

It is as exciting as it is strange to leave your home, your room, where you’ve lived for more than twenty years and never anywhere else. I was twenty-four when I moved out and moved on. You leave a lot of things behind, a part of yourself, in your room. Just in case. Your childhood books, favorite toys, university essays, CDs, pebbles, even your bed. Like a tossed coin in a fountain to come back one day. But the thing is, of course, that most often you never return. You go on and try to find and create a home away from home.

Me, my mum, and my sister, we clink glasses of champagne wearing winter jackets – in the attic, it has always been much too cold – and each of us dives in a separate corner to sort the stuff out. We are here to help mum in her monstrous task to scrape away a layer of thirty years and leave this huge space empty. Life has changed after dad’s car crash and parents don’t need a large studio anymore.

I find myself by the bookshelves. I rediscover the five old books I once doodled in before I could read and after I learned to read I just read them repeatedly. Pippi Longstocking, three books about Karlsson-on-the-Roof by Astrid Lindgren, and Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson. I also had Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter by Lindgren, but that copy is sadly lost. Maybe in a forest.

I open one book after another and notice a tiny number written in pen on the inside cover of each of them. I had forgotten that once I numbered and counted my books as if I were a librarian. Kids usually want to run a shop, teach a class, cure animals, or fly into space. When I was little, I wanted to be a librarian. A bookseller was fine too. I could play with a real abacus, that someone had given us, like a real Soviet shopkeeper, moving wooden beads with a satisfying clicking sound from left to right and right to left and suggesting books to invisible customers.

Working my way through the bookshelf I also find a notebook. Its hardback covers are deep dark red with silver letters pressed on “Mana bibliotēka” (My Library). All pages are ruled to write down titles, years, and publishers. I had started to fill in it as a child, listing my comics at first, and then I probably got bored. The rest of the notebook is blank and inviting. I will take it with me back to the Sea Library to write down all the books I have collected and still continue. Including the ones from the dusty shelves of the past.

When Astrid Lindgren received the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, often referred to as the “Little Noble Prize”, in 1958, she delivered an acceptance speech That’s why children need books which ended with the words: “A child alone with her book creates, somewhere in the secret room of her soul, her own pictures that surpass everything else. Human beings must have these pictures. The day when children’s imaginations can no longer make them will be a day when all of humanity is impoverished. All of the great things that have happened in the world happened first in someone’s imagination, and the shape of tomorrow depends largely upon the power of the imagination in those who are just now learning to read. This is why children must have books.”  

After helping mum I hug her tightly and walk the city streets back to the Central Station. I buy a ticket and board a train to Jurmala. It’s a forty-minute ride to my station by the sea. I find a seat by the window and unwrap my scarf. An elder lady sitting in front of me in a dark red woolen coat starts to fill in a brand new crossword puzzle. Blue pen slides over a soft paper. She knows her words well. I love words. I like to write them down, to hold them on my tongue before reading aloud, even to invent words giving a chance to the ones that don’t exist. I like to memorize words I hear for the first time or to try to remember the ones I have forgotten without any help.

I remember clearly the exact moment when I learned to read silently. I ran to my mum right away to demonstrate my superpower: I could bring words from a page straight into my head! I was three or four years old. Mum was on a phone, sometimes for hours, as also using phones had a fixed fee, no matter how long you talked. While I waited, I realized that I can’t show a skill like that. It was just for me alone to experience. From that day my relationship with books changed. Reading became an intimate act, creation of worlds that only I would know about. Silent reading was empowering.

It had unlocked a secret room in my soul.

All doors shut close with a heavy clunking sound, steel wheels start pumping a heartbeat, slow and arrhythmic at first then a fast pulse of the mechanical snake rushes us over river Daugava. Stop by stop Riga is left behind. I unzip my bag and browse through the treasure retrieved from my old room. A room that doesn’t exist anymore. It has sunken on the seabed of my memory and will remain forever there.

All that’s left are these artefacts.

My granddad, an architect, once carried a brick in his briefcase, when riding a train in the opposite direction – to Saulkrasti, another coastal town in Latvia. He, as old as I am now, was building a summer house for his young family, brick by brick. With books in my bag, I am building something of my own, book by book. The secret room of my soul has been slowly manifesting into a real room, flooded with books.

Since the last autumn I have woven one hundred bookmarks and sold them to buy one hundred sea books for young readers: babies, toddlers, kids and teens. I must admit I am very proud and so very happy.

This autumn I will start an interview series When I Grow Up on Sea Library’s website with inspiring people who work in, on and under the sea, and for the sea so our world would become a better place. First one will be published in September.

Keep an eye on this site and never forget the secret room of your soul.

Now I will eat my birthday cake.

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