home: the new co-working space

Yesterday afternoon, I took a break from folding laundry and replying to students’ discussion board posts to make myself a cup of tea. I looked outside and saw a chickadee in our birdfeeder. Chickadees are harbingers of colder weather and new birds to look at, and besides, ever since a small stand of trees near our backyard was cut down a few months ago, we haven’t seen any birds at our feeder besides the occasional mourning dove that plants itself there for hours and doesn’t do anything but poop. (Sorry, mourning doves. At least you have a pretty voice!) So, the arrival of the chickadee was an exciting event, and I hollered to my husband, Jordan, who was working in his home office, to come out and look. As if they had been waiting for his arrival, a flurry of birds suddenly appeared, including more chickadees, some cute little brown guys (look, I never said I was a real birder), and even a couple of Eastern bluebirds—my favorite songbird but one that I rarely see. For about fifteen minutes, they flew around the backyard, alighting now and then on our feeder, the neighbors’ fence, and the scrubby bushes on our property line, even daring to get as close as our patio picnic table. Then, shortly after Jordan went back to his office, they were gone, and they haven’t been back (though I’ll be on the lookout around 2:30 this afternoon).

I shared this story because moments like this are among the blessings of working from home, especially with someone you love. This year, millions of people around the world started doing what fully-online professors (and those in an increasing number of job sectors) have been doing for years: working in the space where they also sleep, eat, do chores, and spend time with those they love. Working from home comes with its share of challenges (e.g., distractions, guilt over unfinished tasks, the difficulty of establishing a quitting time), and those challenges are compounded for those with children at home. I don’t want to minimize those challenges, but in this post I am focusing on the joys of working from home, as well as a few of the practical considerations.

Jordan, an engineer, started working from home in March, like many people did. He already had a home office with a pretty sweet computer set-up (powerful processor, big monitor, headset, etc.) because he’s an avid gamer. With a few adjustments (purchasing a second monitor, downloading the primary software he uses for work), he was able to set himself up to work basically the same way he did at the office, with one major difference: his co-workers aren’t here.

Sure, he can and does email, call, and ping them on Microsoft Teams. But if he wants to get up and stretch his legs and decompress after a stressful meeting, the only person in his physical space is me, and I’m not much use in a conversation about solenoids. (They’re little magnetic parts that open and close things. I’ve learned that much.) But then again, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe what Jordan needs in that moment is both a cup of tea from a real teakettle (which I know he can’t get at the office) and a conversation with someone who’s doing something totally different, like grading English papers.

I think we all know that siloing is a major problem with the way our culture treats work, especially in the higher education sector. We specialize in one thing, starting with our undergraduate majors and getting increasingly narrower as we move through the levels of education and professional development, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with getting really good at one thing (like making solenoids), I fear we are neglecting skills and character qualities that transfer from one situation, context, or career to another. Perhaps we are losing the ability to have meaningful intellectual conversations with those in other fields.

That just got really philosophical. But I went there because I’ve been thinking about the relatively recent phenomenon of co-working spaces. You’ve probably heard of them: they’re buildings (or floors) where anyone who needs a space to work—freelancers, private practitioners, telecommuters looking for a change of scene or some peace and quiet—can rent a room or cubicle alongside others who are doing the same thing. Though I’ve never worked in one of these spaces myself, I can imagine that one of the benefits—besides having someone to split a lunch order with—is that you get to have conversations with (and possibly eavesdrop on) people who are doing very different work than you are. Maybe you learn something from them, and maybe you even come up with ways you can partner with your cross-disciplinary co-workers. I wonder how many new businesses and community services have been hatched out of these almost accidental partnerships.

During this year’s pandemic, many couples, families, and roommates found themselves in a co-working situation with people they already knew and loved, but had never worked alongside. For Jordan and me, who just got married this year, this has been basically an unadulterated blessing. It has allowed us to spend almost all day, every day together during the formative early months of our marriage. It has allowed us to become familiar with each other’s work habits and given me a peek into Jordan’s relationships with his co-workers, who I know are very important to him. We have been taking an hour-long lunch break together, which gives us time to prepare and eat healthier meals. (And as a side benefit, we’ve gotten through all the seasons of Friends and most of Avatar: The Last Airbender during our lunches.) And sometimes, we get to share special moments like the bird-stravaganza of yesterday afternoon.

The only thing we’re still trying to figure out with regard to working from home is where my space will be. This was Jordan’s house before we got married, so I didn’t already have a workspace of my own as he did. I started out working on the dining room table, which had its benefits (good lighting, plenty of space, good view of birds), but I felt like I had to clean up my stuff at the end of every workday, and I wanted a more permanent area. So lately, I’ve been working in the bedroom. Next to one of the windows, I’ve set up a small, brown and green vintage metal table that I bought at an antique shop a few years ago. My laptop sits there all the time, along with my planner and a few other items. A chair doesn’t quite fit underneath the table, so when it’s time to work, I pull over a vintage wooden chair reupholstered in a bird print (another antiquing find) that usually sits in another part of the room. So far, this setup is working pretty well, but I’d also like to try setting up a little work corner in our living room. Jordan and I have talked about sharing the home office, but we don’t think this would work very well for meetings, and I’m happy to let that be his space since my work is more mobile than his.

I’m still figuring out my space, but trying out different spots is more fun than inconvenience. I’m thankful that I get to work from home, and even more thankful that I get to do it alongside my favorite co-worker.

What does your workspace look like? Who are your co-workers, in both senses of the word? What are some of the challenges and benefits of your work setup? I’d love to hear from you!

sounds like birds

Instead of trying to bang out a well-supported thesis-driven argument in half an hour like I normally do (it’s hard, by the way), today I’m going to write a not quite stream-of-consciousness, loosely poetic series of observations. Let’s see how it goes.

One good thing about having the windows open in the house is that I can hear the high, one-note call of the red-winged blackbird currently enjoying our bird feeder. I don’t remember seeing these birds until I moved to the Midwest, and I am still startled when I’m looking at a drab roadside field or that patch of wilderness behind our neighbor’s house and I see that yellow-outlined dab of red on a shiny black wing.

Another good thing about having the windows open is that when I’m listening to my record of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” in the middle of the afternoon, I can share it with my neighbors if they choose to listen. I’m not sure if the little girls giggling on the trampoline in the other neighbors’ backyard really care, but as I’m sitting cross-legged on our bedroom floor doing yoga and enjoying the record, I can imagine one of the girls whispering, “That sounds pretty.”

One good thing about taking a walk toward sunset is that we might hear a mourning dove coo and then look up at our neighbor’s roof and see it outlined against the glowing clouds. The mourning dove’s song is the earliest bird call I can remember recognizing and, I’ll be honest, still one of the only ones I can actually recognize. The sound takes me back to a summer night in my childhood home, where through my open window I might hear a mourning dove or I might hear my dad listening to a baseball game out on the deck.

One good thing about birds is that they remind me to pray. Today I learned about prayer triggers, sounds that remind us to stop for a moment and talk with God. Some people, apparently, pray whenever they hear a siren. I get it, but I don’t want to associate prayer with panic. So I wrote in my journal that whenever I see a bird at our feeder, I will try to remember to pray. There are two reasons for this. One is that ever since we put up this new feeder last week, birds have been flocking to it consistently. So, they will help me to pray without ceasing. The other reason is that Jesus once said, “Look at the birds.” He was teaching his disciples not to worry. He asked them to think about how the Father makes sure the birds get fed–even the ones that don’t live near a well-stocked platform feeder–and how much more precious each of them, the disciples, was in the Father’s eyes. So when my eye is on a sparrow–or when I hear a blackbird sing–I will think about how God watches me.

Another time, Jesus said to his disciples, “Fear not, little flock.” I always picture a flock of sheep there because of that automatic association most of us make between the Bible and sheep, but I don’t know, maybe Jesus was thinking of a flock of purple finches too. One good thing about birds is that they’re always handy for a metaphor.

People, look East!

Did you know that, for the first time in 14 years, there are four Sundays in Advent this year?  I learned this yesterday when I attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lynchburg, VA, as a change of pace from my home church.  I have no intention of switching churches anytime soon, but as I explained to several people, I enjoy attending liturgical services around holidays, especially Christmas.  My boyfriend was a good enough sport (maybe because he got to have breakfast at Market at Main first) to go along with me to this service involving a lot of standing, kneeling, and even walking up to the altar rail for Holy Communion.  (He said he was watching me and doing whatever I did.  I didn’t know what I was doing either; I was watching the person in front of me.)

We were also reminded in the sermon that right now, we are not technically in the Christmas season.  We are in Advent, and we will be until December 24, that rare fourth Sunday.  Christmas begins that night and goes until January 6, variously called Epiphany, Twelfth Night, and Three Kings Day.  Of course, as my evangelical friends will rightly remind me, we can celebrate Christmas all year, and the dates matter less than the substance of what actually happened and what it means for us.  But the significance of Advent is that it’s all about hope, expectation, and waiting.  These are not only essential disciplines for the Christian life but also just good general life habits.  Advent and Christmas, if we see them in their true Christian light, teach us that what we await far exceeds even the weeks of excitement and preparation.  The days after December 25 are not a letdown, as we often think of them, but a continued celebration of the long-expected Christ who has finally come.

Yesterday’s service closed out with a beautiful hymn by Eleanor Farjeon that I had never heard before.  I loved it so much (especially the bird verse, of course) that I wanted to share it with you.  Please enjoy it, and think about it this week when you start to wonder if Christmas is really worth all the fuss.  It is, and far more!  Think about it later this winter when you feel exhausted from walking around in the dark and shivering all the time.  Spring is coming!  And think about it throughout your life when you are tired of waiting for a break, waiting to see the fruits of your labor, waiting for your prayers to be answered in a way that you can see and understand.  Love is on the way.

(Note: I added the exclamation points because I felt they fit the tone of the song better than the periods that were printed in the bulletin.)

1. People, look East!  The time is near of the crowning of the year.

Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table.

People, look East and sing today: Love the guest is on the way.

2. Furrows, be glad!  Though earth is bare, one more seed is planted there:

Give up your strength the seed to nourish, that in course the flow’r may flourish.

People, look East and sing today: Love the rose is on the way.

3. Birds, though you long have ceased to build, guard the nest that must be filled.

Even the hour when wings are frozen, God for fledging time has chosen.

People, look East and sing today: Love the bird is on the way.

4. Stars, keep the watch! When night is dim, one more light the bowl shall brim,

Shining beyond the frosty weather, bright as sun and moon together.

People, look East and sing today: Love the star is on the way.

5. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth Christ who brings new life to earth!

Set every peak and valley humming with the word the Lord is coming.

People look East and sing today: Love the Lord is on the way.

 

 

things that made me happy this week

I couldn’t settle on a single topic for this post, so I’m just going to make a list of things that brought me a bit of delight over the past week, in hopes that it may be interesting and useful to others as well.  I guess you could call this my T(t)hanksgiving post, since next week you better believe I’ll be blogging about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

  1. Finding the soundtrack to Fantastic Beasts on Spotify today–there’s nothing like listening to the score to get you excited about a movie (not that I needed it in this case)
  2. The full trailer for Beauty and the Beast, released yesterday.  Besides the fact that this is a remake of one of my very favorite Disney movies, I also love that the anticipation is giving me a way to bond with other fans, including my children’s lit students and some of the women in my family.
  3. Speaking of my students (in all of my classes), they’ve been making me happy all semester.  These groups of students are fun and smart, they seem to like me (teachers, let’s not act like that doesn’t make a huge difference in our personal morale), and they seem to actually be interested in what we’re reading.  And those things aren’t necessarily true every semester.
  4. Finding three Christmas tree ornaments over the weekend: a wooden “Peace on Earth” ornament from The Funky Junk Shop in Forest, VA (where I also found a cozy and flattering shirt that I’m now in love with) and a felt baby chick and a vintage Shiny Brite brand bulb with the solar system on it, from The White Brick House, also in Forest (where I also found a vintage Virginia state bird and state flower glass to replace one from my set that I had broken).
  5. Cooking and baking, for myself and for others.  For myself, I’ve been making some chard-based recipes featured in the December Better Homes and Gardens, and they’ve been delicious so far.  Last night I baked an apple pie for a Thanksgiving dinner being hosted by a friend’s local ministry (and the crust actually looked presentable, which is definitely something to be thankful for), and tonight I’ll be making some treacle fudge for the International Candy Tasting at work tomorrow.  And I’m already looking forward to making sweet potato souffle this weekend for my friends and next week for my family.  (I also made some last week just for me–I’d like to keep up this “one sweet potato souffle a week” trend as long as I can stand it.)
  6. The cardio funk class I attended last night at the YMCA.  When people think of my good qualities, rhythm is not normally near the top of the list (or on it at all), but I think that’s part of the reason why I enjoyed this class so much–I knew I wasn’t going to get the moves exactly right, so I just focused more on the cardio than on the funk and had fun laughing at myself.  Tonight…Zumba.
  7. Volunteering with Safe Families for Children, an organization I’m excited to be involved with as it gets off the ground in Central Virginia.  Saturday morning I got to help with registration for a conference for foster and adoptive families where SFFC had a big presence, and it was so much fun to see all these hospitable, compassionate people showing up eager to learn and be encouraged.  Yesterday and today, I’ve provided transportation for some young single moms, and I’ve enjoyed talking with them and playing with their cute kids.  I know they say that helping other people is a big mood-booster, but more than that, I love getting to know all the many different people that I encounter through these opportunities (and this is coming from an introvert).
  8. The beauty right outside my house as winter approaches.  This week, highlights have included a flock of blue jays in the backyard; a huge and colorful woodpecker that landed on my feeder a few days ago, looked bewildered, and then flew away; the incredibly bright supermoon on Sunday and Monday nights, and the hard frost Saturday night/Sunday morning (the coolest part was in the morning when the sun started melting the frost where there weren’t any shadows–my lawn was half white and half green).

I could keep going, but it’s time to go make a chard stir-fry.  You should seriously consider taking half an hour to write down things that have made you happy this week.  It isn’t hard at all.

Top three places to read at my house

If you love to read, you know that there’s really no inappropriate place for reading (except, perhaps, in the driver’s seat of a moving car).  However, some places are more conducive to reading than others.  This post gives you a tour of the three best places to read in my apartment.  Sure, the kitchen table is great if the reader needs a flat surface to take notes, but that’s not really the kind of reading I’m talking about.  And the bed may look tempting, but there’s a reason why chiropractors says it’s bad to read in bed.  So the three places below are the top choices for someone who wants to read for an extended period of enjoyable time.

1. The guest room/office

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Here you can sit on my slouchy old friend, the futon, and cuddle up with your book and a pillow.  Though you can’t tell in this picture, which I took at dusk, the window lets in some excellent reading light.

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Possibly the presence of the Triwizard Champions and friends in the previous picture clued you in to the fact that this room is also home to my Harry Potter artifact collection.  In this picture you can see the Triwizard Cup (it can serve as a reading lamp too), the Marauder’s Map, and my wands.

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Now that I have a designated office space, working on the computer isn’t so bad either.

2. The living room

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Here you have two options: the couch or the recliner.

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I prefer the recliner for reading and the couch for watching TV.  As you can see, the living room is also a great place to dabble in amateur geography.

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This bird artwork has very little to do with reading (though it does have a lot of words on it), but I wanted to show it off because it’s the newest addition to my living room.  I just bought it this morning from Sassy Sal Sells.  The bird painting also gives a clue to something you might see if you go through the door right next to where it hangs.  Read on!

3. The balcony

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Especially when it isn’t pollen season, the balcony is a great place for open-air reading, as you can see in this post-reading still life.  In case you’re wondering, the book is Barnaby Rudge, the final Charles Dickens novel I need to finish before I can say I’ve read them all.  Barnaby sure ain’t no David Copperfield, which may be why I’m taking pictures and blogging instead of reading.

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The great thing about reading on the balcony is that when you look up from the page, there is natural beauty to behold.  Each season has its own special feature to focus on; in spring it’s the dogwood tree that I hope you can see fairly well in this picture despite the crummy lighting.

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“Muggles think these keep evil away.  But they’re wrong.” –Luna Lovegood

The balcony is also home to my wind chimes, which I’m sure my neighbors love.  Well, they’ve never complained, anyway, and perhaps the reason is that both chimes are well-crafted and unusually melodious, and since they’re made of two distinct materials, their sounds don’t clash.  This traditional metal chime was a Christmas gift from my brother.  I also have an exotic-sounding bamboo one that I bought in the Outer Banks.

Not pictured: I recently bought a hanging basket of pansies.  Less than a week after I hung it up, I noticed that a bird had built a nest among the flowers.  (I posted an early picture of the nest on Instagram–my username is tessrs.)  Today I discovered that the nest now holds two tiny blue eggs, which I decided not to photograph, not only because of the crummy lighting but also because I thought the bird deserved some privacy.  The past few times I’ve gone out onto the balcony, I’ve noticed the small, gray bird flying away from the basket and over to a neighboring evergreen tree.  Apparently she doesn’t want to hang out with me while I read.

So if you come visit me, bring a book!  I won’t think you’re a rude guest if you slip away to one of these three special spots for a while.