In a chaotic year, a tidy little home workspace is everything, and I do mean everything. It's work, school, shopping, socializing, news consumption, cooking class, physical training, and entertainment. It's the hub of daily life in a pandemic. While I look forward to the day when we're not tethered to our home computers, I know that realistically, we're in this for another year at least. This is how my own working class / lower middle class family is making the best of it and savoring the silver linings wherever we can find them.
There are as many ways to set up home offices and school desks as there are families and individual circumstances, and it can take time to figure out a setup that works for you. While there are unique challenges for everyone, except for maybe the disgustingly rich, I've found that there are also some benefits of working and learning from home that we, as a society, may want to not only extend into the future, past the pandemic, but also extend to more workers and families as normal options.
My husband does manual labor for about 50 hours a week combined at two jobs, loading airplanes for UPS in the early mornings and managing a bike shop by day. He can't work from home, though our home has unexpectedly benefited his bike shop work--more on that later. He wears a full respirator to UPS, where many of his country coworkers have joined an alternate political reality, in which the pandemic is a liberal hoax; they refuse to practice hygiene and safety measures as a proof of loyalty to their tragic ideology. My husband enforces mask wearing and social distancing rules at the bike shop, where he has the authority to do so. I am so, so grateful that I do not have to go through any of that extra labor and dangerous social interaction to keep my job. Even as a white woman, I have had enough of the Darth Karens and Kens.
I work 25 hours a week for a nonprofit in communications and reception. Obviously my reception duties have changed, as our office is closed to the public and I'm not physically there. I respond to emails and voicemails from my home workspace and sometimes attend Zoom meetings.
My work station is located in a funny little nook off the living room, an area of the home that attracted me as a buyer 12 years ago. I never imagined that I would have to work remotely, but I enjoy creative writing and listening to music, and I liked the possibility of keeping a computer desk in a beautiful part of the house without spoiling the room's aesthetics.
My husband and I have purchased almost nothing to furnish and decorate our home. We are very good at curating freebies and taking care of our things so that they last. My work desk was a 13th birthday present from my parents, which I used to do my schoolwork all the way through college and kept with me for almost 25 years running. My office chair was nabbed from a curb by my husband over a decade ago, when he saw a business office closing and tossing out almost-new furniture. The big mirror, candles, and wall art are all gifts or hand-me-downs. All the other pieces of furniture in the room are hand-me-downs; the rocking chair is an heirloom handcrafted by one of my husband's ancestors in the 18th century and repaired by my husband and a family friend.
The chandelier was a wedding gift; the cowhide rug is a hand-me-down from family; the purple dish holding the remotes came from a creative friend's discard bin; the window treatments came with the house.
In our society awash with castoffs, fueled by the consumerist urge to constantly change up home decor and buy new things, the trick is to resist the temptation to buy new stuff, know what to accept from others who are offering hand-me-downs (sturdy, well-made, not-too-trendy things only), constantly discerning what to keep, and learning how to arrange it and care for it so that it helps to create the desired home environment and lasts a long time.
There's a sense of peace and empowerment in curating, designing, and caring for our personal spaces in a way that serves us personally, and we like to nurture those good feelings and habits in our daughter. So we let her design her own bedroom makeover, choosing a wall color and aesthetic that makes her feel most at ease and motivated to keep it clean and organized.
My daughter is almost 10 years old and very independent, so she benefits more from privacy and quiet than from being near me while she does school. I'm still available down the hall in case she needs help, but otherwise her teacher appreciates that she has a private, distraction-free place to focus on class.
Part of what motivates my daughter to be a real champ through this weird school year is loyalty and appreciation for her school. We live in a diverse district with a significant amount of childhood poverty, and her school has Title 1 status and the blessing of progressive and creative leadership. This gives the district tools to ensure that each child and family receives important services and care such as a weekly free grocery delivery bus, school-issued Chromebooks, internet service for unconnected households, and childcare solutions for single parents and families with different needs. Although our daughter is fortunate enough not to need special support services, it benefits her and makes her feel safe and trusting to know that the school district is reaching out to make sure every one of her classmates is being included and cared for. She takes pride in her school community and looks forward to seeing some of her friends on video each day.
It's also a wonderful good fortune that one of her best friends lives directly behind us, and the girls have transitioned from having socially distanced chats over the fence to having masked outdoor play and conversation time together after school.
So far there isn't a gym class included in my daughter's schedule, so we make use of the lovely outdoor spaces around our home and neighborhood to balance out all the screen time. Of course, people of all ages have been enjoying more outdoor activities since spring lockdowns, and partly for that reason, there is an ongoing shortage of affordable bicycles and bicycle parts.
One unexpected blessing / curse of owning a house is that many of our friends and family members have treated it as a donation center or supposedly-temporary storage unit. We are happy to accept pre-owned gifts (keeping things out of landfills and keeping our money in the bank) and to lend some of our abundant storage space to friends who are in between homes. But the whole truth is that sometimes we receive largesse that we don't really want or that doesn't turn out to be useful to us, and sometimes those items stored in our garage and basement "for a few weeks" end up sitting there for years and being forgotten by the original owners. In those cases, we do not let unfair feelings of obligation stop us from discreetly re-homing or adopting the abandoned items. We are appreciative and accommodating family members and friends, but our home is not a free long-term storage facility or a museum of someone else’s sentimental knickknacks.
Like everyone else, we have to go through our home periodically to purge clutter, although our clutter tends to accumulate from accepting other people’s stuff rather than shopping. Surprisingly, though, some things that were destined for the junk purge pile right before the pandemic have suddenly become useful in this weird, apocalyptic year.
For example, a friend of my husband's worked for a bicycle shop that closed down before the pandemic, and he unloaded a hoard of boxes into our basement filled with outdated (as in, aesthetically) mid-grade bike parts and gear. My husband recognized that these items were not likely to be useful to us in any way--they weren't worth his time to try to sell, and we couldn't personally use all of it--but he couldn't say no to a tidily boxed inventory of brand new merchandise. It was kind of a silly thing to accept, knowing beforehand how worthless and how large in volume this "gift" was, but I let it happen because we had the space and the items weren't things that could spoil or become moldy or hazardous if my husband didn't manage to go through them quickly.
With little to gain from the prospect of sorting through those boxes, they sat and sat and collected dust, waiting for the day when we'd inevitably load them into our truck and haul them to a thrift store.
Then came the pandemic, bringing a historic blow to supply chains for bicycle parts while the demand for bicycle repairs has blown up. Now nobody cares about the color or style of a set of pedals or handlebars, as long as they work! My husband has been burning through that stash of bike parts, keeping his shop in lots of business while others struggle to find the supplies they need. Because the parts are old and out-of-style, he doesn't charge customers for the parts, only the labor to install them, thus spreading around the good fortune.
In this instance, my husband's instinct to accept perfectly good things without an immediate purpose, "just in case," has literally paid off. Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn't, so I’ve learned to have an open mind and a flexible attitude about stockpiling potentially useful things, within reason. My husband and I have developed the habit of regularly assessing and cleaning out storage spaces, just so we don't collect too much dust or forget what we have, so I don't have to worry that we'll end up on an episode of Hoarders. Minimalism is all fine and good, but having the ability to stash away some things for a rainy day can be like an insurance policy for those of us who don't have the financial ability to purchase anything we may need at any time. There is value in a clear, tidy, manageable home, and at the same time there is always uncertainty about what the future holds.
I sure don't advocate for hoarding or storing too much of anything that could deteriorate and cause harm to people or the structure of a house. However, it is a blessing to have storage space. And it's a blessing to have many other amenities within our own home so that we don't have to rely too much upon employers and outside businesses and public places to meet our daily needs. Many Americans live in tiny apartments, dorms, or other spaces that provide little more than a shelter to sleep in, and that makes life extremely difficult at a time when it's dangerous to mingle with other households.
When the pandemic ends, I hope that expanded options for working and learning from home will stay more widely available to workers and students than they were before the pandemic and that much more will be done to provide everyone with adequate housing so that those options can serve more people. Although many of us miss having natural eye contact and conversation with our coworkers and clients and classmates, there are unmistakable benefits to working and learning remotely.
I'm finding that without the distractions of office environments and classrooms, my daughter and I can complete tasks in less time than if we were physically at work and school. And I love not having to commute or to even get professionally dressed and done up unless it's a Zoom meeting day. More importantly, our home is a healthier, cleaner environment than our work or school buildings, where we have our physical needs met better.
As social unrest and violence increase, I have to say that this has also been a respite from worrying about my own and my family's safety from terrorist attacks on schools, churches, and activist organizations.
So my family and I are investing careful design, planning, and care into our home office and remote school workspaces and cultivating gratitude that we have the resources--material and cognitive and emotional--to adapt to this new way of getting our work done and to make the best of it.