I may be chopping an onion but these are tears of happiness. Everything is back to normal.
A few days working away from home could seem quite attractive sometimes: no meals to cook; no cleaning to do; the ability to focus on the job at hand without feeling torn in several different directions; the possibility of whole conversations without anyone mentioning computer games or Greek myths or superheroes.
And it’s true that the return home can be a bit shaky. Aside from the happiness of seeing the family again, it’s a shock to have to deal with the unpacking, the mountain of laundry I seem to have brought home with me (I’m sure I didn’t wear that many clothes), the meal that everyone is somehow expecting me to produce for dinner, the two school trips requiring packed lunches that we all seem to have forgotten about, and whatever this week’s boyish obsession happens to be.
But it’s the routine and the regularity and the sheer normality of home that makes it such a special place to be. Once the bags are put away and everything’s settled down, there is something very right about standing in the kitchen, in my usual spot, watching the knife in my hand slice through the shiny skin of a red onion. I’m home. This is where I should be.
I always prided myself on being able to balance home and work without being rigid. I’d congratulate myself for getting the laundry done or the dinner made between work tasks.
Then it all got too much. Work was bleeding into the evenings and I wasn’t getting going on paid jobs until mid-morning because I was finishing up home admin or emptying the dishwasher. I told myself home always came first – but somehow, everything was becoming a blurry, unsatisfying mess.
So, on the advice of a wise friend, I tried boundaries. Working – and only working – between fixed hours. Doing home-related tasks – and only home tasks – in set times too. I know, you’ve heard this suggestion before. It’s hardly rocket science. Call me slow, but I finally realised that this time-honoured advice actually works. I was flying, clear-headed and amazingly productive.
For a whole week.
Then the boy was home from school for a few days and I went back to an endless mixed-up mash of emails sandwiched between story-reading and working in front of kids’ TV to keep him company and lessen the Mummy-guilt. And I knew that, for that week, that’s the way circumstances meant it had to be.
But I also knew that, once we were back to normal again, the boundaries were definitely coming back into force again. They help me to think clearly. They comfort me by saying, “this task you are doing now is exactly what you should be doing at this moment. This is home time. (Or work time.)”
I can recommend it. Boundary your time. Don’t do laundry at work or check email at home. It seems so simplistic and obvious – perhaps too simplistic and obvious to work – but it works wonders.
I wish I could show you the beauty of this autumn garden. A photo – especially one taken by me – just couldn’t begin to capture it. Early this morning it was a dewy, misty corner shrouded in dripping cobwebs. It was chilly and damp.
Now, as I hang the washing on the line, there is a golden haze all around and the glowing sun on my back is positively hot. It highlights the glossy green of the chard and spinach in the vegetable patch, shines through the wings of the cabbage white butterflies marauding around the broccoli plants, and shows off the dusky grey-green of the leeks, making the chore of laundry management a positive pleasure. It lures me into bringing the laptop outside to enjoy a late garden office day. The sun is lower in the sky than it was a few weeks ago and I position myself carefully to avoid it getting in my eyes.
Change can be beautiful. In ten minutes, one after the other, I experience intense heat, cool dampness as fat white clouds cover the sun, a sudden inexplicable breeze and a grey buildup in the eastern sky which threatens rain – followed by glorious sunshine once more. In the vibrant radiance of this changing season I don’t miss for a second the sameness of summer, even as I chase my papers, which are skipping around the garden on the breeze for the second time.
Back to school is not pristine exercise books, wickedly sharp pencils, juicy ink in new pens, or even squeaky new shoes. Back to school is a door.
I walk the boy to school, watch him run into the classroom without a backward glance, and I walk home, as so many times before.
Always, the part I remember is standing in front of my own front door, key in hand. Beyond the door is a strange stillness. Behind it stretch seemingly endless hours of productivity – hours in which I can achieve so much, hours of opportunity…
I’d like to stay on that threshold, imagining everything that might be beyond the door, dreaming of what could be. Once the door is opened, reality rushes through it and there is laundry and a desk piled high with books and paper and barely legible notes on post-its and telephone marketing to ignore and a sudden compulsion to tidy and an inability to focus on one thing at a time and a mountain of tomatoes which really should be used before they rot and did I send that email?
Dreaming is easy when you stand outside the door. As you open it and step through, the challenge is to carry the dreams and aspirations with you, and do the things you need to do to make them happen, regardless of all the other things clamouring for your attention.
Because Benjamin Franklin was wrong; it’s not death and taxes which are the only certainties in this life – it’s laundry and distractions. And it’s not a wildly different vision of the future that’s behind that door; it’s my home and my life. If I’m going to do new things, they have to be done here and now. And now we’re back to school, there’s no excuse.
Sometimes work is all-consuming. Raising your head can be like coming up for air after a long swim underwater, or like the first taste of food after a long illness.
Today I was given the gift of a spare couple of hours in between enormous, heavy, challenging jobs. First I looked around in amazement at the world which had carried on around me without my noticing. Somehow I had fed the boy and the husband and made sure everyone had clean pants. (Though I fear I’d done little more than that.) Somehow the broad beans had continued growing and nothing in the greenhouse had quite died. Neighbours were going about their business. The sun was even shining.
After a long moment of wondering what to do, I wandered out into that sunshine. I picked a bowl full of broad beans for tea, and another of salad leaves. I foraged among the forest of pea plants to find the few that were swelling enough to give the boy a treat. I breathed for what seemed like the first time in weeks.
When work feels like an illness, you’ve been doing too much. How many times do we have to learn the lesson that we can only do so much?
What a joy it is, though, to feel that sense of waking up, to see and appreciate the home and the people around you almost as if for the first time. It’s a gift that almost makes the hard work worthwhile. It may take some time, but balance is beginning to return.
I haven’t deliberately lied to you. I promise. But I seem to have accidentally misled myself – and thus you – into thinking that I don’t make detailed plans.
However, yesterday I found myself ironing. (Which I hadn’t planned, but the ironing fairy was away. Again.) And while I was doing it my mind was wandering and I swear I found myself having the following thought:
“If I go to visit my parents in half term and then I’m only home for a day before I have to take that trip to the south west and then I only have another two days before we go away again… Maybe I should plan what the boy and I are going to wear for that fortnight so I can make sure we have enough clean clothes.”
Quite apart from the fact that it is impossible to plan what an eight year old is wearing (he would disagree, insist on wearing something else and then spill baked beans on everything) – how on earth is that the thought of a person who doesn’t make detailed plans?
For years I have carried this image of myself as a spontaneous, fly-by-the-pants-seat type of person. And yet, it appears, I am actually in danger of carrying out wardrobe and laundry planning.
However, I stand by my previous point. When it comes to the big things, I do still avoid planning and wing it. I don’t know where my business will be in six months, let alone six years. I’ll follow my nose, see what happens, follow up opportunities. And by micro-planning the things which I can control, I can free up time and head space to roll with, cope with and even take advantage of all the many things which I can’t control.