My course and work schedule this semester have churned out so that I am rarely required to be on campus before one or two o’clock. My schedule adjusted to accommodate my usually deliriously meeting-free mornings, I now wake at six, creak and pad to the kitchen to make coffee, take it back to my bedroom to sit at my desk, respond to emails, and do early class readings. Around eight, I return to the kitchen to make more coffee and maybe cook an egg, and soon afterwards, my roommate also begins to stir, her bedroom door aching open. After breakfast, I shower and move to the living room table where I spread out my computer, my books, my coffee and, for a few more weeks, my clementines, and work until twelve thirty, after which, I make a salad, check the mail on the porch, and walk to school. I have described my mornings in Benjamin Franklin-like detail to illustrate that I now spend about half of my working day scraping and plodding around in my house.
I derive affection from this house and I love to move about it, lunging across the especially creaky floorboards in the morning so I don’t wake my roommate, measuring out my life in coffee beans that go into the grinder, which certainly wakes her with its irritating whir. But more than the house, I derive affection from the materials that make it: the splintering wood floor, the porcelain doorknobs, the plaster walls, and surely, my possessions. In this adjustment between the travel and bliss of break and the return to the quotidian semester, I have been thinking about how caring for my home gets juxtaposed with caring for my work, though the two spend more time together than ever before. Moreover, I have been thinking about how home-care has supplanted self-care for me, a way to break the work/life boundary by making self and work one and home separate.
I know this cannot be a sustainable way to go about working and/or living. I know that I am guilty of “positioning work as the ultimate mode of self-fulfillment.” Because I spend much of my time talking and organizing about alternative academia, I think of myself as somewhere beyond the academic pale. But in reality, belief in my field, in digital methods, and in the University, all tied to belief in self, keep me providing my labor in pursuit of a degree with high personal and financial costs. “Few other professions,” Miya Tokumitsu writes, “fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output.” My research project centers on my involvement in campus activism, making use of that old but strong axiom that the personal is political. The intricacy between the two might be undeniable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not exhausting in practice.
When I lay out my morning routine, I realize that most days I work for ten hours. By the time I am walking to campus at 1PM, I might have already put in six hours of work. Add to that a three hour seminar, office hours, and the course I am a teaching assistant for, and I am sometimes up to 12 hour days. Several days a week, I return home at 8:45PM, exhausted and hungry, and sometimes, I think, happy. My work is important and I have faith that it will give material rewards upon completion of my degree. Most importantly, the work is integral to my identity. When my work is good, I am good.
One of my more important resolutions for 2016 was to not work on Saturdays (Other less important resolutions include flossing every night and learning how makeup works). Three Saturdays into the new year, and I have been successful. This does not mean that I have not spent Saturdays thinking about work, but instead of opening my laptop, I turned towards the house. I hung shelves in the bathroom by the sink. I made curtains for the front window and napkins from the leftover fabric. I fixed the bathroom door so that it closes all the way. I bought a side table from a man in Garner with a Ben Carson sticker on his car and worried about the ethical decision I had made all the way home. Then I made a list I suspect many people also have:
-scrape paint off the locks
-new shade for bedroom light
-rug for the hallway
I wonder if this kind of list-making is just a substitute for the other note I keep on my computer, my work to-do list. In my patterings about the house I fear that my curtain sewing and doorknob screwing are a way to use materiality as guard against the insignificance of my work, a counterpoint to dissolving myself into my studies. “Maybe a house is a machine to slow down time, a barrier against history, a hope that nothing will happen, though something always does,” Rebecca Solnit writes in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. “But the materials themselves are sometimes hedges against time, the objects that change and decay so much more slowly than we do.” Maybe a fixation on fixing my home is a way to build a bridge between my work life lived at home and my home life consumed by work. Maybe it is just a studied procrastination technique.
This is where I would like to turn this essay, jerking it to the left. I would like to say that knowing all this, I will make changes. I will work to divorce my self-worth from my work. I will not use my home as a way to avoid taking care of myself. I will reject the Do What You Love mentality. I will rework the equation so that work + home + self become separate entities that add up not to happiness or self-worth, but to life as I want to live it. But I have no idea what that life looks like or whether it would bring me an a new identity draped in self-confidence and self-respect. I find Solnit again in my head:
“The hankering for houses is often desire for a life, and the fervency with which we pursue them is the hope that everything will be all right, that we will be loved, that we will not be alone, that we will stop quarreling or needing to run away, that our lives will be measured, gracious, ordered, coherent, safe. Houses are vessels of desire, but so much of that desire is not for the physical artifact itself.”
I am writing this from my house–the kitchen table–and spread around me in this room are my books, my most precious possessions. I move them around as their subjects interest me: the collected works of Abraham Lincoln, a thoughtful but impractical gift, went straight to a bottom corner, but Thomas Wolfe rose to the top. Rebecca Solnit and Annie Dillard have their own distinct spaces on the shelves, divided from one another by one of my mother’s oxalis plants. I do this often, with the books, but with other objects as well. It is a way, I think, of taking care of my home, making it reflect who I am. Moving objects around, adjusting, subtracting, and adding. My work is important. I do what I love. My work is who I am. The mantra, I fear, is repeated through the action, no matter how I try to rework the home + life + work equation.