Working from home for the most part of a decade has proved to be productive in a creative sense, but has also taught me things over the years about observing the difference between being alone and being lonely.
There is a depth that can be accessed from quiet, familiar, homeliness. But it’s important sometimes to reach out and be with people.
Offices are wonderful places for filling the water bottle or dunking the teabag and putting the world to rights. I use my local library for this as the librarians are kin to me. I also get the bonus of departing with a book under my arm - one that will speak to me and keep me company when I need it later.
This morning I chose to have a slow start with human company, and got chatting to our two local librarians about Britain’s split from the European Union.
One of the librarians – a volunteer – was from England. We talked about Government assistance, handouts, and the feeling of resentment among folk who’d worked continuously and fed their tax into the system while others seemed to collect it like an unquestionable birth right (or EU perk).
As a writer and lowly-paid journalist seeking flexibility over money, I’ve had tough times (cue the scarcity comparisons: ‘That’s nothing! We were so poor we boiled a leather belt to make soup’). But when irregular work flow felt like a pinch, I have always shied away from collecting a benefit.
I cannot say this isn’t a judgement on those who do. Apart from anything it would invite criticism because there will be a time that I’ve forgotten about. We receive working for family tax credits, which is a euphemism for a benefit, but one that I feel comfortable admitting to (because you work to get it, right?).
But I do not intend to imply that people who receive benefits are less than me. I am no hero. I probably wouldn’t be entitled to it anyway. My version of going without is laughable. I am probably in the top five percent of the world because I can still afford to buy a bag of organic coffee, and whenever I haven’t been able to prioritise this and outwardly lamented it, a friend has bought me a bag.
As a woman, it’s likely that when I worked for corporations, I wasn’t paid what I would have been had I been born a male. But apart from this, you could say my playing field has always been level.
My reluctance to even know if I could claim any benefit has more to do with how I feel when I’m in the building that you have to enter to find out. I would rather accept hand-me-downs from friends than risk believing I cannot make enough money from doing what I do.
To admit that it’s tough to feed my family as a self-employed wordsmith might knock my confidence, and when you work at the edge of alone and lonely, confidence can make all the difference.
When I realised some time during my early 20s that my fate was very much in my own hands, I began writing lists.
The list provides order from a turbulent storm cloud of decisions. When choices seem overwhelming, when that dreaded sense of urgency looms – the one that nags about life direction and fulfilling your purpose before it’s too late – the list really comes into its own.
These days I still rely on the list. Most mornings after a wasted hour of digital distraction, I draw one up. I like to mix them up a little, and yesterdays was a doozy.
It had ‘get purchase order for graphic designer’ above ‘write up plot’. I imagine the former task may not carry the same level of effort as the one below it, which was to attempt writing the complex romantic storyline to my first-ever novel. But there it was, a simple few words on a very practical To Do list. Just putting it out there!
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the satisfaction of crossing it off at the end of the day. With exactly five minutes to go before the start of a fitness class I wanted to attend, I was up to my armpits in the online copy of the Shropshire Parish Register (because another thing on my To Do list was ‘discover ancestry’).
In the past 15 years of being a parent, lists have become complicated, meaningless, unrealistic records of big dreams that never get crossed off. Somewhat like the past lives in that ancient register of births, deaths and marriages, those dreams have arrived, shone bright and gone.
Some of the names on the parish registry may have been ancestors of mine, but all of them I’m certain, had intriguing, painful and at other times joyous hours and years of living. It mattered not if they were a bastard child, a travelling woman, a pauper or esquire.
Scrolling through the lists of names, occupations and records of christenings, marriages and burials on that parish registry was sobering for the realisation that all of these people’s experiences - their very existence - had been reduced to a list.
On one page I noticed the date of the christening of an infant child, and the next day, the same child’s name followed by a ‘b’, indicating she had been buried. The same parents of this child had christened and buried another infant just 10 months prior.
Maybe for us too, the list is all that we’ll have left to tell our story when we’re gone?
I lament that my list no longer compares the pros and cons of ‘a new life in London’ vs ‘new life in Hong Kong’ , as it did when I was a single woman with an ambitious sense of boundless possibility.
But the complexity of my current lists also hint at the richness of my life as a mother.
It can be overwhelming that I’m expected to factor the happiness of three offspring, a husband with lost and found dreams of his own and a co-dependant Jack Russell into my list. But when I think about it, the lists I wrote when I was 20-something also contained dreams that were never pursued, even though I had very few people to whom I needed to be accountable.
Perhaps the function of the list is as a record of inward contemplation, and the value is in the process of imagining a future of wide open possibilities, as frightening as they may be.
If you're spending a lot of your day in bare feet, then chances are you have found the kind of balance that Hook & Arrow writer Alison Smith has found in life.