Confessions from a Home Office

After almost 9 months of chugging away as a freelance writer, editor, and English tutor, I feel that it’s time to share my perspective on working from a home/office…er, home office. It’s often glorified as the ultimate work situation, but it’s certainly not free from challenges. 
After college, I moved back into the room of my childhood. The challenge was converting it into an office as well. Organizing the same amount of space to serve two purposes was a challenge. At first I just kind of put my work in a blender and watched it explode all over the floor. 
I eventually got a bit more organized, at least space-wise. But organizing time can be harder. I am my own boss, which leaves me accountable only to myself for time management. Sometimes I’m distractable and not productive enough. More often, though, I’m doing five things so efficiently that I multitask myself clean out of productivity. Trying to do too many things can actually keep my thinking so shallow that I’m not productive at anything, especially writing. 
Working from home can be hard to explain to others. Sometimes people think that because I stay at home, I don’t actually work. I promise–I do. But getting respect for that isn’t always easy. It can also be tough to guard my work time. Because I’m within earshot of the phone, the dishwasher, the oven timer, the front door, it’s the easiest thing in the world to get interrupted and distracted. Or to use home chores as procrastination stations. 
My job can be lonely. Sometimes I get to the end of the day overflowing with words because I simply haven’t opened my mouth to talk to a human being all day. My brain gets tired from juggling e-mails, flashback scenes, and semicolon placement, but there are no co-workers to socialize with around the water cooler. I’m learning I have to be proactive and intentional about spending time with people.   

But there are also some undeniable perks to the job. I love that my mornings aren’t dictated by a rush to beat traffic or catch a train. I really enjoy the quiet and calm of my own home atmosphere. It’s pretty nice to be able to grade papers while watching blue jays perch in the backyard birches or redline a manuscript while wearing my fuzzy slippers. And it’s been a special blessing to be available to help care for my grandma these past five months. 

A few days ago I wrote an e-mail to a friend who asked me what it was like to be a freelancer. My response was long. It’s a lot of work, and trust is a constant challenge as I have to keep surrendering my question-mark future into God’s hands. But I also realized that I love my work. I sure don’t feel like that every single morning. But overall, I’m so grateful to have this chance to pursue my God-given passions from a base of nurture and support.  I look back over the last nine months and realize that this time has not been wasted. In spite of the logistical snags, the isolation, the multitasking, the procrastination–I’m moving in the direction of what I was made to do. And that is a great feeling.


One of my goals this summer is getting my children’s novel ready to start the publication process! In the interest of productivity on that, I’m going to be cutting back to blogging once a week for the summer. Don’t let me slack off! The race is on! 

Island-Building

When I was twelve, my family and I watched an island being formed.

The lava field on Hawaii’s Big Island looked like the surface of the moon. The black rock, brittle as glass, clawed at our shoes in a landscape where nothing lived. We stopped where the rock turned to a river: a slow ooze of hot lava, glowing dull red beneath its dark crust, hot enough to catch the tips of our walking sticks on fire. We watched it wriggle past our feet to the edge of a cliff, where it plunged into the sea in a waterfall of fire. There, beneath the waves, it was hardening, invisibly adding to the foundations of the Big Island.

Seven months into this freelancing adventure, I’m beginning to think about the cumulative effects of choices. The choices I make today don’t stand alone: they’re built on the choices I made yesterday and last month and last year. To move home after graduation. To pass up jumping for an immediate 9-to-5 job. To take seriously the gift of writing God has given me. All together, these choices start to form something: the new piece of land I am becoming.

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” It is our cumulative, grace-guided choices that determine the people we will become. Making the right choices is easier when you have a precedent on which to build. It’s less difficult to see where you’re going next time you take a leap of faith.

But building a new island is difficult when you don’t know what you’re aiming for. When setting out in a new direction, the first choice (do I trust? Do I risk? Do I sacrifice?) is the scariest. Even the best of role models can’t project what results our choices will have. So when we decide to follow God’s call, to writing, knitting, homeschooling, ministry, or something else off the beaten path, it can feel like shooting off a cliff in a stream of hot lava, wondering if we’re actually going to build something new or just get swept away in the tide.

But, once again, when the first layer is laid, the next is easier–you’ve set yourself a standard to live up to.

A friend of mine demonstrated this a few weeks ago. She interviewed for two positions, the first less desirable than the second. After the first interview went well, she accepted a job offer there. Then, suddenly, she was offered a job at the second company. Instead of bailing out on her commitment to  #1, she turned down a desirable position in order to stick to her word.

Career-builders might scoff at her brave choice. But success is more than a ladder. In choosing to demonstrate integrity, my friend sacrificed immediate gain–but set a precedent for future choices and added another layer onto her island of character. When jobs vaporize and companies fail, that rock still stands.

Of course, there’s also a second way. It’s so natural that many people, especially those in my age group, opt for this one. It’s the easy way out. When faced with a tough choice to land a great job or keep your word, to indulge yourself or honor your family, to beat the established path or trust God to lead you in His way–many people just “go with their gut” and push the long-term implications out of mind. Like Scarlett O’Hara in the wonderful Gone with the Wind, we say “I’ll think about that later.”

But Rhett (always wise) comes back to her and says, “It’s hard to salvage jettisoned cargo and, if it is retrieved, it’s usually irreparably damaged. And I fear that when you can afford to fish up the honor and virtue and kindness you’ve thrown overboard, you’ll find they have suffered.” (ch. 43). It’s hard to go back once you’ve set a precedent of taking the easy way.

So what kind of an island are you building? If the choices we make today set a precedent, do you dare to take the leap, making choices based on vision, hope, faith? Will you start building from a blueprint you can’t see?

Compass Living

Are you a whole person?

I’ve been feeling tired a lot lately. Not just I-didn’t-get-enough-sleep kind of tired. The kind of tired that sets in the moment you wake up and see another sunrise–knowing it’s another day of the hamster wheel, running as fast as you can before you drop.

It’s called burnout. This kind of tiredness dulls my mind, numbs my creativity, and makes me feel excited about nothing. It feels like growing old before my time.

Why? I’m young and healthy; I’ve got a family who loves me and some great friends. I’m doing work I’m passionate about. Furthermore, I know God loves me–I have purpose and significance in that. But I’m still tired.

A tough conversation with my ever-wise friend Audry shed some light on the matter. (She also just posted a great blog about fighting off creative distractions here.) Whether your work is knitting, writing, painting, composing, or delivering sermons, you know that being creative takes a great deal of mental energy. It’s a God-like endeavor: creating ex nihilo, allowing us to be little singers of the Song of God.

But it’s draining.

And more than that–it’s crookedly draining. Creating involves a lot of sitting around and thinking, squeezing those little gray cells to imagine things that no one has ever seen before. Sometimes to put in those long stretches of intellectual labor on our Works In Progress, we shut everything else out.

But we humans are like four-pointed compasses. Rene Descartes only had part of the picture when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” Thinking is part of our being, but we’re also more. Being human means we’re not only brains, but also feelings, bodies, and souls. And if we only exercise our brains, we start to wear down all on one side like lopsided erasers, while simultaneously feeling unfulfilled in those other parts of being.

Maybe this was why I was tired. So this week I set out to experiment with my routine. I decided to give myself permission to stretch and exert the other three points of my compass, in hopes of restoring my mental freshness and creative vitality–and enjoying my life.

There are some things you know by studying about them. And there are other things you know only by doing them. One of these things is physical exertion. No amount of doctor-talk about the health benefits of exercise can describe how flushed and vital you feel after coming home from a 30-minute traipse in sprinkling rain, your head full of ideas and your blood pumping to write. Better still–a hike in the hills, overwhelmed with the beauty of emerald grass and shifting sunlight, brilliant poppies and clouds traveling overhead.

Another such thing of such indescribable value is time with people, and with God. E-mails and Facebook simply are not a substitute for time with friends, family, and the Holy One. You’ve got to have face-to-face time, quantity time, especially if you spend much of your work time in relatively isolated conditions. I’m a schedule-bent efficiency junkie, but I’m realizing that not taking time to be with people will kill my energy and desire to meet the day–so I’m actually more productive when I spend time with people, away from work. More time than just exchanging “good mornings” in the kitchen. Likewise, hasty prayers are like IOUs with God that stack up–they don’t bring the soul-healing peace of extended times of contemplation and praise.

Trying these things this week has brought the life rushing back into me–joy, energy, creativity, and a desire to live the life I have. It’s easier to be thankful when you take time to notice what’s around you: the beauty of the world in spring, the humor and kindness of the people around you, the way your lungs fill with air and your eyelashes sparkle in the sunlight. It brings back the wholeness of being human–the way life was intended to be.

What do you do in your schedule to nurture wholeness in your life? What are your habits for fostering mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being? 

Why Work?

I spent yesterday morning in a tax accountant’s office, summing up the last year of my life in terms of dollars and cents. A rather dismal prospect, I must say.

Not only did I realize that I am living on a starving-artist budget, but I also realized that I can only keep about 70% of it, because the U.S. government is automatically entitled to the rest. Depressing.

On the bright side, it’s a blessing to have taxes to pay this year. It means I actually have work! After earning a degree in English and entering an extremely tight job market, work is a huge gift. And it means that dividing my time between writing, editing, tutoring, and blogging is more than a pipe dream. This is my job!

Which leads me to the lesson I learned from taxes yesterday.

Work is not, cannot be, just about making money. Many times I’ve thought of abandoning the writing and going to work in something more lucrative, just to have a good, steady salary. But what then? The more you make, the more the government takes (the joy of income tax). If you work hard and work is only for the purpose of making money, then poof! You lose 30% of your year’s labor every April. It just vaporizes, gone.

All that was left when I departed the tax accountant’s office were the other reasons I work–so I was glad I had some. Why work, other than for money? I think things like job satisfaction, knowledge that you’re helping people, pride in the quality of your work, good relationships with colleagues, and belief that what you’re doing matters to God and the world are what really matter in a job. No government can tax this income.

And when I started evaluating my jobs this way, I was encouraged. So I’m making peanuts? So what? I’m working with what I love (words), spending time in an environment I like, and believing that what I do with my time each day is making a difference. I’m following the vocation to which God has called me and sharing the words He’s given me with other people. I was made to do this work, and I’m doing it! Praise God!

And to top it off, I read this verse, Deuteronomy 12:7 last night, reminding me of the joy of good, God-blessed work: “You and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the LORD your God has blessed you.”

So is there really more to work than making money? What do you think makes a good job? 

Life According to Road Signs

While on vacation the week after Christmas, my family and I drove the infamous Road to Hana. It’s a highway that follows the beautiful, rainforested north shore of Maui. However, “winding” would be the understatement of the century about this road. It is famous for its more than 600 curves (most of which are blind hairpins) and its 59 bridges, 46 of which are one-laners according to Wikipedia. According to me, that’s a generous estimate.

While my mom was dodging tourist convertibles and avoiding sheer cliff edges, I was taking pictures of the road signs. Road signs are something I always find interesting, because they can be read to have double meanings about life, guidance, and following God. But on the tortuous, sometimes terrifying, incredibly beautiful Road to Hana, their messages seemed heightened, especially when I thought about lessons I’ve learned during my last 4 1/2 months of freelancing. 
The road to the future can be winding (and sometimes the curves are blind).  




Sometimes you defer to the ideas of others with more experience, especially when you’re young. 

You don’t always get there as fast as you want to. 
Sometimes you run into roadblocks.  
But eventually you get going again.



And the journey can be beautiful.


Sometimes it’s just plain funny, too. Part of the adventure is learning to laugh, to find the humor in the midst of 600 hairpin curves. Sunshine sometimes comes in weird and wacky forms. Like these bizarre signs!   
“Why did the baby pigs cross the road?”  
“The sky coconuts are falling!” 

 

“A place named Haiku–maybe only 17 people live there…”

What weird, wise, or wacky signs have you spotted by the roadside?

Remembering

The Old Testament is full of stories of forgetting. It was a cycle: the Israelites, God’s people, would witness a miracle and worship Him. Then, after a while, they’d forget and go chase after other gods. Then they’d suffer for it and cry out to the true God for help. And then He’d display His power to rescue them yet again.
His continual command to them is to remember. “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done…Remember the wonders he has done.” (Ps. 105:1,5)

The word “remember” appears 166 times in the NIV. It’s the antidote to many ills: dissatisfaction, self-satisfaction, discouragement, arrogance, pride. It keeps us close to God by reminding us of His goodness and the times He’s been faithful in the past.
As 2011 draws to a close, I want to remember the times that remind me of God’s goodness—the successes, the mountaintops, the glimpses of assurance. Some highlights: 
  • In June, I graduated from college, probably the happiest person to go through that three-hour ceremony in the baseball stadium.
  • In September, I sat down at my computer to start a blog and launch a career as a freelance writer and editor. It was a leap of faith: I didn’t really knowing where I was going, but was trying to obey God’s call and guidance. Today this blog has almost 1,200 hits (thanks to all of you)!  
  • In October, I started tutoring (now have 9 students) and had an article and a poem published on Associated Content (now Yahoo! Voices).
  • In November, I quit my babysitting job and started writing the second draft of my children’s novel (now up to 12,000 words!)
  • Two weeks ago, I received and completed my first professional proofreading project (I flinched at dangling modifiers for days). Now there’s another one coming my way!
These milestones remind me of God’s mighty power and tender love. Four months ago, I had no job and no confidence that I could make it as a writer. Now the elements of a writing career are sprouting up around me like crocuses. It is amazing to watch, because although I planted the seeds and watered them, God has worked (and continues to work) the miracle of growth.
I also want to remember the tough times of this past year, though. In between the milestones, there have been many dry days when I was too tired to write, had no income, wondered if I was doing the right thing at all, or if I should go out and get a “real” job. When I’ve felt sad and alone and sorry for myself, though, is when I have most desperately turned to God (just like the Israelites). When all other support crumbles, when the music dies and you’re alone in the quiet, it’s then that you really understand that God is the Solid Rock, all-sufficient and very present in trouble. Deserts are testing times: for growing and learning to depend, to rely, to trust. It’s in the book of Deuteronomy:
“Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.”

It’s in the times of dryness that we learn if we’re really walking by faith, not sight. Sometimes you can’t tell until you experience blindness.
The main thing is, I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to forget the lessons learned in the desert. And I don’t want to get deluded and think that I worked the successes for myself. God gave me the gift of words and has called me to use it for His glory and others’ blessing. He has opened doors of opportunity and given me fortitude to face the giants. And through it all, He has been incredibly faithful.
So I close the year with a prayer from the Psalms:
“Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness” (Ps. 115:1).

What do you remember as you look back on this year? 


A few quick notes:
  • No blog post next week: I’m going out of town. See you the first week of January!

  • I’ve signed up for an online blog class that goes through January and February. I’m excited to learn more about blogging, so keep an eye out for updates and improvements throughout the next couple of months! 

Angel Wings

When I was a kid, there seemed to be an invisible fairy who made the house run smoothly. If I left a mess in the playroom, it was gone by morning. Somehow breakfast appeared on the table, and I always had clean clothes to wear. Presto! Magic (also pronounced “mom”).

One of the most novel phenomena about moving into my college apartment was discovering that no invisible fairy lived there. When I dumped clothes on the floor at night–how bizarre!–they were still there in the morning. If I didn’t get off the couch in the afternoon, there was still no dinner ready by evening. But a lot of the tasks required to keep a home running are quite menial, and I still don’t look forward to them. My personal un-favorites: scrubbing the tub and cleaning out moldy vegetables from the refrigerator. Mmm.

Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out

I did learn, however, that those tasks are crucial to preventing messes. (See Shel Silverstein poem: “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out.”) Over time, I started developing a sixth sense: housekeeping. I almost felt invisible fairy wings growing from my back.

This week, a lot of things have needed doing at my house. With my grandma moved in and guests and relatives in and out through a revolving door, the task list just seems to grow and grow. All those people need to eat, need laundry done, need places to sleep, need attention and care. These tasks range from the menial to the yucky to the exhausting. Before I grew the fairy wings, I might not have noticed all those things that needed doing. Even still, my instinct revolts, I have better things to do! But this week, I have been blessed to witness many acts of service, from a dear friend who brought us dinner, to my brother quietly standing at the sink washing plates, to my mom blitzing through a 4-hour grocery shopping marathon on all of our behalf.

I was reminded that really, it’s not about clean plates or a stocked fridge. Those are the things you can see. But those menial housekeeping–or perhaps home-keeping–tasks are really expressions of love for one another. I know love is what keeps me going when chopping zucchini for dinner seems like a waste of time. It’s not just zucchini. It’s love for my family, making sure they have a hot dinner to come home to, a way of offering comfort to them after a long day. It doesn’t always make those unpleasant tasks pleasant, but it endows them with a sense of significance and worth.

I even think that housekeeping tasks can be acts of worship. Colossians 3:23-24 is one of my favorite verses, because it seems to apply in all circumstances: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…it is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Wash dishes for God? Maybe God doesn’t benefit from the clean dishes…but He loves a heart that does every little thing in service to Him. Taking out the garbage can be like singing a hymn if it’s done for a God who sees what is done in secret.

So don’t give up on chopping zucchini, on picking up messes, on endless piles of laundry. Maybe the wings you wear when working that magic are less for a fairy…and more for an angel.

Measuring Progress

In the academic world, progress metrics are plentiful. I think that’s why many people never leave school. You go to class, you put in the work, you get the grades, the grades become GPA. Boom, you can translate your effort into a percent, a couple of honor cords, a piece of paper on the wall. And you get some self-esteem out of it, too.

In post-academic life, however, progress can be harder to get your hands around. You can count the hours you spend working, but how do you measure the fruit of those hours? For smaller endeavors, it’s not as difficult. Summer working retail = money for study abroad. But when you’re working towards a more distant goal, one that requires immediate investment for a very delayed payoff, how do you tell if you’re moving forward?

For example, let’s talk about writing a book (how funny! something I’ve spent quite a lot of time doing this week). What do you have to show for 8 hours of completely internal concept work that doesn’t translate into a paycheck or even a page count? Not instant gratification, that’s for sure. But if I’m ever going to finish the novel, I have to have faith that it will matter, and that it’s worth the present sacrifices.

In fact, I think some of the most important things can’t be quantified at all in the short term. Think about growing a prayer life or spending time with friends and family. You can’t measure your investment until you enjoy the final result: a sweet relationship with God or other people. Even though it can feel like wasted time in the right now, it’s much more valuable to do things that matter in the big picture than to be able to instantly prove yourself by the numbers.

Now, with all that said, this week God has given me some progress signposts that give me hope. My big-picture goals may still be far in the distance, but these are good reminders that I’m at least on the way.

1. Adding some great resources to my collection at the library sale

2. Applications from 2 new tutoring students (hopefully this isn’t what my hair looks like!)

Free Student Clipart
Source: Clipart Pal

3. Having lunch with my mom in mid-November rather than taking midterms

Source: Aqui

4. Writing “owner” after my name on an application for a tutoring business license


5. And last but not least, finding a perfectly-sized coffeepot to fuel my continued endeavors!