Cultivating a sanctuary

A story of a single room.

I have an office on-campus. I’m there three days a week, writing under the florescent lighting, drinking endless cups of green tea (my personal preference is Ito En traditional matcha). The other two days, I’m at home. I feel grateful that I have this freedom, and that the current work I am doing can travel with me.

Sometimes, the almost clinical, dull red carpeted floors are what I need, and they give structure.

I set a time to leave the house, remember to be organised, and pre-prepare lunch.

I sit outside under the canopy of trees between buildings, should I need to counter the eye strain and dryness that comes from air-conditioning, and not working under natural light. I chat with colleagues for mental stimulation, traipse across the quadrangle to the library, and immerse myself in knowledge.

I return home at a specific time, so I can walk the dog when it is still light.

On other days, I need sanctuary more than structure – to retreat, find comfort, find privacy and exist out of time and place. I have built this feeling into my home office, my study. It is not a space where I am inherently more productive, but this room invites a sense of calm. It is mine.

The light is best in the early morning, so I savour it. I drink my coffee slowly, with sun rays on my face, waking up more and more with each caffeine-dependent sip. At home, I am closer to the coffee machine, and will probably have another cup later. This is a problem I will need to address, but that can be dealt with later. Always later.

My desk is a trestle table, an oversized Scandi-style IKEA thing bought second-hand. Like much of the furniture in my study, it is a glossy white. The legs are a light, natural wood, and the shelves at the bottom are stacked with books. The room is small, and the ancient tongue-and-groove walls invite shadows – any darkness would be overpowering, and make it appear even smaller. I bought the desk hoping I would have more room to work, preparing for the desktop computer I had planned to buy before deciding to travel overseas instead. Now the desk has been covered with plants, and I have the same space to work as the tiny laptop table I used to use. That doesn’t matter.

The plants also sit on the adjacent bookshelf – a cheap, particle board monstrosity that spans the length of an entire wall. It used to be filled with books. Eventually, as I bought more and more plants home, the books were moved to other shelves, in darker corners of the room. The books were unceremoniously shunted onto mantles, onto the shelves underneath the desk, wherever they could fit. Susan Sontag, Rebecca Solnit, and bell hooks are wedged next to a philodendron; Marc Augé is now keeping unexpected company with an instructive coffee table hardcover for modern witches on the floor; all old textbooks have migrated to my other office.

Light is at a premium: in the mornings, the sunlight slowly moves across the room, greeting each bookshelf cube in turn. That is why the plants are there, and the books are not. Some plants hang down, three cubes long, while others stand tall and attempt to climb, making friends with the art that covers the walls. It is an eclectic mix of prints and paper, people and memories: there are copies of favourite Inflammatory Essays by Jenny Holzer, handwritten quotes by Ishirō Honda, postcards, a photo taken by my father replicated on canvas, and digital portraits of my tiny family done by a dear illustrator friend.

In this room, the day passes inside a bubble, invisible to the outside world. I live close to a major road, and my hundred-year-old workers’ cottage is not well insulated from the noise. It doesn’t matter. Trucks, motorcycles, and the constant stop-and-start of traffic is a new type of calming white noise. I add to the cacophony with a constant stream of podcasts; in the oddly peaceful din, it is nice to hear a voice. I am kept company by mysteries, legends, science, and stories. The cat and dog are also nearby, but mostly, they snooze while I tap away at my laptop keys. The kitten sleeps in his bed all day, under a mature monstera plant. The dog sneaks onto the couch, a room away, just pleased to imagine he has hoodwinked me into letting him be inside all day. In turn, they both remind me to stop work late in the afternoon. The cat sits on my laptop, and the dog pushes away my hands onto his head for pats. It is as if they have planned a schedule amongst themselves.

Come five o’clock, it is time for their dinner, so I welcome being temporarily drawn out of my rabbit hole, my indoor jungle, my cultivated sanctuary. After they have eaten, I usually return to work. The dog and cat come with me – the cat curls up on my lap, and the dog makes an invisible bed on the worn rug that covers the floor, turning three times before he can lie down.

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