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A Tale of Two Home Offices

A bigger space isn't necessarily a blessing, unless you put your heart into furnishing it

By Jill Smolowe

Two years ago, my friend Jane phoned me from the West Coast, ebullient because she’d just leased an office space. Jane was not only securing a room of her own. She was stepping back into a career of her own after years of putting her work life on hold to shape her days around her husband’s career and her six kids’ schedules.

In coming weeks as she chose her office furnishings and decorations, Jane was so mindful about each selection — how it might impact her clients, how it would affect her mood — that it inspired me to take a closer look at my own office, a space on the second floor of my house that I’d laid claim to in 2010, seven months after the death of my husband, Joe.

As I scrutinized my choices — earth tone furniture, muted rugs and wall hangings, well-organized shelves and tidy surfaces — I saw calm, quiet and orderliness reflected back. No surprise there. For as long as I can remember, I’ve preferred my workspace (be it a study carrel, cubicle or office) to be organized and neat. If its surfaces are chaotic, my mood tends to follow suit. If they are tidy, my concentration more readily falls into line. My workspace, I decided at the conclusion of my survey, was a reflection of my working state of mind.

Different Strokes

Ironically, for 15 years this same space had been the sacred fortress of a man who favored cyclone décor. During Joe’s tenancy, his accumulation of manuscripts, newspaper clippings, reporter notebooks and magazines, not to mention gum wrappers and Stickies, had proven so unwieldy that he’d added a large rectangular dining table across the middle of the room to handle the overflow from his three (that’s right, three!) desks. I won’t bother to tell you how long it took him to overrun this fourth surface, as well.

During those years, my own home office was a tiny room that we’d carved from the unfinished basement, shoe-horned between the laundry and furnace areas. A bit of drywall and two cheap doors did the trick. The resulting space accommodated essentials only: small desk, computer surface, desk chair, filing cabinet, bookshelf. A bulletin board claimed the only wall space. Framed photos of my husband and daughter claimed the only free surface (the window ledge above my computer table). That left no place to set out decorative or treasured items.

That was fine by me. Though my office was neither homey nor pretty, it was mine. Cozy. Quiet. And yes, orderly. I never felt resentful that Joe’s office was roughly three times the size of mine. He had his space. I had mine.

I also didn’t mind that he’d designated his office a “Jill-free zone.” That meant that his crazy need for chaos was to remain untouched by my counter-crazy need for orderliness. Here’s how I dealt with the disaster zone we called his office: I blinded myself to it. Really. Whenever I stepped into his office to chat with him, I simply did not see all the stuff that was in need of straightening — a spectacular visual illusion.

Moving On Up

In the wake of Joe’s death, I felt no impulse to move into his office. I liked my basement lair. I liked that there was at least one small space in my life that remained undisturbed by the stark disruption of his death. But seven months later a subterranean gas leak forced my hand. Even after the problem was addressed, an odor lingered in my office that gave me persistent headaches. Reluctantly, I cleared out Joe’s office and hired painters. I kept some of Joe’s furniture, gave away the rest, then moved in my desk chair, filing cabinet and computer surface.

The room felt enormous. Overwhelming. The empty space in the center of the room where Joe’s wacky dining table once stood felt larger than my basement office. Worried I had made a mistake, I wondered if this room would ever feel like my own.

I got over it. By the time Jane phoned with her exciting news about a new office, I had long-since happily settled in. I found the pale blue color I’d chosen for the walls soothing. I’d come to enjoy that the room had essentially two spaces, one for writing, and the other for relaxing on a couch while talking by phone with friends. I’d come to enjoy how my dog spends her days on that couch, snoring companionably while I work.

Last week I heard from Jane again. Recently relocated a few hours south to a different West Coast city, she told me that while she’s had no trouble parting ways with her old house, she’s finding it hard to let go of her rented office. Her anguish over finding a new workspace that suited her caused me, once again, to take stock of my office.


Labors of Love

This time, I realized that over the course of the last seven years, this room of my own, without conscious design, has come to embody the love in my life. The work I love. The people I love. The people who love me.

Though there is generous space for hangings, knick-knacks and books, I have allowed in only what and who really matter to me. The wall hangings include two large framed drawings by my daughter, Becky; a framed watercolor by my second husband, Bob; a quilt made for me by a friend; a macramé that once hung in my late mother’s office.

The shelves are lined with volumes that have inspired me, books about writing, grief, human psychology, child-rearing. On every shelf and surface there are framed pictures. Of Joe and me. Of Bob and me. Of Becky and me. Of my two stepchildren. Of my parents and three siblings. Even the small decorative items are personally meaningful. The two little statuettes came from my mother’s office. The two ceramic dishes that hold my paper clips and rubber bands were made by Becky. The custom-made ceramic mug that holds my pens, a gift from Joe, is emblazoned with the word Weasel, our mutual nickname for each other. The other pen mug, a gift from my dad, says “Foreign Affairs,” a nod to my decades as a journalist.

And, of course, there are my own books. Not only a shelf of them, but framed covers of each of them, reminding me, applauding me, encouraging me to continue doing the work I love, even when the going gets hard.

I realize now that this oh-so-orderly workspace of mine, which I’ve for so long regarded as a reflection of my state of mind, is actually a reflection of my state of heart. Perhaps no surprise there, either. We put our hearts into the spaces we create for ourselves.

I hope that when Jane finds her new space, she will be able to leave her old office behind and put her full heart into creating a new room of her own.

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Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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