At My Desk

I am sitting at my desk, like I do nearly every day, with a cup of coffee in an orange-striped Penguin classics mug (The Pursuit of Love). I am watching the rain fall on the rainforest garden, now so overgrown, so wild, that I generally avoid it, because to spend time there gives me anxiety: I think instantly and obsessively of all the things I could be doing, and am not doing, with that space. My old retired Dutch bicycle, chained to the garden shed by ivy (and, secondarily, an actual bike lock), rests where it has been resting for a year and a half now. I'm unable to give it up, although it's not in very good shape, and it's unusual enough that even the most ambitious repairmen seem to think that sourcing parts for it would be all but impossible. I keep thinking that someday, somehow, I'll be the one to fix it up, but it was already well-used when I got it, and I don't really know anything about bikes, even though I probably should (my father was recently inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, after all).

Anyhow, pretty much every day for the last year I have spent at least a few hours sitting here, doing this. Sometimes all I manage to accomplish is to stare out at the greenery (or, in winter, the bare branches, the cold ground). Since nobody pays me to do any of this, I don't have to feel guilty if that's all I've accomplished at the end of a day. When people do pay me to do things (not very often, to be honest, but it does occasionally happen), I do those things instead.

Writers are always talking about, or writing about, or reading about, how they work, or so it seems to me. Maybe it's an avoidance tactic: because it's related to the act of working, it's almost the same thing as actually working. It's tangentially useful. Maybe. But who was the writer who said you have to sit there at your desk no matter what, put the hours in even if you're not working at all? That's the other problem with all these writers talking and writing and reading about how they work: sooner or later they all blend together, become this one figure, The Writer At Work, who has all the traits and habits of all writers, even when they contradict each other. So I don't know who said that, about having to just sit there. I do know that it was Hemingway who said the thing about always stopping before you've exhausted your supply of ideas and words - stop so that you'll know how you need to begin the next day. I guess like how some food critic or chef said that the perfect meal leaves you wanting one more bite. Except that in addition to Hemingway saying this, someone else also said it, or agreed with Hemingway, anyway. Murakami, I think, though it could have been anyone. Other people will say the opposite. It strikes me that we read these little bits of advice and observation not because we actually care what circumstances led to the birth of our favourite books, say, or what kind of discipline our favourite writers have, but because we are seeking to affirm that we're not alone. We're always searching for reassurance that we're not doing it wrong. We keep reading until we find someone whose methods or outlook match, more or less, our own, and then we breathe a sigh of relief, and stop searching quite so frantically, because our own particular habits have been validated. We're doing it right after all!

Anyway, the writer who said you had to sit there at your desk no matter what would, I think, approve of the way I structure my days.

Anyway, what I'm thinking, as I'm sitting here today, on a Sunday, clocking in, putting in my hours, is that I want to start increasing the distance I swim each day. I don't need to spend more time at the pool, I think; I just need to spend my time more efficiently. Often I take long rests so that I can watch the other, better, faster swimmers, to really think about things before I push off again. I think this kind of observation has helped me improve fairly drastically over the last few years, but probably it's time to think a little less and do a little more.

I'm also thinking about how next week I'm going back to school for the first time in a long time, and up until quite recently all I felt was unbridled excitement, but now, all week, I've had this terrible sense of inadequacy: I'm sure I'm going to be found out, deemed unqualified even to begin.

Sometimes I interrupt my own thoughts to read someone else's thoughts - an article I've been meaning to read all week, for instance, still open in a tab. I like to get all my tabs closed on Sunday, in preparation for a fresh week full of frantic clicking and saving-for-later and not-reading. Sometimes I discover that something I'd been putting off reading is not something I want to read at all, or is only a paragraph long. There's a certain satisfaction when that happens, though I'm annoyed with myself for not taking the time to find out sooner. It's like a certain amount of energy was reserved for that particular tab, that particular article, and now I have that energy spare, to play with.


Yesterday I spent a few hours in the front garden. Gardening is thankless work. I always enjoy it very much up to the point at which I straighten my sore back, wipe my muddied hands on my ripped jeans, and assess the results of my labour, and realise that nothing looks much changed or much improved. Sure, there are fewer weeds, the rose bush is no longer drooping over the wall and into the path of pedestrians, but essentially, everything looks the same, just a little bit tidier, almost imperceptibly tidier. If you didn't know what I'd been doing and you walked up to our house, you wouldn't notice anything at all, though at least you wouldn't necessarily think, gosh, what a mess!

I know that's kind of the point: gardening is an investment of time, like writing, for instance. But while I don't have a problem with the way writing a book is - you're always thinking, I've worked all day and I've made no progress at all! until suddenly, one day, you find yourself with a finished manuscript - I do have a problem with the way gardening is. I guess I want instant gratification sometimes. Which is probably why we've never managed to tame our garden, why we've never managed to really grow anything, in an organised sense (we've certainly been very good at letting the wretched ground elder take over, and the cherry trees have gotten substantially taller in the years that we've lived here).

But I do like doing something physically difficult, and I like getting dirt under my fingernails. The other day I painted my fingernails, for the first time in about two years, with some nail polish I found lurking on my desk under some papers. It's a funny purple colour, and it chipped almost instantly, for which I was relieved: I'd like to be somebody who wears nail polish, but the reality is that it made me feel a little too much like not-myself. Maybe someday, I think, and idly chip some more away as I sit on the couch reading.


Sometimes whole days go by when I don't talk to anyone. It's quite easy to do: if the Man is in London and the postman doesn't need me to sign for anything and I don't need to go to the shop around the corner for milk or bread or butter, and I don't have plans for the evening or money to go to the pub, who would I speak to? Sometimes people will come by trying to sell us things, or at least trying to sell us ideas. One day a man came to the door, wanting to tell me about how he could insulate our loft for free.

"I'm not trying to sell you anything," he said.

"I don't think you are," I said, although it was obvious that I did think he was, and moreover obvious that I was not prepared to be persuaded to think anything else. I looked at the card in my hand: FREE!, it said. It had a URL printed across the front, too, but I knew I would not look at the website, even though our house probably could do with some more, or better, insulation. I leaned against the doorframe, as if to take up more space, to assert my place, and told him I'd have to ask my landlady. He promised he'd come back later, but he never did, I guess because he knew I wasn't going to ask my landlady.


We have lunch and listen to The Archers. I return to my desk. It's still raining. I haven't been outside yet. I was planning to mop the kitchen floor today, but I think maybe the rain gives me an excuse not to, though I would no doubt have found an excuse anyway. I don't think we'll ever be tidy people, really. We'll never have pristine white carpets or the kind of house where everything has its place and then resides, meekly, obediently in that place. Here everything is always spilling out, spilling over. I've spilled red wine on my yellow slippers from Fez. The sauce has bubbled up and stained the stovetop red. The books spill off the shelves, slip off the mantlepiece. When it hails, the hailstones come down through the chimneys, invading, transgressing. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by the neediness of a house, all the things that need doing, maintaining, but today, and most days, this effort seems like a small price to pay for shelter and warmth, for being able to sit and watch the rain.

When I was growing up, I used to like climbing the hill beside our house. From halfway up you could look down and see the human face of the house, the jagged staircase-nose and the uneven window-eyes.

Rilke, as quoted in Bachelard:

(House, patch of meadow, oh evening light Suddenly you acquire an almost human face You are very near us, embracing and embraced.)

Akiko Busch, in Geography of Home:

When one of my sons first started to color pictures, the house he drew as an imprecise shape, between a circle and a square, with two windows hovering near the top and a door floating somewhere between them. The resemblance of this outline of a simple house to the human face was unmistakable. […] And it occurs to me that this primitive rendering captures the way we imprint ourselves on the places we live.