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A Time to Sow, A Time to Reap
A curious little objet d’art helps me remember
I’m not all work and no play

Text by Sharon Niederman
Photographs by Jeff Edgar

At a holiday grab bag last Christmas, I brought home what seemed the most useless objet d’art ever made. The 6- by 6- inch present I picked, wrapped neatly in bright angel-printed foil, must have been sitting awhile in someone’s drawer of things nobody wanted, taking up space, just waiting to be recycled. While others around me opened their presents, exclaiming like kids receiving party favors over bottles of wine, new journals and herbal lotions, I tore off the wrapping paper, held up my gift and said, “What is it?”

I held in my hand a plump little purple velveteen pillow trimmed in gold with a handle on the top and three little gold bells on the bottom. On one side was embroidered the words, “At work,” while the other side, naturally enough, read, “At play.” As I studied the object, I figured out how the handle was intended to fit over a doorknob, like a “Do not disturb” or “Please clean the room” sign.
The little pillow was too pretty to toss in the trash, so I brought it home and set it in a pile I keep on a lower kitchen shelf — my purgatory of papers — with flyers, announcements, postcards and other assorted items I intend to deal with “later.” Every few months, when the pile threatens to spill over on the floor, I go through it ruthlessly and throw out everything I possibly can. This year, however, during my January purge, despite a fit of New Year’s resolution get-organized fervor, I could not bring myself to toss the odd little object. I rescued it from the pile and hung it on my office doorknob, where it remains, having finally reached its karmic destiny.

A little ritual

Little did I know that the purple pillow would, next to my tangerine iBook, become one of my more valuable working tools. It looked so cute hanging from my doorknob that I actually started turning it to “At work,” when I entered my office and back to “At play” when I left at the day’s end. I liked the jingle the tiny bells made when I turned it, a small announcement of my status, letting me know, at least, where I stood in relation to the deadlines, phone calls, faxes and emails that make up my work day. If I was going to knock off early and watch “Oprah,” it let me know that too.

Like many people who work at home alone, I don’t have the rituals of the workplace to inform me when it’s time for a break or for lunch or for heading home. I create my own day with its own rituals, so my “useless” grab bag present has become an asset.

Working from home means it’s easy to work virtually all the time. At least when you’re an employee and you bring work home from the office, you know on some level you’re transgressing certain boundaries. At home, the boundaries are less clear. While you have the advantage — and the convenience — of waking up, drinking coffee and doing laundry while you’re tackling the day’s first round of email, you also have the down side of thinking you can always go into the office finish up a job after supper. In a sense, you’re never completely off.

You know you can always be working, and part of you says you ought to be. After all, you think, you don’t rely on a regular paycheck, only on your own industry and wit, and the longer and harder you work, the better off you will ultimately be. Right?

Setting boundaries

My pillow has become a friend in keeping me on track. Now, when I enter my office in the morning, I turn it to “At work” and announce where I stand. When I leave the office to go to the gym or meet a friend for lunch, I enjoy a light-hearted sense of clarity when I flip the pillow over to the “At play” sign, as I do on Friday afternoon. This little activity actually helps me keep my boundaries straight. When I’m “At work,” I’m aware that’s where my focus belongs; when I’m “At play,” I’m off and guilt-free. It helps me know where I stand with myself, and that is a very good feeling, indeed.

When a friend who had recently moved to another city visited recently, she told me her husband’s new job not only kept him at the office for 12-hour days, but when he came home, he could think and talk only about work. I demonstrated my pillow technique, and she wanted to know where she could get one. I thought briefly about passing my purple pillow on to her, but decided there was no way I could part with it.

This article was first published in the
July 2001 issue of Sage Magazine
in the Albuquerque Journal

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