A Retreat

sketches for studyAs I get older and busier, I seem to increasingly value quiet spaces. I always loved them, but now they seem more vital to me than ever. So I seek them out constantly. It’s important to note that it is, as they say, all relative. My whole house is a quiet space in a quiet part of a neighbourhood, which is itself in a relatively quiet part of the city. Nevertheless, I’ve been monitoring my working patterns of late and noticed quite a bit of fragmentation, which bothers me a lot. Sure, a lot of it is self-inflicted (email, blogging, and so forth can always be managed better – that’s another issue to discuss), but some of it has to do with finding good spaces to work, depending upon the type of mood and type of work to hand.

I’ve lots of favourites, and many of them are cafes and bars around the city, some places on campus (my office is not high on that list though), the odd bench in a park here and there, and so forth. But those are mostly for working in my “public space” mode. Sometimes I want to work in a different mode, or sometimes I want to just stay home with all the various things I have to hand for the task in hand. Then it is very mood and season dependent. There are spaces outside (patios, gardens, steps, etc), which work for a while, and I can end up stretched out on the sofa in front of a nice picture window in the living room. These are all good, but it’s a bit rootless and random, and sometimes none of them are what fits my mood – and I end up off to one of the public spaces.

That mood I am often in requires a smaller space. Much less open than the rest of the house, or a public space. Those are good for when there is desire for flow. Sometimes one wants less flow and more simmering, as it were. This means a tighter space that is more static, and one that is more purposed for the task in hand, with a closer surround of the tools and symbols of the task I perform in my work – books, papers, pens, pencils, and so forth. All grouped around a desk. Doing desk work at the kitchen or dining room table is great for me, but it is too open sometimes, and also I end up with that table looking like a desk, and then I have to clear it when I want to use the table, or have visitors. I’d like to be able to stand up and walk away from the work, do other things, and come back and there it is exactly as I left it. I don’t want to have to clear it away for other use and break the spell surrounding whatever I’m doing.

Well, what I’m talking about is obviously a study. I have one. Why am I not using it? Well, I found myself asking the same question in November. The room designated as the study is in fact the place that those piles of paper from the kitchen table get cleared away to. Then they build up, along with all the other stuff, and the room is just an unusable dumping ground. There were other reasons too. The windows in that room were terrible glass louvres, cracked, cloudy, misaligned, and leaking air, making the room dim, cold and draughty. Furthermore, while there was some space for books, the existing shelving was unappealing (metal stackable units) and inadequate (in terms of capacity). There was no space to move books around, as everything was so crammed together, and/or in several different places. The stacks of unsorted stuff also covered a desk. The desk is pretty good – I was given it by some friends who moved away from the neighbourhood last year, and it marked the first step in the improvement of the study, but it was a step that got no further due to all the other issues. The room was just not a good place to sit.

So I decided to do something about it. I sat and stood in the room for a while and faced in different directions to get a feel for it. Yes, the window needs work. There’s potential there. This could go from being the worst room in the house to the best (or one of the best) rooms by simply transforming the window. As usual with my projects I start small and end up much bigger. So re-aligning and repairing the louvres as a solution quickly went out of the window (as it were) and the idea of large sashes that I could swing open on a nice day and let in plenty of air and sun and reach out and touch the garden just a few inches beyond began to grow in my mind. This would mean a lot of work. What type of window would I have there? What could I afford? What was feasible? What was here originally?

Then I turned inwards to the rest of the room. I needed bookcases. Proper ones of real wood. Tall ones. To get exactly what I wanted would be hard to find, and (as is often the case with real wood bookcases) ridiculously expensive. What to do?

Well, as it is with my research, the next step is usually sketching and doodling to build the vision. I quickly went from doodles to more detailed sketches and designs.

sketches for study

(Part of the series of sketches for the bookcase design, along with rough computations and quantities before pricing stage.).

          sketches for study    sketches for study

(Sketches for bookcase layouts, concept for new window and how I might use it with a second sitting space away from the desk. – Click for larger view).

With tape measure, notepad and pencil, I was able to craft on paper what I wanted to suit the space, and prepare to do it all. Of course, I’d be not just the architect but the master builder and craftsman in this little scheme – where’s the fun and learning in getting someone else to do it?

workbenchAs you can see from the photo above right, I’m done. I thought I’d show you a tease of the finished project (almost – there’s yet a painting of some sort to be hung above the desk at some point), and then take a few blog posts to tell you a bit about how I got there, before showing you the end product. In fact, you’ve already seen the first of these posts, since for the things I need to do, I needed a proper workbench, and over Thanksgiving, I built one.

I’ve steered away from writing this blog post in the study, even though that room is now complete, for two reasons. The first is that the room is meant to be a retreat. A retreat from the rest of the house, and also the rest of the world. This will include the web and the internet, as much as I can. I want to go in there and hide away from all that too. I’m helped in this by the fact that for some reason my laptop does not pick up the wireless very strongly (if at all) in that room. Metal laptops have a more restricted range, I’ve noticed, and this is to my advantage in this, because my printer/scanner/copier device has no trouble picking it up, and it lives in the study (incorporated in the design/layout). The second is that my study was not constructed for email or blogging, but for all my other work, science (primarily), with thinking, sketching, writing, and so forth. So I want to “season” it with doing some some of that in there first, not anything else. Yeah, I’m a bit weird that way.

So there it is. That was my big non-physics project I kept mentioning. I could only chip away at it bit by bit since I was still in the strong current of the semester after Thanksgiving, leaving me only a few days to complete everything before my visitors arrived. (My plans to have everything done before they arrived – to give me a retreat to get some work done during the visit – did not work out.) Once they arrived, my priorities were to spend time with them, of course, and it went back to part time. But it is now done.



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5 Responses to A Retreat

  1. Jude says:

    Carefully planning your work space is extremely important. At my library, I have *four* work spaces, and I still haven’t figured out which functions should be restricted to which space. Occasionally, I pack it all up and throw it in a drawer or a cabinet to deal with at some undetermined future date–probably next week when, after 3 months, I finally have some help.

    Congratulations on making a retreat in your home.

  2. I’m exactly the same — the right workspace is *so* important. Unfortunately I don’t have a desk in my room at the mo which is annoying (although I’m not that good at working in my room anyway, but in student flats, it’s the only place you can make “yours”), but I’ll have one in my new flat. I often work in cafes and pubs and things.

    I often think about disappearing off to the countryside, just me with a tent, to someplace with no mobile phone signal, no computer, and just sitting there with my books and pens and paper. A study seems a good second best.


  3. Clifford says:

    Oh… I do the disappearing off with the tent too (see earlier posts). But as I said in the post in more detail… for certain types of work, wide open spaces and nature just won’t do. Need a more closed space.



  4. I’ve seen your earlier posts, and envy you the escapes. I go camping occasionally, in the summers, but not as a “disappearing off to think and work” thing, and always with other people. But I often think about going off on my own for a bit to think and work.

    I do understand about the different types of work and different types of places. Sometimes big spaces seem too distracting for me. Although often when I’m working I need to get up and move about while I’m thinking about the next paragraph or result, and then I don’t want to be too closed in.

    Anyway, enjoy your study.


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