A Reorganized Sense of Order
MY office has always been my sanctuary. Ever since I began my profession, I have been fortunate to have a space to call my own and secretaries who have been there to give me a temporary buffer from the phone; one press of the button, a few words, and I am alone for an hour to read, write, or meditate.My office is lined with bookshelves, the contents of which my memory distills perpetually for the kernels that meet my needs. Paintings, prints, and photos fill the walls, along with diplomas in a language I cannot read but for which I sweated out every syllable and Roman numeral. Within my peripheral vision as I look at the screen of my word processor is a picture of Wabash Avenue in Chicago, taken from above the elevated train and looking south past Marshall Field's, the Palmer House, and the big bright curved red arrow of a parking lot where we used to put the car 25 years ago when Mom and Dad decided to go shopping. I was able to stand there under that train and that red arrow and feel the exhilaration of stepping out beyond the boundaries of my childhood. Little did I know then how much I would come to crave silence and sanctuary, and how lucky I would be to choose work that is both very much involved in that loud, exhilarating public world yet affords me daily a place to recoup - in my office. Several years ago all of this changed for a while. I married, and when my secretary quit, my wife and I decided that she would be well-suited for the job. She was, and things went smoothly until we started having babies. One child in the office was fine. Rachel could sleep in her basket or crawl around while Barbara did her work; the office was not the sort of place where many people came in, and at her $4.50 an hour no one was likely to complain about the arrangement. But then our son Jeremy was born an d with him came the dilemma of what to do with two very small children in the office. We decided that Rachel would come in with me, that we could set her up with toys in my office and let her play while I did my work. I realized that this was probably the best way to get through this phase of our lives, and I approached the change from sanctuary to quasi-nursery with a pioneering spirit. SO often, I find, things don't work out ... but then they do. Early in our experiment I was busy at my work and Rachel was on the floor, presumably playing. I got absorbed in what I was doing and forgot to make my habitual glance at her every few minutes. Finally, I heard a noise. I looked around and she had emptied my lower desk drawer of its finest letterhead stationery. And she had been blowing her nose in it. I looked at her and felt what I am sure many women who have children at home feel when the children draw pictures on the living room walls with indelible markers or poke a hole in the sofa with a pencil found somewhere that even the best baby-proofing mom had not looked. I felt that I had lost my space. I was about to blow up, not so much from anger as anxiety about how to make my space mine again and orderly again. But then I looked at the child, how she had found a way to take care of her need and I realized something. I realized that I had a pretty narrow definition of the word "order." "Order" had been the arrangement I had made of my special room. But as I looked at her and the mess she had made while coping with her runny nose, I began to think that maybe Augustine was right about "order" being something that proceeds from love, of order not only being about the arrangements of my outer world but of my inner life, and especially my relationships to others. Even as I wanted my office back, I felt a deep bond to my child who had coped pretty well with her runny nose. I picked up the fine stationery and put it in the garbage. The room was back in "order." I stopped my work and picked up Rachel, got out the Kleenex and joined in the blowing and wiping of a nose. Order, in both senses of the word, was working. The children are in school now. And I have my office sanctuary in a city far away from where we were when they were small. I still tell my secretary to hold my calls so I can get the quiet that I need to survive. But I know that quiet is not all I need in my quest for an "orderly" existence. As much as I need solitude, I also need to be in the presence of what I cannot control, of other people. I need to learn to live an orderly life, at its deepest level.