Pottering, anyone? Hours at home spark unexpected creativity, connections.

Why We Wrote This

Conducting work and school from home comes with plenty of difficulties, but that confluence has also spurred creativity and connections. And it has led people to find peace in simpler, even slightly unnecessary, pleasures. 

Phil Noble/Reuters
With freedom of movement curtailed by the pandemic, a woman works on a jigsaw puzzle at her home in Manchester, England, on April 12, 2020.

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With the pandemic restricting movement and upending routines, home has become the hub for … well … just about everything. That shift has prompted what Megan Elias, director of the gastronomy program at Boston University, calls a “radical reimagining” not only of work and home but of life. People are asking, she says, “What is the work of life?”

In response to that question, many are finding creative and productive ways to spend their time stuck at home. Some are taking up new hobbies – from sewing to bread making to guitar playing. Others are completing long-overlooked home improvement projects. For many, these activities afford more than a way to while away the time. They foster calm and even family unity.

Yet, while celebrating these activities, author Anna McGovern would caution against too narrow a focus on results. Instead, she recommends pottering – meandering seamlessly from one task to another without much thought. “[T]he important thing with pottering, she says, “is that you derive pleasure from those things – and they are slightly unnecessary.” Doing inconsequential tasks “can somehow help you feel a bit peaceful,” she adds.  

Anna McGovern has been spending a lot of time in her front garden in northeast London, deadheading here, tidying up a weedy corner there. She’s never been much of a vegetable grower, but with long hours at home during the lockdown, she managed to coax from the earth tomatoes, herbs, squash, and potatoes. One day, a neighbor she sees regularly from a distance passed by and asked for a handful of young butternut squash leaves. She wanted to add them to an African dish she was cooking at home. 

“I didn’t even know you could eat them,” says Ms. McGovern, who has been riding out the pandemic with her husband, two teens, and a preteen at home. That type of chance connection with her Zimbabwean neighbor is one of the unexpected delights that come with what she calls “pottering,” a British term for meandering seamlessly from one task to another without much thought. “It sort of connects you to your community and the people around you ­– and in a way that you can’t predict.” 

Pottering can also balance out the pressure to be productive. As people settle even more deeply into life and work and school at home, a gentle approach can help make the present more bearable and strengthen ties to your immediate surroundings – even if it is just saying hello from a distance to neighbors on their daily walks, says Ms. McGovern, whose new book, “Pottering. A Cure for Modern Life,” will be published next week. 

A “radical reimagining” of work and home

Months ago now, the pandemic forced people around the globe to shelter at home, abruptly ending regular routines. For many, connections to the outside world were reduced to reports of rising fatalities and frantic searches for toilet paper. Then came news of job losses, a sinking economy, and stressed-out parents trying to educate their children. 

People confined to personal spaces suddenly saw their environs in a new light. DIY sewing projects took on such force that Singer Corp. reports a huge surge in global demand for sewing machines. Next came an army of “pandemic bakers,” clearing yeast from grocery shelves by early April. Soon gardening centers were reporting record sales, home improvement projects took off, and toymakers ran out of 1,000-piece puzzles. By the end of the summer, Fender Guitar reported its biggest year of sales in history.

“There’s some sort of radical reimagining” happening at home, says Megan Elias, director of the gastronomy program at Boston University and the author of books about the history of food and home economics. “What is work and what is life? And what is the work of life? … Discovering that you can make things has been really therapeutic for people because it gives you some control.”

Turning from the ugly to create something lovely

Carla Mackey of Bainbridge Island, Washington, says when the quarantine first started, all she could do was feel anxious and worried. “I was looking at way too much news,” says Ms. Mackey. But it was her husband, Doug, who had the idea to retrieve the sewing machine from the closet. “He started looking at YouTube videos,” Ms. Mackey explains, “and he taught himself how to recover all the seat cushions on his boat using my old sewing machine, which I [didn’t] know how to use.” 

Once Ms. Mackey’s husband finished his project, he taught her how to thread the bobbin and work the pedal. First, she made a set of plush monster pillows as a fun surprise for her son and his roommates in New York City. Then she moved on to a pink linen dress for herself with a matching mask.

“There’s something just kind of therapeutic about working with your hands because you can’t let your mind drift off to something else” like the news, says Ms. Mackey, who listens to music while she sews. “That relaxation can hang with you for a while, even after you stop. ... I feel as though there’s so much in the world that’s ugly right now. If you can just feel like you’re making something lovely, that feels good.”

Charlotte Ager/Courtesy of Laurence King Publishing Ltd
"Pottering. A Cure for Modern Life" with illustrations by Charlotte Ager.

Embracing the family from afar

For others, a silver lining of all this time at home has been stronger family connections. Kathy Thomas, an executive at Half Price Books, a chain of bookstores based in Dallas, was worried about keeping her business afloat when the company furloughed 80% of its staff and faced the very real possibility of going out of business.

“I personally needed an escape and something fun to do,” says Ms. Thomas. But instead of learning how to play the guitar or buying a new game, she decided to make one. Ms. Thomas organized her 11 nieces and nephews to contribute ideas for Texas-focused bingo boards. One niece drew folk art game pieces featuring cowboy boots, rattlesnakes, and seashells reminiscent of the Texas scenes they were missing, and her daughter-in-law completed the overall design. 

“I wanted to get everyone involved. I wanted everyone to feel a part of this” as a way for the family to stay in touch when they couldn’t get together, says Ms. Thomas. Back at work now, she is hoping to find a distributor to market and sell their game. At the very least, the 32 people in her extended family will get one as a Christmas gift.

But don’t worry if you run out of home projects or creative ideas for connecting with family and friends. Having a finished product to show for your time isn’t always necessary. Ms. McGovern, the author, says sometimes it helps to just take your foot off the gas and – potter. Fill a pepper grinder with peppercorns. Oil a squeaky cabinet hinge. A sequence of tiny household tasks can feel as restorative as stretching out in a yoga pose or checking off an item on your to-do list.

It’s not so much what you do but the flowing approach without attachment to results that’s restful for mind and body, notes Ms. McGovern. “[T]he important thing with pottering is that you derive pleasure from those things – and they are slightly unnecessary. You don’t have to do them. But you quite like doing them,” Ms. McGovern says. Doing inconsequential tasks “can somehow help you feel a bit peaceful,” she adds.

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