The first office space I ever “declared” was an unused room tucked down a short, weird hall in the first home I bought with my husband. The housing market had burst the year before, and many houses stood empty and bank owned, new neighborhoods left as half-completed ideas. In ours, bare roads curved like black snakes through hills of dry, unkept grass, which was dotted with knee-high PVC plumbing sprouting from the earth at measured intervals.
I didn’t claim an office in our new home right away. At the time of our move 45 minutes north of Atlanta, I ran an upscale consignment store in Decatur, Georgia, and between the hours and the commute, I had little need for an office at home. But I wanted one all the same – a sacred space where I could spread my weird all over, then hide it behind a closed door when company or my parents came by.
A few short months after moving in, I found out I was pregnant. Once my first daughter was born, I began working from home doing social media management and website development for small businesses. I struggled mentally after becoming a mother, slowly and deeply becoming utterly terrified of the world beyond my door. Finally, the quicksand I’d been fearing since childhood came for me: invisible and silent and paralyzing. I’ll get into that year-long journey (and many trips back and forth) one day, but for now, I’m going to focus on the evolution/de-evolution of the spaces I used to drag myself back from the brink.
The long and the short of it is that I used writing to reclaim control of the spiraling and intrusive thoughts that had made home in a postpartum mind plagued with crippling anxiety. But when someone tried to break into our house one morning with me and my daughter home alone, what little progress I’d made evaporated. We quickly moved to the end of a quiet, established street in a more rural area. I set up a new office, rooting that sense of control in decorating the space, arranging the furniture. Baby steps, bit by bit. Then came a real second baby, and my second office became a nursery to my second daughter.
I moved my office to a small, dark room that sat above the garage. The floor and walls would violently shake anytime the garage door went up and down, gears grinding like an early model steam engine. And my new baby was even louder. For the first four months of her life, she slept in 15-minute snatches, and screamed with a feral fury at life itself upon waking. Hell, sometimes I was jealous of her ability to just Let It All Out. How purifying it would be to stare life in the face and scream at the top of my lungs and with every fiber of my soul.
I was exhausted all the time. One time I fell asleep while standing. Still, it’s amazing what we can adapt to, and after about four months, we settled into a rhythm – which usually involved me chasing after her, since she was mobile at about five months and walking at eight months (her first steps taken down the aisle of an airplane, no less.) Finally, I felt like I was getting a handle on things. I felt ready to start writing again. I claimed a room in the unfinished basement got to work. I painted the walls a deep, bluish charcoal. I scoured yard sales for decorations and furniture. After a month of work, it was perfect. I had a space to call my own that no one would take. Then, one morning, I bent down to take the trash out, and the stench of it hit me straight in the uterus, and I nearly threw up. And once again, my office would become another nursery.
My second child was nine months old. My day job was running me ragged. My husband’s job was pulling him in ten different directions while slashing his pay. When we did see each other – which wasn’t often – we could barely stand the sight of each other. In one of the lower moments after a heated argument (the details of which I don’t remember at all,) he said to me: our marriage could be perfect if you didn’t write.
I was blindsided. I was also at a crossroads. So was he. Something had to give, and we both knew it.
He was scheduled to attend a medical conference in Austin, Texas, and we decided I would go with him. I needed a break from the hamster wheel of stay-at-home-motherhood, and, truth be told, we wanted to see if we still liked each other in an environment that was going to be about as stress free as we were going to get.
The good news: we were both convinced we still liked each other. The scary news: we realized his job could still potentially cost us our marriage if he stayed where I was. The sign: on a job posting board at the conference, a clinic in rural Oregon was looking for a surgeon, and the headline on the post was: BALANCE YOUR WORK AND FAMILY LIFE.
"It's in Oregon," he said, his face somewhere between mystified and horrified.
“I don’t care,” I said.
In April, after extensive interviews of us both with every partner in the clinic, he took the job. We spent the spring paring down, selling anything we didn’t see the value in sending 3000 miles across the country. My office, my perfect office, was boxed up and swept clean of any sign of me and my weird. My son was born in May, coming nearly a month early after I zapped myself with hot wire juiced up strong enough to make a breeding bull hesitate (IYKYK.)
We spent the first week after his birth at my parents’ house while we updated the kitchen, living room, and flooring in our house to make it more appealing in a saturated market. Our house listing went live, and we showed it more than thirty times in the first two weeks. Two full priced offer contracts and a bidding war fell through. We needed the money to move, but we didn’t have time to wait for a top dollar price. My husband was set to begin his new job in September, and we were desperate for a place to call home. Mid-month, he flew to Oregon with my father in hopes of finding a house for us in a market made nearly impossible by an influx of California investors and a recent total legalization of marijuana in the state.
When I say there were no rentals available within the required 20-minute drive of the hospital to be in accordance with his job by-laws, that is a literal statement. There were none. We would also have to find a buyer that was willing – even in an extreme sellers’ market – to go under contract with us on a contingency and also let us move in before closing. It all seemed deeply, staggeringly impossible.
At the time that his plane took off that morning, there were 14 open listings for sale inside the drive-time that would feasibly accommodate a family of 5, our search parameters including anything with at least 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. By the time the realtor picked them up at the airport that afternoon, there were 9. On the second day, he found a dated, 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom home on 5 acres. It was significantly above our budget, but it was the only thing even close to what we’d wanted. It also had multiple offers on the table. My husband made an offer, and I wrote a letter to the seller, pleading mother to mother with her to trust us – these strangers from Georgia – that we wouldn’t back out, wouldn’t make her life hard, wouldn’t trash her property, that we would call it home. By some miracle, she agreed, and three months later, we moved 3000 miles west with a 5-year-old, a nearly 2-year-old, a 3-month-old, 2 dogs, an aquarium, and a butterfly bush I’d dug up from the yard and stuck in a pot because I couldn’t bear to leave it behind. The move deserves its own post, and this is already way longer than I’d intended, so for now I’ll just say it was a series of low and high key disasters, but we made it.
The house was small enough that we had to use shower curtains in the foyer to create a makeshift “nursery” until we could YouTube enough videos to feel comfortable building an actual wall and framing in a door, and for months we had to tiptoe down the hall any time my infant son was sleeping. My workspace toggled back and forth between the kitchen counter and a table set under a window in the hay loft above the barn when it wasn’t one million degrees or absolutely freezing outside. It was on that contractor grade kitchen counter that I wrote Silence on Cold River, with Dora the Explorer and Blippi playing in the background on a loop. I signed my contract with my first agent there, then, six months later, signed a publishing deal with Pegasus Crime. We went out for ice cream at Baskin Robbins. I had finally, finally done it.
As I worked through edits and counted down to publication day, I had visions of adding on a room off our bedroom – a sunroom/greenhouse type space where I could surround myself with potted plants and hang prisms and create my next story. I would build myself an office.
Life had other plans.
My parents had been wanting to move west to be closer to us and help with my kids, but the first few years of building my husband’s practice hadn’t been easy. He’d taken a second job to cover bills, and I was cleaning stalls and helping with other people’s horses every weekend. Now that it looked like we’d be staying in the area, my parents were ready to make a move of their own. That December, my mother spotted another property on Zillow – a place with more land and two home sites, which is a rare commodity in this county. Just to entertain her, we agreed to go look at it. The property was incredible, and when my husband walked through the house we would be living in, the pride in his eyes was all I could see. My children and my parents were equally enchanted.
But there was a catch.
The property also came with a horse boarding farm – which meant I’d be sharing my home with approximately 15 people I’d never met before, who all had been there longer than I had, and who would be by daily to check on their horses. In my heart, it was a dealbreaker. There was no longer a boundary between the World and my home – the world could come and go whenever they pleased. But I also knew that I could not stand in the way. My parents needed this. My husband needed this. My kids could grow up in a place that belongs on a postcard.
The decision to move had to be unanimous or it was a non-starter. I did not want to move, but I said yes. And to say one quick note about the actual topic of this blog post: no, the new house did not have a natural space for an office.
Then, three months later, Covid-19 took the world by the throat. The world literally shut down a day after we’d closed on the purchase of the home with my parents in Iceland and my husband’s job preparing him to go at least 4-6 months without a paycheck in an effort to keep the clinic doors open and the salaried and hourly staff paid as covid swept through our rural community. It ate hospital supplies, futures, plans, “normal life,” and, of course, it ate my book tour and all the in-person marketing opportunities and events planned for the release of Silence on Cold River – which came out quietly on May 5th, 2020.
All that time, all that work, all those offices and firm surfaces to bear down on, and release day came and went with barely a word. The one token of celebration was an orchid my husband bought on the way home from work after I reminded him that it was release day – but failed to remind him that the only plant I don’t like… is an orchid.
With my kids home from school for a year and deadlines to meet, I had to create a space to call an office – I place to say: if mommy is here, it means she’s working. I stuck a table under a window in my bedroom and called it a day. Maybe a no-fanfare approach would make this space last longer than any of its predecessors. At least that was the hope.
Publishing itself ground to a halt. Paper and cardboard were nowhere to be found. Neither was my focus or my inspiration. On low days, I would sneak into my closet and touch the dresses I’d bought second-hand for the southeast tour I never got to take. On even lower days, I’d fetch cookie dough from the fridge first. And on days when I was being really, brutally honest with myself, I began to realize that what I liked to write (when I could actually manage to put words down) and what my agent liked to read were two different things. But I held fast to the hope that we could make it work. I could rise, write like she wanted, stay in my southern thriller brand, keep swinging for the fences. And swinging. And swinging. I would grow to fit every need required of me.
Here's the thing about growth. It’s hard. Really, really hard. Some days it takes all that you’ve got. There’s nothing happy or peaceful about it. I imagine a seed, that safe shell cracking, exposing every hope and dream of becoming something more to all the things you need and all the things that would prefer to eat you first. Then, if you survive that part, you make a slender, fragile, thread of a stem, and push through the earth itself to daylight, and you hope to the gods you don’t get crushed by a boot or consumed by the oversized jack rabbit that hops up the hill from the neighbor’s field and accosts your environment each dusk.
In my career, I felt like that seedling, my head just above the ground, neck exposed, not strong enough to prop myself up, easily felled by too much water or quickly burned to a crisp by not enough. My agent and I might still have been figuring out how to find the middle on the two manuscripts I had in her queue, but I was safe within the care of her proverbial garden.
Until I wasn’t.
The first week of May brought about two storms: a literal windstorm that tore a section of the roof off our house, and a career in the storm sense as my agent let me know she was leaving the agency, and that I was free to pursue new representation. That night, I ate cookie dough for dinner. I drug myself upstairs to my bedroom. I reached for the light switch, then paused, realizing I could hear running water, but no one was in the upstairs bathroom. It was coming from the ceiling in my room. The section of roof destroyed by the windstorm was right over my office, and rain was pouring from the air vent above my “desk.”
“IS THIS A SIGN?” I whispered to the water, to the dark, to the empty table where I hadn’t managed to sit down and work in weeks. For days, I wondered if I just needed to hang it up. Maybe I was just almost good enough, and that was it. Maybe I was tired of pushing, of growing, swinging and trying and failing and smiling through it all. So unbelievably tired.
This week, a crew came to reroof our house. A second crew was there to strip out the rotting floor in the downstairs bathroom and assess the ceiling above my desk for a patch repair and mold treatment. The sound was bone rattling as the old stuff was stripped away and new material hammered down. Pictures fell off the walls. Hundred-year-old windowpanes shook in their frames, and at one point I was sure the windows across the back of the house would not survive the new roof going on. My brain threatened to leak out of my ears.
On a whim, I gathered the few items on my desk that make it still feel like my weird little space and I walked them down the gravel driveway to a tiny, unused room on the front of the main barn that the seller said she’d never been able to unlock even though she knew she had the right key. I grabbed the key. The deadbolt turned like it had been waiting two years for me to figure it out. There was a dry erase board on the back wall, a single wire shelf on the side wall, and a long table beneath a window on the front wall. I very nearly cried.
The roofers finished yesterday, but I won’t be bringing my office back inside my house. When I need to write and can’t slip away, I can use a kitchen counter or the dining room table. But now, when I have the opportunity, I can walk down a little gravel road to a door that would only open for me to a room no one else wants or needs, and maybe, just maybe, it’ll stay that way. And now that I am a wild seedling on my own once more, I can figure out exactly what it is that I’m trying to produce, and I can begin to grow again.