TOAST Magazine

The Role of Home

RITUAL & REFLECTION

Elizabeth Metcalfe discusses the role of the home and navigating new realities.

For almost the last four years, a half-hour cycle has been my buffer between work and home. Cycling in London isn’t always idyllic, but these twice-daily trips constitute precious decompression time – time to let my mind wander, to let priorities shift, to let worries slide.

Six months ago, we moved to north London and my new route home took me up Portland Place, past John Nash’s stucco-fronted terraces in Regent’s Park and through Camden. Through the course of the cycle, I feel my focus shifting, and by the time I turn the corner onto our street, deadline worries have often been replaced with trivial domestic concerns. Somehow, the physical process of cycling allows me to compartmentalise these two parts of life – they exist apart, at either end of the cycle.

Like many people, I am currently working from our flat. And suddenly the dialogue between work and home has closed up into more of a monologue where the two can’t help but encroach on one another. Our flat, like homes across the country, has become the place where every element of life happens – a place to work, exercise and (virtually) socialise, as well as eat, sleep and relax. At first, it was an exciting prospect. I saw it as a sort of creative retreat: a chance to finally make a curtain to hide an unsightly set of shelves, to sow some vegetable seeds on our small roof space, and to cook time consuming recipes that I could never quite be bothered with. I’ve always found cooking – the process of assembling ingredients and transforming them into a meal – a grounding and rather reassuring activity.

But, there was also the reality of how our flat could ever properly fulfil these new expectations. Although many writers work from home, I have always enjoyed the office environment – it’s mainly the camaraderie, but also the fact I can leave at the end of each day. I’m grateful to have a full-time job, and my office has found form at a desk in front of our living room window. But the chair is too low and since it’s just me (my husband is a gardener and is still able to work), I’ve found myself moving around daily in search of a better spot. By 4 o’clock, I’ve almost always relocated to the kitchen sofa, glowing and warm in the afternoon sun. The downside of not having a fixed workspace is that I now associate almost every part of our flat with work: it creeps into evenings and I find myself picking up my laptop to reply to emails while I’m waiting for supper to cook.

Home is no longer just a place to retreat to: we are expecting it to work a lot harder than we’d perhaps ever imagined. I’ve looked on enviously at my friends who were able to escape to the countryside at the beginning of lockdown – they have space and the chance to go for a long walk often without encountering anyone. But, equally, I have found myself taking comfort from our flat: it’s our little stronghold, standing up to the new order really quite well. The lack of external stimuli has sharpened my appreciation of our home: of the pretty fabrics that we chose for blinds and curtains, of the beautifully glazed mugs we brought back from our honeymoon in Andalucia, of the sofa that we ummed and ahhed over for more than a few weeks. I am realising more than ever how our decorative choices – however frivolous they may seem in these difficult times – have the power to lift spirits and bring joy. The twentieth century architect and designer Josef Frank, who is best known for the lively textile designs that he created for Swedish brand Svenskt Tenn, believed that if you liked everything in your home, everything would be okay. Frank knew hardship – he moved to Sweden when he was forced to flee Hitler’s Europe in the Thirties – but, and probably in response to this, his design philosophy centred around comfort and homeliness. I, for one, share his belief that a home can be much more than the sum of its parts: it can bring joy, contentment and clarity.

The reality is that while our digital worlds have expanded, our physical realities have shrunk. I am noticing the little things – the Dawn chorus, which I can’t recall having ever heard before in London, now seems to regularly wake me. Perhaps it is due to the lack of planes overhead, but I’m also much more connected with my immediate surroundings. I’m grateful that we somehow had the foresight to plant tulip bulbs last November, as it’s now become a daily ritual to inspect their progress. I’ve noticed how the Sweet Chestnut on our street is gradually coming into leaf, just as the cherry blossoms are fading.

I’ve found the greatest satisfaction comes from the simplest of pleasures. A morning run across Hampstead Heath sets me up for the day, while I’ve found that early evening baths are quite a good way to draw a line under work. The restorative powers of a hot bath are well-known, and as Cassandra Mortmain observes in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, ‘life suddenly looks much better than it did’ after just a few minutes in a hot bath. Window-gazing has become my new hobby: it’s not that I’m hankering to be in the outside world, more that I seem to have become fascinated with our surroundings. The black cat sauntering across the road, the leaves of the lime tree twinkling in the evening sun, the blackbird optimistically surveying our blueberry tree in the hope that it could provide some fodder – these are happy sights that I’d barely recognised before. Strangely, I don’t feel cooped up. If anything, I feel apprehensive about what a return to normality will mean.

Words and imagery by Elizabeth Metcalfe. Elizabeth is Deputy Features Editor at House & Garden.

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