John Halstead’s post “Re-placing Ourselves” contains that blend of an animist worldview with Wendell Berry-style thinking about place and rootedness that I find very satisfying. I highly recommend it.
I like it so much, in fact, that I considered splitting this into two posts so that it wouldn’t seem like the following is a criticism—but it provides a perfect context for what I want to say.
Over the past couple of years, several writers I respect have, in varying degrees, criticized remote work in terms of its placelessness and dehumanizing character. I understand the criticism. My problem with it is entirely a matter of my own subjective experience of remote work.
I began working from home in March 2020 and continue to do so. (Most people working for my employer are hybrid at this point.) It has improved my life in a number of ways. I will admit up front that, although I have always been an introvert, I may actually be worse at large social events than I was before. So maybe remote work has caused me to lose some of the social skill of navigating large events comfortably.
But I’m totally fine with that, given the benefits. In the context of this post, remote work has integrated me into the life of my own household in a way that I have never experienced before. My wife Rachel is a homemaker 1, so this means we’re normally within 20 feet of each other 24 hours a day. We talk all the time, including discussions of what’s going on with my work (poor thing). During the growing season, I can take a break from work and go see what the plants are doing. I can get a sense of what’s happening in the neighborhood.
The locus of my life is now here, at home. My mind is obviously occupied with work for the same amount of time per day, but it feels more integrated into the life of the household. I can watch the birds in the tree outside my window during the many, many Teams and Zoom meetings.
I no longer go to work, driving my car ninety minutes a day with all its attendant emissions, spending money on gasoline and lunch costs. I do not doubt that many people have socializing experiences at work, feeling connected to people and making friends. I’ve never been that way. I do have a friend at work and I genuinely value the people on my team. But I’ve always had the “it’s just a job” attitude toward work. Despite being good at my job, I’ve never found—and never expected to find—meaning in it. It’s always been the way I make money to live my real life, which is undoubtedly why it’s always been a “non-place” for me.
A non-place, for Halstead, is a location that does not have “depth and complexity of history and relationships.” My employer does have that depth and complexity for certain people, but not for me. Remote work, then, means that I can stop traveling every day to a non-place and instead remain in a place with a great deal of history and complexity. By being here, I am nurturing and deepening my relationship to it. My work still gets done. In fact, my team is better than ever. (The problems that people attribute to remote work are almost always the result of bad management.)
I do understand the criticism and concerns of people life John Halstead and Charles Eisenstein and Alan Jacobs. I am very aware of the increasing artificiality of life in a high-tech world. On the issue of remote work, however, my lived experience does not square with their concerns. This is almost certainly because of the particularities of my history and personality—but then that’s always the case. We can’t let our theories get in the way of actual practice. We have to keep in mind our actual goals, which are (quoting Halstead):
Real places. Places with history. Places that are bound up in a network of relationships with the human and more-than-human world. And if we are ever to find one another again, we have to find real places again. We have to reclaim them. We have to restore them. And we have to re-place ourselves in them again.
Our domestic arrangement has spanned several large changes in our 25+ years of life together. When we first married, we were raving fundamentalists. The wife at home just was God’s will. We left fundamentalism about six years after marriage and we continued the arrangement because it worked for us. Rachel homeschooled Darcy through eighth grade. Darcy is now eighteen. We expect to continue this arrangement, again, because it works for us, despite neither of us being any sort of Christian for ten years now. It’s unusual for a couple who are progressive on social issues, but we also strongly believe in “live and let live.” ↩︎