Thoughts on Work During a Pandemic

My desk.

“It is a quotidian mystery that dailiness can lead to such despair and yet also be at the core of our salvation… We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing, and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are… we must look for blessings to come from unlikely, everyday places.”

—Kathleen Norris

I have been working from home now for nearly seven months. When the pandemic started, I expected perhaps 3 or 4. At Each+Every, we have found ways to carry on our projects, and have been blessed to continue working. In this era, the nature of work seems to have been thrown into turmoil—many people have lost jobs, paychecks, homes, and more. Working from home has forced me to examine my own working habits, and has put in the forefront of my mind the quotidian nature of what I do—its dailiness and repetition. As a designer, much of my work is inherently visible: color, typography, image, and light combined together to be viewed, read, perceived. But much of my work is also invisible: the planning, sketching, understanding, kerning, or adjusting of line-height to create good legibility. I recently finished reading Detail in Typography by Jost Hochuli. As a Swiss graphic designer known for his book design, Hochuli outlines the mundane aspects of any designer’s job: understanding the art and craft of creating good line heights, using the correct ligatures and numerals in various situations, kerning individual letterforms or adjusting wordspacing to increase legibility, or the proper ways to add spaces before a semi-colon or a question mark. In many ways, the unseen and unnoticed aspects graphic design help to mark a person as thoughtful or careless in their craft (I am often the latter).

In the midst of a pandemic though, these things often feel meaningless in comparison to more visible and well-known “design for good” projects with big impact. There are other facets of graphic design which have been elevated in our cultural consciousness, too: brands seek our attention at every turn, whether on a billboard or on Instagram. Graphic Design studios (ours included) flaunt our successful branding projects, and a culture of critiquing and reflecting on which studios or designers worked on which project has become a sort of popularity contest. We elevate “radical” and “world-changing” work above others. It’s easy to equate impact and beauty.

In the Beauty of Everyday Things, Soetsu Tanagi considers folk art craft objects which fill our everyday lives. Tanagi views folk craft objects as things that are made for daily use; things that are common and ordinary, made durably and sincerely. He especially admires the unknown craftsman which made these objects. I think most importantly, he sees an inherent spiritual dignity in the work itself, and the craftspeople which remain unknown in the sight of those who use an object they’ve made. He admires the sacred nature of the work and worker, and points out the way in which ordinary people making ordinary things is its own sort of beauty.

In my own life, I often want to separate the secular and the spiritual. My secular life is my work. My spiritual life is my own walk with God and my interactions with my church community. And yet the reality is that these are inseparably intertwined—impossible to untangle. Work itself is stewardship of our world, and a way in which God will shape our own heart. We are becoming in the same way in which we are fashioning the things we make. In Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren discusses the quotidian nature of the most mundane work: things like sending emails. Or perhaps for designers, something like setting margins and using the right quotation marks.

“Each kind of work is therefore its own kind of craft that must be developed over time, both for our own sanctification and for the good of the community. As we seek to do our work well and hone our craft, we are developed and honed in our work. Our task is not to somehow inject God into our work but to join God in the work he is already doing in and through our vocational lives.”

In these everyday moments we are being shaped—but our work does not define who we are. I hope that in 20 years that my work will grow better and better—but I also hope that I will be shaped into a better person in the process. When I was in college I read a lot of Brother Lawrence’s letters in “The Practice of the Presence of God.” Lawrence was a 17th century Carmelite friar, known for his active communion with God in the dailiness of his everyday work. Lawrence wrote, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen…I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”

A Quick Pause

With all of the change working through a pandemic has brought, I have been feeling pretty burned out. Katey suggested I ought to go camping for a night or two before the weather got colder. Found a beautiful spot on a tree farm to camp, cook over a fire, make endless pots of percolator coffee (decaf), read, rest, and walk for a couple of days. Thankful for this brief pause.

Exploring Ohio’s Nature Preserves

During covid, I've been trying to spend more time outdoors, and have been learning more about Ohio's native species and unique geology. While I've spent a lot of time in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I've only just begun visiting Ohio's state nature preserves. I've mostly visited the ones nearest me in northeast Ohio so far, but I feel like I've only begun to scratch the surface of all there is to see and learn about. The more I've visited these preserves, the more I've come to see how incredible Ohio's natural history is. When glaciers receded from the last ice age some 12,000 years ago, it left unique bogs and fens such as the Kent Bog and Herrick Fen, both of which are home to tamarack trees, highbush blueberries, or leatherleaf. There are more than 3,500 tamarack trees at the Kent Bog, the largest southernmost stand in the continental United States.

Glaciers also left Lake Erie with miles of coastal marshes and beaches. The Marsh, which is where Lake Erie "mingles" with waters that drain into the marsh, has recently undergone a huge restoration project to bring back native species, which has consequently brought a return of wildlife. I was able to see a smattering of wildlife and wildflowers: great egrets, great blue herons, tree swallows and purple martins, jerusalem artichoke, giant sunflower, purple coneflower, yarrow, queen anne's lace, white sweetclover, goldenrod, swamp rose mallow, and more. The Marsh is about 1,500 acres and is a unique feeding ground for fish and migratory birds. I'm only scratching the surface here, though. Just in 2019, some 204 species of birds have been spotted in the marsh.

Headlands Dunes is another unique environment consisting of highly specialized Atlantic Coast Plain species—which would've been established many thousands of years ago. Species such as sea rocket, beach pea, beach grass, and seaside spurge still persist. I had a hard time identifying some of these, but it's incredible to me that they still exist in Ohio today.

The Sense of Wonder

“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility. ”

—Rachel Carson

During my freshman year of college, I started visiting the Cuyahoga Valley National Park on a more regular basis. I loved finding new hikes, and being out in nature provided a space for reflection and solitude. I spent hours upon hours hiking all of the trails, identifying trees, looking for foxes. After a year or two of visiting, my enjoyment of nature began to fade—maybe I was preoccupied with school or other life happenings, but I started visiting less. When quarantine began this spring, it provided a pause, so I decided to pick-up wildflower and bird identification again—primarily as a way to rest and occupy my mind from the anxiety of everything going on.

Over the last three months of searching for birds and flowers though, I feel that God has given me an entirely new joy for the natural world. There is so much beauty that he is making during the summertime in Ohio. Living near a lake provides direct access to plants and wildlife that would normally take more time and effort to get to: the purple martins (some of which migrate as far as Sao Paulo, Brazil for the winter) and tree swallows as they chirp and swoop over the water lilies and pickerelweed on the edge of the lake; swimming beavers; the call of a red-winged blackbird; the flight of a great blue heron over the water. There are other wildflowers I typically don’t notice on my commutes, too: bird’s foot trefoil, chicory, day lilies, sweet clover, queen anne’s lace, red clover, or wild parsnip.

I recently listened to an audio version of Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder about introducing children to nature. Her thesis is that being in nature ought to be fun, and full of wonder, and that in turn this would lead children to want to learn about it—rather than going into nature with children to “teach” them. As a new parent it’s a profound essay, and one that I will surely return to often. I hope that as Arlo gets older, I'll be able to enjoy the wonder of nature with him. Already I see this inborn sense in him that Carson discusses—the desire to go outside, to explore our backyard, to run freely when we go to parks—there is a freshness and newness to everything he's experiencing. I remember for myself how quickly this dimmed as a child. There is one instance I remember in particular, probably before middle school, where I was angry at my mother because she wanted me to play outside rather than in our basement playing video games. In one sense this responsibility is invigorating, while in another, daunting. Who am I to teach Arlo about nature when I don't know very much myself? Anticipating this, Carson responds, “it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” My hope that this time of childhood will be a time to prepare the soil for this sense of wonder.

There is a small thread which connects this sense of wonder and daily life. I have been reading Liturgy of the the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren, and in a chapter about savoring daily moments of beauty, she quotes G.K. Chesterton on the child-like wonder of God:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

As each flower blooms, I imagine God intricately making each one with care and craftsmanship with a deep sense of joy. I hope that I will learn how to more deeply appreciate these things as if a child. It is a deep privilege to “bear witness,” as Marcia Bonta calls it, to this beauty, and to approach nature as if knowing nothing about it—with a sense of wonder at the hands of a good maker. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, the use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19: 2–4). I think that children might inherently know this, but maybe I have forgotten and need reminding. I have become impatient with what I deem monotony as an adult. I think it's no mistake that Carson ends the quote at the top of this post with the word humility. At first, it seems that there is so much to teach children about nature, but I think if we're careful and observant, there is so much for them to teach us, too.

Summer Blooms

I have been using the Audubon Wildflower Guide (Eastern Region) from the library to identify most of these. I am still trying to decide whether or not to get this or the Peterson guide as my own. Against popular opinion and as a newbie, I am partial to the color photos in the Audubon guide, and like the size and 2-part organization. In the past, I’ve found it difficult to use illustrated wildflower guides since I need more detail to accurately identify as a beginner. Either way, it has been a joy finding all of these blooms.

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