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Summer Books

As work encroaches, reclaim refuge of home

By Maggie Jackson
Sorin Press, 191 pages, $19.95


Maggie Jackson is an award-winning Associated Press journalist who reports on the workplace. In exploring “home,” the place where we go when we leave the workplace, Jackson remains in territory that is relatively familiar to her -- the increasingly permeable boundaries between home and workplace in our contemporary culture.

Foregoing a definitive image of home, Jackson still identifies “losses of home” in the first of the book’s two parts. Two chapters focus on homes lost to workplaces either through physical reconfigurations that meld home into office or through the electronic intrusions of cell phones, pagers and e-mails. The latter transforms the homes of corporate secretaries as much as executives. The third chapter considers the same loss through neglect of domestic tasks that make a house a home.

In every chapter Jackson develops her topics through personal stories. In the book’s first section, the reader meets people who dramatically illustrate home lives so permeated with work that little trace of a boundary remains. The author concludes each chapter with another personal element -- brief diary entries disclosing her struggles with work-home issues. In exploring loss of home, Jackson never succumbs to nostalgia for a golden past or simplistic answers. Any “new vision of home,” as discussed in the book’s second section, assumes that women as well as men will remain actively engaged in the workplace and that the rapidity of change in and constant demands of the workplace will continue.

The four chapters that consider that new vision of home reflect, perhaps even more than the author intends, the transitional state of “home” in the United States. Chapter 5 presents corporate attempts to transform the workspace into a quasi-home environment, and the following chapter features those who have purchased second houses to provide a refuge from work.

Again individuals’ stories assist Jackson as she attempts to explain the contemporary re-visioning of home. In the next to last chapter, the author recounts her excursion to Sweden, a society she characterizes as having more success in respecting home even as Swedes adapt their homes to the demands of the information age workplace.

The chapter culminates with Jackson’s interview of Swedish physicist Bodil Jönsonn concerning her best-selling book, Ten Thoughts about Time. The reader senses that at least Jönsonn has resolved work’s encroachment on home. Jackson’s concluding chapter reiterates the highly personal nature of “home” and she assigns her readers “home work.”

“We must reinvent home, incorporating the mobility and flexibility that characterize this new age, while preserving the boundaries that give us refuge. To do so, we need to make our homes places of experience, rootedness, learning and sharing.” Consistent in approach and tone, the instructions here remain broad so that almost any living situation successfully completes the assignment of reinventing and re-imagining home.

To note the book’s inconclusive conclusion highlights not only its limitations but also its strengths. This book excels in asking crucial questions concerning the dynamics of work and home as they play out in the lives of most middle-class professionals. Work too often overwhelms people’s daily lives so that the time and the space for home diminishes almost to the point of disappearing. Jackson lifts up the most basic components of life, the configurations of time and space, for readers to consider in their own complicated lives at work and at home.

The book also raises other, more troubling questions, particularly about social class and the growing gap between rich and poor. To raise these questions is not to dismiss the struggles among the middle class as insignificant. Yet, so many of Jackson’s exemplars rely upon wealth to revision home. What would happen to the discussion if Jackson included examples from the working poor as they negotiate the demands of work with the desire for a good home life? What might home as refuge mean for those who continuously experience economic and therefore domestic precariousness? Or how might identifying the home as principally a site of hospitality to the stranger reconfigure the home as private refuge?

Perhaps the current ambiguity about home among those who live in increasingly larger and more elaborately appointed houses may provide insights into contemporary attitudes of indifference toward those identified not as houseless but as homeless.

As the preceding paragraph suggests, this book is worth reading more for the questions it raises intentionally and unintentionally than for the answers offered. Reading it in the company of friends could easily generate lively discussions on the times and spaces that order our lives along the ever-changing borderlands of work and home.

Sandra Yocum Mize teaches theology at the University of Dayton, Ohio.

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002