Working from Nowhere Near Home

I spent the entire month of August in Iceland, and I think some of my clients didn’t even know it. If that’s not the ultimate testament to the practicality of remote work, it’s got to be pretty dang close.

A hill we pulled over to hike on the road to Vík.

Reason #1 I was able to do this was because my incredible wife Alissa was accepted to an artists’ residency program in Iceland, and this particular program allows spouses to tag along. Reason #2 is because my incredible job makes it possible for me to work from Iceland. So please count me a lucky guy for the record, and I guess the story can proceed from there.

I had not traveled out of the country since doing the Eurail thing with friends the summer after high school graduation, which was long enough ago that all my photos of the trip were taken with a plastic disposable camera that I bought at the drug store, and then developed at the One-Hour Fotomat after I got home. What’s more, I hadn’t been anywhere away from home (Portland, OR) for more than a week since moving here just a few years after that. The same was true for my wife; it so happens the last time she’d been overseas was when she was in Europe the same summer I was, and in fact we discovered sometime after we met — fourteen years later — that we’d actually been in Prague during the same week in July of that year. That we had not been able to get out of the country together at any point in our first six years of couplehood became one of our common laments, to which that Prague factoid lent a darkly comic twist.

Since my wife’s writing career has begun to pick up steam in the past year and she’s been composing new work with unprecedented enthusiasm (she writes short fiction and poetry, mostly), she began this year to take an active interest in residencies as opportunities to write with undivided focus for periods of weeks. Her academic job makes it so that summer would be the only realistic time of year to do a residency, and so, given the lengthy application review process typical of such a thing, she started gathering information about residencies last winter and decided to cast a wide net.

Though she wasn’t even initially viewing a residency as a means to travel outside the US — given that her intention would be to focus on the work, no matter where she’d be doing it — it wasn’t long into her research process that she discovered Gullkistan Creative Center in Laugarvatn, a blip on the map along the Golden Circle in southwest Iceland.

Gullkistan’s front entrance. That unfamiliar d-like consonant is pronounced like the “th” in the word “the”. Icelandic is basically straight-up Old Norse; the mainland Scandinavian languages phased out those medieval consonants a long time ago.

Incredibly, despite this program’s newness and relatively small size, a fellow member of Alissa’s writing group here in Portland had won and done a residency at Gullkistan in spring of 2017, which was how we came to hear about it. She told us how much she had enjoyed her time there, how one full month had turned out to be the perfect length of stay, and how truly quaint the surrounding village was (and the locals actually do use the word “village” to describe it rather than “town”, which partly reflects Europeanness but also partly reflects a certain pride they take in being small). Alissa soon learned that Gullkistan not only allowed spousal accompaniment, but that the additional cost of boarding me would be trivial, and that the total cost of boarding both of us would be less than we spend on a month’s rent here at home (and way way less than it would cost to secure a hotel room or Airbnb in Iceland for thirty days at full market price). This is when the light bulb popped up over my head: what if I could actually go with her, and take my job with me?

I’d have to keep to my full-time working hours, of course, but the hours that she would choose to spend writing would likely be about the same. The fact that I follow the four-day schedule at UpBuild would mean that, should Alissa choose to observe it with me, we’d have Friday through Sunday every week to explore Iceland on the (relatively) cheap, at no detriment to the work that we’d be doing to earn our stay. Before I could even finish doing the mental math on all the additional factors to consider (cost of food, pausing my musical projects, hiring a cat sitter, etc.), Alissa applied and got in. It only took about one and a half conversations with my bosses here at UpBuild for them to be convinced that this would work out just fine, and when I came back and completed that math I’d needed to do, every last calculation worked out. So we chose August as the month to do it, put the pieces in place, and when July 31 came around, off we went.

So here is an account of what it’s like to spend a third of your summer in a lakeside village of population 200 on a slab of volcanic rock in the middle of the North Atlantic, and to do your work 5–7 hours ahead of everyone else’s time zone.

Gorgeous Icelandic horses in a tiny farm community called Ólafsvellir. Icelandic horses have five gaits, which is quite rare.

The one word I’d use to describe what I felt during this month of work and life in Iceland is “ease”, and I’m trying to figure out what deserves the largest share of the credit for that. Was it the extreme quietness and smallness of the place, the fact that the things Alissa and I saw and did on the weekends brought us up against life-changingly miraculous natural wonders, the fact that I didn’t have any social obligations in the evenings (e.g. the band practices I have four nights a week here in Portland, and the mid-week shows we often play), or the fact that the time difference meant my office hours started at 4:00 PM, so I never once had to wake up to an alarm?

[By way of an aside here, let me define “office hours”: these are the hours that UpBuild employees are required to be online and available in the moment to respond to emails or Slack messages, and they run from 9:00 AM to 2:30 PM Pacific time (minus lunch break), which therefore becomes 4:00 to 9:30 PM if you travel seven hours eastward to Iceland. The total amount of work that we do in a day exceeds 5.5 hours, but the idea is that the excess work is to be done at a time of our choosing. I’ll let our fearless leader tell the whole tale.]

Because the four-day work week at UpBuild is my standing schedule, my usual routine in Portland Monday through Thursday is: wake up early enough to start work at 8:00 or (at the latest) 9:00, take quick breaks for lunch and dinner, go to band practice, come home, and if there’s still work to be done, either clock back in to do it before bed or offload it onto a different day. If I have to do the latter, the question arises of whether a different night’s band practice will need to get canceled or cut short, whether I’ll have the mettle to work late one night to make up the difference, or whether I’ll have to clock in for at least a few hours on Friday after all, which does happen sometimes. Also, though my chronic Epstein-Barr is a big part of the problem here, I will freely admit that I have never been adept at alarm clock life; every morning since first grade that I’ve had to get up to one has been a tormented dragging of bones.

In Iceland, virtually everything about the daily work experience was different. For starters, I could sleep as late as I wanted, which for me is usually around 10:00. I’d wake gradually, make breakfast and coffee in quiet bliss, and then start work well-rested and in great comfort at around 11:00. I knew that because of the time difference, I could start that late and still run no risk of having my first stretch of desk work interrupted by urgent emails, because nobody else would be awake for at least three more hours. This has actually been one of the things I’ve liked most about working at night, but to get that benefit at the start of the work day — when my focus is sharpest, especially after a good night’s sleep — was considerably better.

The black sand beaches of Vík.

Next, the total blankness of my daily schedule outside of work meant that there was never an evening interruption to scupper my momentum. I’d clock out briefly for lunch and dinner each day — 30 to 45 minutes for each — and be able to clock right back in again, which enabled me to be done with work usually no later than the termination of office hours at 9:30 PM. Then I could take a long shower (in geothermally heated water, which, come on, how awesome is that), relax with a cup of herbal tea or (if we’d recently bought a bottle from the nearby youth hostel) a glass of red wine, and read or write poems for a good hour or two before bed.

[Another aside: This trip actually gets credit for reawakening my love of poetry, which I hadn’t tried writing since I was in college, but which, between the free time and the inspiring qualities of the landscape, came screaming out of me on a nearly daily basis while there. I’ll be compiling a chapbook of my Iceland poems this winter, so get a hold of me if you want to check it out.]

And it wasn’t just the relief from my standard grind that made the trip so refreshing; it was the specific majesty of the destination. Iceland is a magical place, and the magic is palpable. The landscape is beautiful, and in a wonderfully alien way, all black (igneous rock), white (snow-capped mountains in the distance) and green (moss, grasslands, and squat birch woods). There was hiking to be done, and time to do it. There were geothermal baths to luxuriate in. Every last person we met was kind. Despite the fact that nearly everything has to be imported, such that produce is invariably unfresh and expensive, the food was generally really good, especially for avowed lovers of smoked fish and dark rye bread like my wife and me. The air smelled better, the water tasted better, and the weather was nothing like August is capable of being anywhere in the contiguous United States. Flip your every circumstance on its head for a month and tell me the sheer novelty and bewitching strangeness of it all doesn’t help spring you out of bed more quickly every morning, or bring new mindfulness to everything you do. This happens on its own.

Skógafoss waterfall. Just throwin off rainbows like fifty feet from the ground, no big deal.

The big truth I’m building to here — which I think on some level I’m hesitant to admit to myself — is that I did better work, and had a better time doing it, while I was there. Being in Iceland improved my relationship with my work on every active level: I had better focus (and for longer stretches of time), I performed tasks both faster and more thoughtfully, and I felt less frustration and resistance when complications emerged, or when something turned out to be harder than it had originally seemed. I found myself better able to engage in the morning and disengage at night, with clean separation between work mode and play mode, despite doing both from the same building just as I do at home. I was more present and more cheerful during meetings. I remembered things better. I can’t name a facet of the work experience that a month in Iceland didn’t improve.

So why does it make me uncomfortable to reckon with this? I think it’s because I know that the majority of the credit for this fantastic month goes to the sudden and temporary simplicity that my life reduced to, and the charm of the location, both of which were special conditions not to be repeated. So the question cannot simply be “why was it easier and more pleasant to work from there?”, but instead “of the factors that made it so pleasant, which ones can I reproduce or simulate at home?” How can I keep a little of this experience with me, so that I can continue not only to do my job at the level I reached there, but to enjoy my life with the same kind of immediate, moment-to-moment excitement and joy that animated me that whole month?

Thankful though I was to get a month off, I am definitely not seeking to reduce my time spent playing music, which has been my foremost passion since I was thirteen. It is certain that a change like that would open up a huge amount of free time for me and make my work weeks easier, and the other thing it would be certain to “open up” is a void in my soul. Nuts to that. Moreover, my rekindled love of writing poetry did not snuff itself back out when I touched down on American soil again, so now I have to earmark more free time for that, and for the same soul-enriching reason. So because most of my non-work time goes toward art, and because I will protect that time at any cost, I think it’s safe to leap to the contention that whatever gets me working at Iceland level full-time is not something that’s going to be bought with the currency of time.

So instead, my thinking takes this turn: if I can’t stay in this special place and make it my home, the next best thing is to find and focus on the qualities that make my real home special. And if I can’t add hours to my day, the next best thing is to make the absolute most of the hours I’ve got. In practical terms, this translates to 1) doing more things in Portland, especially things that connect me with nature, and 2) intensifying my self-care motivation. Happily, these two aspirations dovetail comfortably.

Here’s a good example: there is plenty of hiking to be done around here, including within city limits, and hey, we even have some waterfalls of our own. Provided the weather is at least somewhat hospitable, it is good for the soul to be out in nature. And it’s not like I have no free time; my wife and I usually have at least a good chunk of a few hours each weekend, and we could just as easily spend it in places like these as we could at home reading books, which is the choice we most often make just on reflex. Also, I’ve been meditating daily for some time now, but I think before Iceland I was at risk of settling into a pattern of doing it frivolously, which is to say, going through the guided sessions daily, but not really devoting myself to the practice as described and therefore not reaping the mindfulness rewards that it delivers. The shift in attitude that Iceland provided, which was the primary thing that made me a better worker while there, was one of increased mindfulness, brought on automatically by the freshness and marvelousness of my surroundings. But that same mindfulness can be achieved by better meditation practice, and be called on anywhere, including in my house, where it’s most needed. It’s not like I need to dramatically shake up my environment to get there; it’s just that doing so is a way of forcing that door open. Better meditation can open that same door more gently.

We don’t have geothermal hot springs in Oregon, oh wait yes we do, it’s just that I never go visit them. And for that matter, if I feel like a soak in the city, there are plenty of affordable facilities nearby — like at my college gym, for instance — that I just don’t think to use, simply because they’re not an entrenched part of the day-to-day cultural experience the way they are for virtually everyone in Iceland. But that doesn’t mean I can’t use them. I don’t even use my bathtub; I just shower like everybody else and call it good. Talk about another wasted resource!

What else? I found the unfamiliarity of the food in Iceland contributing to my sense of daily fun, and while some of the signature Icelandic foods can indeed be gotten here (I strongly recommend the triple-cream vanilla), the real value in this realization is in knowing that I can just buy different foods at the store once in a while and shake my lunches and dinners out of the usual rotation of the ten or so things that I already know how to do a good job cooking while virtually on autopilot. The different foods I try making don’t have to be Icelandic. They can just be unusual for me. How often do I make, say, couscous? Almost never. But do I enjoy it when I eat it? Every single time. And when I try cooking it next, I’ll be doing it mindfully, because I will have to pay attention.

The point is, it doesn’t take a month-long trip to Iceland to engage more consciously with the place you inhabit, and with the minutes and seconds that carry you through it. This discovery is the real treasure of the trip, the most meaningful souvenir, and my task now is to work — and live — that way no matter where my body is stationed. I will take every chance I get to travel like this again, don’t get me wrong. But to realize this is to realize that — at risk of sounding trite — the real journey you take is the one within.

And with that, I’m off to mindfully enjoy a container of that triple-cream vanilla Siggi’s skyr, of which I now have at least three in my fridge at all times.

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