After weeks of traipsing between a friend's house and my own and not being able to use my desk, I'm finally settled back in my home office.
Water damage had made my condo an extremely unpleasant place to work, so I swapped my beloved desk computer for a borrowed laptop to write stories, work on school assignments and communicate with the world.
I spent much of last week stacking clothes and linens back in closets and helping a crew arrange furniture and hang my artwork again. My desk was the last stop on my cleanup list, partly because it needed the most attention as it had become a hangout for every stray paper, book and magazine that had lost its way in the mess.
During those weeks of domestic disruption, I came to think of the stray objects that migrated into my workspace as unwanted bullies smoking under a streetlight. When I needed my home computer's fast cable Internet connection, I had to shove the hooligans out of the way to get to my keyboard or even sit down in my desk chair. I could barely find my calendar, pen, notebook, scratch pad or address book. My desk had been overtaken by an outlaw gang of clutter and I felt lost and helpless.
Now that I've gotten things under control again, I've realized the significance of my desk in my life. My desk is a large, heavy and really very lovely wardrobe-style cabinet with a pull-out tray for my wireless computer keyboard and just enough shelving and drawer space for supplies. It's the first place I head in the morning with my mug of coffee and my radio tuned to NPR. It's where I clear my head, make lists of the day's demands, scan the headlines, answer e-mails, and ultimately do the bulk of my work.
In the weeks I spent working on a laptop, I came to really miss my desk. I longed for its anchoring sense of sanctuary as well as its large nesting cubbyholes for the stuff I subconsciously choose to stow in them, like the patchwork star quilt from my childhood, vintage postcards and an array of books including a guide to writers' houses in England I picked up a few weeks ago at Goodwill Books in Tallahassee. (My sister and I decided to stop there on a whim and I ended up carting home armloads of books including an old, hardbound collection of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings stories with its original dust jacket.)
The Rawlings book sits on a shelf in my desk as does a child's 1928 French grammar book along with a large, beautiful shell I once bought at Algozzini's, a famous old tourist shop along Florida's east coast.
Of course all of these things that inhabit space on my desk are subject to change at a moment's notice, and usually without much fanfare: A book is read and set down somewhere else, a quilt is shaken out and slept under on a cool night, beloved objects find their way to other rooms where they are usually rearranged in one of my occasional fits of organizing.
I originally thought about researching ways to clean my desk and keep it clean. I know a cadre of really good organizational experts, smart people whose advice I often write about (and usually take myself in large doses). But when it comes to my personal desk, I almost think it's just that: personal. As long as it's not a pigsty and I can find what I need, I think anything goes. I'm not planning to organize it anytime soon, unless circumstances force me to.
After settling back into my home office, I've noticed my desk isn't quite itself anymore. The big drawer isn't working properly and one of the cabinet doors won't close without a fight. I am bracing myself for the eventual reality that I may not have this desk forever and that someday I may have to buy a new one.
That's okay as long as I have everything I need to make the new desk my own: books, coffee, radio, big desktop computer — and just the right amount of well-chosen clutter to make me feel relaxed and happy.
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.