On the State of My Desk

At this moment, there’s a lot going on . . . on my desk. The standard things are there: computer, keyboard, mouse, speakers, two landlines (yes, two), lamp, my little coffee warmer hotplate thing that makes drinking coffee in any other room of the house just a little disappointing.

There are other things as well. Yesterday’s coffee mug still waiting to go to the kitchen. A piece of broken glass from the Silverdome sitting on an iridescent shell found on the sandy shore of Thumb Lake. A painted rock. A tray of nineteen Petoskey stones, all found at camp. A tray of pennies. A cactus. A tube of mostly organic moisturizer.

There’s wrapping paper and tissue paper, scotch tape and packing tape. There’s a list of gifts bought, gifts intended, check marks next to those that have been wrapped.

There’s a pincushion, a spool of thread, sewing scissors, a package of elastic, and two stuffed animals (five originally) that need some surgery.

There’s a pair of sunglasses, a couple keys, a barrette. A measuring tape, a couple catalogs, the bill from the eye doctor, the plate from my breakfast.

There’s my work binder with its lists of books in various stages of completion. Copy trackers and catalog schedules and pagination documents.

And there’s my planner, hanging out on the edge of one of those pull out trays old desks have. Ah, the well-intentioned planner.

Inside, things are just as chaotic. Files, yes. Pens and pencils. Post-Its. But also German flashcards, one of those spidery-looking head massagers, collections of state quarters and national park quarters and the first twenty presidential dollar coins. Guitar picks, silicone iPod covers, stacks of business cards I have never consulted.

Last night I finished reading White Noise by Don DeLillo, first published in 1984. After his college town is involved in “an airborne toxic event” the main character is more and more convinced that he is dying (and of course, in the existential sense, he is, just as everybody is always coming one moment closer to their deaths). Near the end of the book, he starts throwing things away, starting with things obviously no one needs — broken things, obsolete things — and then moving on to things you do need — like soap and shampoo still being used in the shower — until his daughters have to stop him.

“The more things I threw away, the more I found. The house was a sepia maze of old and tired things. There was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality. I stalked the rooms, flinging things into cardboard boxes. . . . It took well over an hour to get everything down to the sidewalk. No one helped me. I didn’t want help or company or human understanding. I just wanted to get the stuff out of the house. I sat on the front steps alone, waiting for a sense of ease and peace to settle in the air around me.”

And later, “I was in a vengeful and near savage state. I bore a personal grudge against these things. Somehow they’d put me in this fix. They’d dragged me down, made escape impossible.”

I fully admit that I know the feeling of being overburdened with things, tired of having to organize them and try to keep them neat. I regularly go through purges. I purged when we renovated the kitchen. I recently put two chairs and an old printer from my office on the side of the road. Last weekend, my husband and I helped our son do a full cleaning of his room. We threw away an entire garbage bag of junk, sent several bags of clothes on to our church’s Love Clothing Center, half-filled a very large box with stuff for Goodwill. It took hours and hours.

It never feels like enough.

DeLillo’s character seemed to be doing it out of a sense that these objects were in some way connected to his own mortality and he was afraid to die. He waited to feel a lightness but it never came because the objects weren’t the real problem.

I, on the other hand, always feel lighter when I get rid of things.

Next year I will be moving my office to the smallest room in the house. What a perfect excuse to do a little more purging. At some point perhaps I will have little else than books and rocks and art supplies to my name. It won’t help me escape death. But it will make life feel far lighter.

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