Order Is Out-Ranked By Memory at My Desk

"How can you work like that?" Charlotte asked when she stopped to borrow my typewriter. She was staring at my desk. I looked at the disheveled piles of paper, the books, newspaper clippings, note pads, pens, and the check book splayed across the computer keyboard where I was paying bills.

"I don't like it," I replied defensively. "I just haven't figured out a system yet."

Though my desktop is large - it was made from a door-sized slab of wood - it is so cluttered that I rarely glimpse its varnished brown top. To work, I shove aside the flotsam to reach the keyboard and mouse. Periodically, I try to subdue the clutter, culling the expired sweepstakes entries and the notifications of meetings I've missed, then neatening what's left. The order rarely lasts. Soon papers spill over their boundaries, edging from one carefully organized pile into another.

"You always overfill bowls, too," my husband, Gary, observes. He eyes my desk with a combination of dismay and resignation. He's right. No matter how large the container, I overestimate its capacity. Cake batter flops over the lip of the bowl while I'm mixing; soup burbles out beneath the stockpot lid. I find containment laudable in theory, but difficult in practice.

One reason for the clutter is my need for perpetual reminders of impending obligations. The kitchen calendar is not enough. I need supporting details. The annual request for homemade pickles for the upcoming charity bazaar and the school-fair flier noting in pencil my promise to help set up and take down booths must remain in view if I am to discharge my responsibilities.

Other things are not obligation so much as evidence of connection with friends and the world at large.

The sprig of wild primrose draped limply over the legal pads awaits identification. Gary brought it home to learn whether it is related to Oenothera glazioviana Micheli, the magic evening primrose that garden writer Tina James rediscovered and shared with us. I haven't had time to research its kinship, so the stalk continues to share space with the book review I haven't had time to read and the list of articles I haven't had time to propose.

It's not as though I don't try to organize. I scan office-supply catalogs, visit warehouses packed floor to ceiling with file folders, personal organizers, and neatly stacked IN and OUT boxes. I now have two stand-up files. Research notes reside in one while bills, paid and unpaid, wait in another. Because they fall readily into categories, they are easy to regiment.

But other things, like the newspaper clipping describing the secret language between women in China, are not so easily classified. Do I stash it in the folder marked "language," "women," "essay ideas," or "interesting stuff"? (This last category already takes up two crammed file folders.) It's tempting to dump it, but each time it bobs to the surface, I am inspired by the creative self-expression in those women's lives.

Yet the sheer volume of stuff, increased daily by the mails, overwhelms me. Newspapers, catalogs, and never-to-be-repeated offers arrive by the pound.

In fairness, they are not the only obstacles to my organization. There are objects that contribute nothing to my work but whose presence is sustaining. As they are shoved first behind the computer, then into a clump near the floppy-disk boxes, they evoke memories or resonate with meaning. The small wooden duck that Charlotte gave me when I was struggling with a loss. Floating atop my computer, its jaunty carriage encourages grace amid difficulty and speaks of her friendship.

The small hand-decorated card that came with my sister-in-law's unexpected Christmas gift last year has had four different homes, all on the desktop. The simple gift was a token of the friendship we have built piece by delicate piece after years of struggling with our differences. Each time I see the card, I give thanks for the healing it represents.

I like being nudged by memories. Our work permits from the months Gary and I worked on a supply boat in the Gulf of Mexico are stuffed next to the poem my daughter wrote to me at age 7. There are four bookmarks, one of which was sent by friends I had not seen in 20 years, after my first book was published. They now own a bookstore.

Despite a yearning to organize, I like my clutter. It reminds me that life is not easily compartmentalized. It spills over borders and overlaps the neat delineations with which we try to contain it.

I DUG out the typewriter for Charlotte. I'm still mulling over what had felt like a criticism. She later described my desk to a mutual friend who for 70 years has tamed desks from which she directed college departments and businesses with staffs of 80, while organizing a wildly peripatetic life. Peg grinned at Charlotte's description. I was embarrassed. I had seen Peg's well-ordered household, her uncluttered desk.

"There is such a thing as 'miscellaneous,' " she said, smiling at me with what I took to be affection rather than condescension. "That's where everything you can't figure out a home for goes."

Hoping that it would be the beginning of a system, I made out a "miscellaneous" folder. But so far, there's nothing in it.

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