Saved by a Desk

I don’t think I’ll ever become the person whose dwelling is so jam-packed with books, piles of newspapers, and other stuff that she has only narrow aisles to move in. For one thing, moving 12 times in 27 years has helped keep the stuff under control. (Thank you, Martha’s Vineyard.)

But I understand how it can happen.

When I was packing to move to my current apartment, I tossed unfiled papers, notebooks, half-used pads of paper, and miscellaneous stuff into three boxes. As this apartment and I approached our fifth anniversary, the three boxes were not only not unpacked, they were now overflowing with stuff and toppling piles of unfiled papers, liberally garnished with dust and dog hair. The smallest box sat on top of the mid-sized one, three of whose corners had split top to bottom.

Every winter I was going to deal with those boxes. Every spring caught me with boxes fuller than they had been in the fall. A little voice started nagging at the back of my head. Season by season it got louder and more insistent. It said things were getting out of control. It said things were getting seriously backed up. The way a pipe backs up when it’s clogged with something that shouldn’t be there.

The backup was weighing my mind down, and I know from experience that this sludginess can slide into depression. On Martha’s Vineyard depression is endemic, which means that no matter how screwed up you are, you can let yourself off the hook by pointing to dozens of people who are much worse off.

Old desk

The paper backup had to do, I was sure, with my desk. My basic desk hadn’t changed in almost 30 years. It consisted of two two-drawer file cabinets with a varnished piece of particle board laid over them. Since this surface was too high to type on, a table held my keyboard, mouse, and assorted papers and paraphernalia. A long-ago housemate scrounged this table from the alleys of Washington, D.C., and stabilized its legs with dowels. To open the file drawers, I had to move the table, making sure that this didn’t dislodge papers, paraphernalia, or computer components. I hardly ever opened the file drawers. No wonder papers were collecting in split-sided boxes and plastic file trays.

Rhodry and the chair in its better days

The other obstacle to progress was The Chair. Once upon a time, this was a very comfy small easy chair, upholstered in brown-and-white herringbone fabric. A former neighbors’ dog had totally destroyed the seat, but I had this idea that I’d have it reupholstered and be able to sit in it again. More than a dozen years later, I hadn’t managed to come up with the money, and the chair, covered with an old blue sheet, had become a way station for not-quite-dirty clothes, and books, notebooks, and papers that I couldn’t risk losing in the toppling unfiled piles.

The chair had to go. So did the desk. Off-island in mid-December, I browsed the computer desks at Staples, the huge office and computer supplies chain store. Yeah, one of those would work — after my checking account recovered from the purchase of my Nooky, which is what took me to Staples in the first place.

At this point, the nagging voice in the back of my head was supplanted by a deep queasiness in my gut. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and those piles hadn’t grown overnight either. Sorting through and organizing and/or tossing all that stuff was going to take a very long time.

Briefly, very briefly, I considered leaving it all for whoever cleans up after me when I’m dead. They would surely hire a dumpster and shovel all the stuff into it with nary a backward glance. Problem was, my father lived to 86 and my maternal grandmother died a week shy of her 105th birthday. The odds are pretty good that I’ll make 80 at least, and if these piles continue to grow and topple for another 20 years I will indeed be one of those strange people who lives and dies in a rabbit warren of unfiled papers. Perhaps I should hire the dumpster and do the shoveling myself?

Poco a poco se anda mucho, as my Spanish-speaking mother used to say; little by little one makes great progress. I’m not sure she believed it, and I had my own doubts, but as a writer I know that starting is the hardest part and it seemed worth a try.

In principle.

Here Fate and the Muses, knowing of my proclivity for procrastination, took a hand. About a month ago, a used computer desk was posted to the Facebook group MV Stuff 4 Sale. No chrome and plastic item, this: it was solid wood and very handsome, and the price was what I was willing to pay for something from Staples. Seize the desk! cried Fate and the Muses.

I did. The day it moved in, The Chair and the particle-board desktop moved out. Neighbor David trucked the chair to the Edgartown transfer station. The cost of disposal? A measly 12 bucks.

That corner of my apartment can breathe again. I’ve begun The Sorting — I’ve already emptied one box. The logjam in my head is breaking up. I look at my desk and think that anything is possible.

My new desk

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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9 Responses to Saved by a Desk

  1. Anda Divine says:

    Your comment “I’m a multi-generation New Englander. We don’t throw things out if there’s any possible use left in them” brought to mind a wonderful 1995 memoir by the New England poet Donald Hall, _String Too Short to Be Saved_. It’s about his childhood summers at his grandparents’ Vermont farm, and somewhere in that book is a photo of a ball of string–the very pieces that were “too short to be saved.”

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  2. Sara Piazza says:

    Congratulations on your find. To me, work space is everything, especially since I also do most of my work at home. I’m a huge fan of order and blank spaces and love cleaning out and getting rid of things. I can’t get a thing done until everything around me is in order; call me highly distract-able (and admittedly, the need to put everything in order before getting to work is nothing less than a stalling technique, some days).

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  3. My philosophy has always been–if I haven’t used it in a year…throw it out…preferably without looking at it.

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    • I’m a multi-generation New Englander. We don’t throw things out if there’s any possible use left in them. This is why the Dumptique, thrift shop, Bargain Box, and MV Stuff 4 Sale are so invaluable: it’s OK to get rid of things if they’ll be of use to someone else. (It’s also OK to acquire stuff if you’re taking it off someone else’s hands.)

      I sold, through the Bargain Box, a portable grill that I’ve been intending to use for almost 10 years. Now there’s room on the shelf for the crockpot I bought last summer but have never used because it was sitting on the stairs where I never thought of it when I was making a grocery list. And neighbor David said, “If you want to grill anything, you can use ours.”

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  4. Bonnie in East Tennessee says:

    Yay, you! And thanks for the inspiration — I have boxes that are (gulp!) 7 years old, not to mention stuff wedged into filing cabinets that should have gone to the shredder a long time ago.

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    • I’ve found style sheets and purchase orders for jobs done in 2007. I’m sure they’re older ones at the bottom of the box. Into the trash they go. And I’m always wondering why I have to keep buying yellow pads and spiral-bound notebooks: Didn’t I get a new one just last month?? Yeah, I did. They all ended up buried in a box under piles of old style sheets and paid bills.

      Good luck, Bonnie. This is heroic work we’re doing!

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  5. susan robinson says:

    I bet something good is going on here in addition to the desk. Just guessing.

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  6. Sharon Stewart says:

    Beautiful desk! Looks very capacious, too.

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    • It’s very cool. My scanner is in the cubby on the right and the CPU in the one on the left. The top middle drawer is actually a keyboard tray, but it’s perpetually stuck and needs fixing. (I do most of my work on my laptop these days — desktop’s big virtue is that it can talk to printer and scanner but laptop can’t.) Lots of room in those two top cupboards too.

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