“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Albert Einstein
While chatting to a service rep at my local bank, I marveled at her clean desk. It truly was impressive: a mammoth horizontal surface with nothing on it. She told me a memo had recently come down from the higher-ups: No papers. No knickknacks. Not even a photo of the kids. She said she missed the photos. I sympathized. Personal touches remind us we are dealing with humans. They transform a faceless routine business matter into an interaction between people. But I got the message behind the memo: We are efficiency. On top of things, ahead of things. Enviably perfect.
My desk, by (severe) contrast is an item-diary of my life. One of those old oak banker affairs, it is the Velveteen Rabbit of desks—worn corners and sun-bleached surfaces, “finished” in a charmingly random pattern of coffee cup rings. Its topography shifts almost daily, but the volume of items remains fairly constant. Today, this includes:
- A boxed hard copy of a completed manuscript.
- Two large binders of spiral notebooks filled with research for my W-I-P.
- A kitschy Shakespeare action figure (with detachable quill and book).
- A guide to literary agents.
- A smooth, round clay Buddha that fits in my hand and has no purpose but to be wonderful.
- A rolodex from a bygone era stuffed with still-important phone numbers, memos, and a matchbook bearing the name of a fabulous Spanish Rioja I’ve never been able to find in the States.
- My plug-in Passport Ultra for “Files That Must NEVER Be Lost.”
- A waterfall of Post-its (descending in order of critical importance).
- A thick folder detailing every aspect of my website/blog and its attendant social-networking sites.
- A jar of Pilot gel pens (love these!)
- Legal pads for the psychology textbook I’m editing.
- Invoice for same (essential to life support systems like food and shelter).
- A scattering of little “wish stones”—Dream, Grow, Hope, Magic, Love.
- A pair of truly decent Sony headphones.
In this space, I daily strive to give the characters in my head a vibrant world on the page that is worthy of their story. It is a messy, marvelous struggle, but it is light years away from anything resembling perfection. The two don’t even share a universe.
I must confess here that I have often been attracted to the clean, absolute symmetry of perfection. That illusion of a tabula rasa without past baggage, on which one may write the future free of mistakes—it’s a siren song with a powerful allure. And yet . . .
Several years ago, when my husband and I were house-hunting, the realtor took us to a newly built home. It was all sparkling bathrooms, unscuffed hardwood floors, and pristine appliances, but the real shocker was the basement. I had never encountered a new basement. It was beyond clean. You could have literally eaten off its floor. I stood there gaping, awed. But we didn’t buy that house. Didn’t even make an offer. Instead, we threw in our lot with the 1895 Victorian, a house of clanking radiators and a list of “ailments” long enough to suck up the contents of our bank account for years. Why did we pass up 2,200 flawless square feet for this money pit? Because it felt like an old friend, weathered and full of endearing idiosyncrasies. It called to us: Come bring your crazy lives and wayward cats, your jumbled furniture and dreams-in-progress to flourish within my crooked walls.
Perfection, I have come to realize, is something I flirt with in those moments when life threatens to overwhelm, when the way ahead seems a path I must beat in the wilderness with nothing more than the compass of my own experience. Perfection promises a sense of clarity. Like a clean desk. But a clean desk is also an empty desk. Its uncluttered surface a suggestion of a life lived in small, controlled increments with precise beginnings, ends, and no dovetails. That’s one kind of life, but it’s not mine. I will always be writing one book and revising another while building shelves in the attic and baking tins of Christmas cookies for friends. I’ll be planning next year’s garden and packing for a trip to London or Paris while reading a book on Venetian history and a Gillian Flynn thriller.
So here I am, in the middle of this big messy life, embracing it more and more, exactly for its colorful chaos, its jumble of demands. A to-do list seemingly without end.
May it never end.