When people first walk in my front door, they often gasp. “Wow, it’s so clean,” or “Where’s all your clutter?” I pride myself on the minimalist look and feel of our first floor. When we moved to a ten-year-old house in Raanana, Israel from a one-hundred-year-old Tudor in White Plains, New York, we lost the charm and warmth of original hardwood floors, bay windows, crown molding, and walls. Our current downstairs is one large space: kitchen to dining room to reading corner to living room. At first, I pined for the separation of sun, dining, living, play, even our galley kitchen, clearly delineated by walls. Now, five years later, I’ve grown accustomed to the openness, the room for possibility.
But amidst all the possibility, ordered bedlam reigns. I have no choice but to store the receipt from the exterminator, a flyer from our favorite hummus joint, and the brochure from the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center somewhere memorable, somewhere retrievable, somewhere out of sight. In my previous kitchen, a corner nook housed the home phone, answering machine, notepad, grocery list, and incoming mail. Now, I walk random but important items upstairs—in fits and spurts—and arrange them on my desk. Where I work. Where I write. Where I spend the bulk of my day.
“Your desk is such a balagon,” my husband chides. Balagon means mess in Hebrew. “How can you think clearly?”
I scrutinize my faux Birchwood bureau. Considering it’s from IKEA, it’s got character with its clean ninety-degree angle on one side and a rounded edge facing the center of the room on the other. An oblong wicker basket sits on the left, its contents overflowing: a box of business cards; my Nook warranty; a checkbook from Bank Hapoalim. Two small picture frames let me travel back in time: one, circa 1969, of my Russian-born Zeida looking like a true blue American in his suit and tie, beaming with my first cousin Jill (2) in one arm and me (4) in the other; and the second, a black-and-white sketch of the Triple Bridge in Old Ljubljana, Slovenia, a gift from my friend Allison last summer to remember our shared residency—her fourth and my last—at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
A raised shelf, a matching IKEA component, holds some of my gurus: William Zinsser’s Writing About Your Life, Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting.
The disarray veers right. To a Panasonic receiver on its base. To my DELL screen and laptop, keyboard, mouse, and mousepad, a gift from my husband back when we dialed up to aol in the mid-90s, of a photo of me holding our then two-year-old son, a freebie from some probably defunct software company.
Further right: a bulging manila envelope of my old letters to my parents, written between 1989 and 1993, when I left a job in Paris and landed in Israel; a growing pile of Poets & Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle magazines; and a stack of folders with yoga student waiver forms, family medical records, invoices and receipts for my two professions as yoga teacher and writer. Every few weeks, on a quiet Saturday morning, I sift through the mounds to make sure I need what’s there.
While the majority of these items relate directly to my work life, and, therefore, belong on my desk, some are misplaced. Perhaps, I think, they mirror my own misplacement as a Berkeley, California born woman married to a Frenchman living in Israel, a writer constantly struggling with her divided selves and search for home.
My husband might consider my desk a mess, but if he asks me what time our friends’ daughter’s upcoming wedding is or when I’m going to the swim class at the gym, I know exactly where the invitation and the group fitness schedule are filed along with so many other random pieces of information at an arm’s reach.
The mess, I realize, is in fact a metaphor. For the layers of complexity in my small life; for the seventy thousand thoughts careening around my mind every waking hour; for the multiple roles I play in my relationships and within myself. Each folder, notebook, and magazine strewed around my desk represents a narrative, a story line, a starting or a stopping point. My job isn’t to overlook or hide them but to face them, sift through them, try to make sense of them, and write.