The desk in my room is the perfect height to lean your elbows on and ponder the world outside the picture window it sits in front of—to watch the row of houses across the street and all the comings and goings of the day, to see clearly the sidewalk that used to be decorated by messy chalk in all colors, years ago when between the four nearest neighbors there were over twenty young children and you couldn’t walk down that sidewalk without tripping over chalk or bikes or balls or a shoe, only one shoe usually, the other having been lost in rows of hedges or flower gardens or surreptitiously chewed by the neighbor’s dog.
It is the perfect height to watch the world go by and to take in the morning sun that slants through the window, dappled by the leaves of an overhanging tree. There is a computer on the desk, but it rarely gets used, the bulky desktop having been replaced by smaller versions of the laptop variety. The desk is the perfect location for watching—not working, working gets done somewhere else, usually the front room in the corner of the couch, pillows propped to hold notes and notebooks, and pencils which frequently lose themselves down the sides of the cushions until you have to dismantle the entire structure to retrieve them.
The thing about working at a desk is, it is better in theory than in practice. In theory it is a place where I can write undisturbed, alone with the thoughts I am trying to wrangle onto the page. In practice it can be…lonely. I have found that when I sit in the front room to work it takes very little for my children to follow, one by one, curling up on the floor, or in the chair, pulling out music to play on the piano, popping their head around the corner to ask a question or tell me a story. When they were younger the interruptions were usually of an urgent nature—places to go, tasks to be done, hunger that had to be appeased, school projects that had been forgotten until just that very moment and needed to be done immediately so grab the keys for a quick trip to the store to buy yet another sheet of posterboard (white) and markers and glue sticks, always glue sticks because the ones we bought at the beginning of the year will have been left open and dried out in the bottom of the kitchen drawer.
You would think as they got older that there would be fewer interruptions, but there aren’t, the interruptions are just…different. More emotional needs than physical needs. ‘Let me tell you about my day,’ or ‘what do you think about this show,’ or sometimes ‘just let me be close.’
But back to the desk. Maybe not that specific desk, because I have owned many desks over the years. The stainless steel topped desk that sat in our family room 20 years ago until it made its way first to the laundry where it was used to sort whites from darks, and then to the basement where it now holds files and boxes of old photos and a set of chimes that is only used once a year during the church Christmas program. Or the drafting table that was meant to be used as a desk in the boys’ room when they were small, but usually ended up holding Lego sets and army men set up for battle. Or the tiny blue and white crackle painted desk that we found at a garage sale and that took up residence for a while in the girls’ room, meant for homework and studying that instead became a place to stack books and jackets and old bottles with no particular significance until it, too, found itself out of rotation, sold or given away to another family with other children who lived down the road.
I wanted my kids to have a desk, a dedicated place to work, a piece of furniture that signaled ‘serious thought is going on here,’ and yet, much like their mother, all their homework ended up being done at the kitchen table or on the living room couch, or in the car on the way to soccer or play practice or at 6:45 in the morning, hastily scrawled in the last few moments before early morning jazz band practice. But very seldom, if ever, at their desk.
I always wanted to be a writer, before I went to grad school, before I got married, even before I was brave enough to admit it to myself. I have always wanted to create and tell beautiful stories. To look at impossible situations and ask, “What if?” and come up with surprising answers. When my children were young, I was often frustrated by the lack of time at my desk—because as a parent of young children there is always something that needs to be done, laundry mostly, or dishes, or finding lost things, a task that I have become a master at. Lost shoes? Under the edge of the kitchen table. Lost books? Stacked on the corner of the bookshelf in the hall. Lost keys? Make sure to ask your mother, even though she has never before seen the key you have lost or driven the car to which it belongs.
And all those moments when I was not writing at my desk? I was in the front row of the auditorium at opening night of the plays my daughters were in, or that my son did sound design for. I was in the stands cheering for my youngest son at football games and dinners and luau’s (because if football players are not playing they are eating, always eating).
I was making meals and singing songs and driving carpool and sitting in the hot sun at the pool during long summer days. Walking along beaches with my husband listening to our daughters complain about the sand, or reading under trees as they played nearby. I wanted to be writing at my desk, but I quickly realized—the work always got done somewhere else.
There is a lesson in that, I think.
Having children changed me. I mean, it is bound to, isn’t it? I suddenly found myself wandering white knuckled though unknown territories. Off roading, if you will. Having children helped me become more open hearted. It has taught me to lay down doubt and cynicism in favor of hope and belief and tender vulnerability. It has taught me that there is nothing shorter than the time between bedtime and the urgent need for a drink or a book or a snack or a light or a snuggle in mom and dad’s bed and eventually you are going to have to sleep in your own room for heaven’s sake. And it taught me that there is nothing longer than the distance from my front door to the doctor’s office when your son has broken his arm at the neighborhood party and you were across town and your phone was dead and thank heavens the family doctor lives on the same street and took care of him, but where were you mom, you didn’t answer, he sobs on the way to the hospital to get his arm reset.
That same son moved out last week. It was overdue, really. He spent his freshman year of college taking online classes in his parents’ basement instead of going to class and meeting new people and having interesting roommates, and all of the other things that young people are supposed to do. So it was past time. But I miss him. He is a great conversationalist, the family tech support, and always ready with a biting comeback for his siblings. It is quieter without him at home. And I got to thinking. The truth is, when I became a mother, I did not feel up to the task. I was young, parenthood was…surprising, and I felt out of my depth. And now that my children are leaving home, becoming independent, strong-minded individuals who make their own decisions, I still feel somehow lacking. Like I am losing the excuse that parenthood gave me to slow down, and enjoy life—because what raising a family did for me was remind me what it is to be human, to cherish all the small moments of the day. To abandon my desk in favor of the work of life, the presence of family, and the stories we create together.
I talked to my son on the phone yesterday. He is settling in, starting a new job, getting ready for school to start next month. And he was excited to show me his room, and what he called his first ‘real adult purchase.’
Solid wood with metal legs. A little bit urban chic, a little bit ‘small enough to fit in my room,’ purchased second hand from someone in his new neighborhood. A place for homework (he thinks). A place to wonder. To watch. To hold projects and papers and books and the precious things that he will collect as he examines new ideas. Considers distance, and experience, and friendship.
Learns to create stories of his own from new adventures and new possibilities.
A desk to lean on, elbow first, as he dreams the things he can be, and asks,