This week I was reunited with the only piece of furniture I have ever really considered absolutely mine: my writing desk.
Finally able to relocate it to my current home, it is the one piece of furniture I will be taking with me as I pack my belongings over the next few weeks in preparation for moving abroad.
Almost a decade ago, I started the search. I waited for years to find the right one, and then — as often happens in these types of stories — I came upon it by chance when I least expected it. I was driving home from work one day when I saw it standing resolutely at the curb in front of a neighbor’s house with a note that read, “Free Please Take.” Someone else had decided they were finished with it, but the desk almost seemed to have positioned itself like a determined job applicant, waiting for someone to give it the opportunity to continue its purpose. Amused by this thought, I claimed the desk and gave it a new life.
It is a second-hand, simple, white desk. And to look at, it is nothing special. Let me explain, however, why it is.
As a child who grew up an avid reader, I have always had a romantic idea of the importance of having one’s own writing desk. As a lifelong student of literature and fan of period dramas, (yes, I was the girl who yearned for the romance of 18th and 19th century drama and manners), I saw just how many interesting and exciting moments in an individual’s life could happen over a writing desk: opening a note containing news of world events, correspondences with a lover sent far away to war, the writing of a story that might be found years later, an urgent letter scrawled in the dim of candlelight, and sometimes a wax seal to ensure the secrecy and authenticity of the message inside an envelope.
These notions have not changed much for me as I have grown.
Looking back, time at my writing desk has always been synonymous with “me time” which became even more important to me as I got older. It became the time when I nurtured some of the deepest and most important relationships in my life, my escape from difficult moments to give me time to process my feelings, and times when I did work that was lit by interest and stoked by passion.
Those relationships I mentioned were sometimes fostered by a connection through handwritten letters which have always held a certain fascination for me. They are so intimate, so raw, and often so much more expressive and honest than spoken words. (This is especially for us introverts!) And I often used to tell my students that some of the most interesting and important details we know about historical events and people came from letters written to family, friends, colleagues, and enemies and from countless others.
My letter writing began in elementary school to keep in touch with family. As I grew up, I found that being able to correspond with family members on my own terms and having this long-distance, one-on-one interaction with them became very special to me. We had “our thing.” My father’s mother — Nana, I called her — was the one with whom this interaction became most important. She lived across the country, so I did not get to see her as frequently as my other grandparents. Every few months, we would exchange letters, and this continued until I went away to graduate school. Life happened, I suppose: she got older and found it difficult to write as much, and I was busy with my studies and figuring out how to navigate adulthood. When she passed away, my cousins who lived closer to her commented to me about how special the relationship was between Nana and me because of our letters. It meant a lot that they not only knew about this bond but also that they acknowledge it to me in our time of loss. How kind and meaningful it was, and I will carry this sentiment with me always.
So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. — Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Through the years, hand-writing letters has remained a treasured practice as I keep in touch with friends. In high school, I was pen pals with friends who moved to different states, moved abroad, or returned to their homes in other countries because they were at my school as exchange students. This was before email, so letters were the most economical way of keeping up our friendship. Now, fifteen and twenty years later, I can touch base with these friends more frequently and easily because of social media, but the depth of connection will never be the same as when we exchanged those letters.
This is why a handful of friends and I decided to become penpals in recent years. We choose our stationery, hand-write our thoughts and questions, purchase stamps, post the letters, and wait for the surprise of receiving each other’s messages in the mail. (For me, this activity also usually involves a “cuppa” tea or mug of coffee.) Seeing the handwriting of a friend or loved one is almost as good as hearing their voice when you sit down for a great conversation with them.
Beyond letter writing, I also work very happily in this space I have created for myself. In fact, I’m currently typing this blog post at my desk, coffee cup nearby, a pile of papers and Post-it notes filling half of the surface, and a mug of pens and markers waiting, like little soldiers, for an assigned task.
When I was a teacher, I would plan lessons at my desk. I would spend hours connecting the skills I wanted my students to practice and obtain to novels, short stories, excerpts, articles, or video clips would best help teach those. My favorite planning to do was for entire units of interwoven activities and assessments that built upon each other and brought personal meaning of the content to the students as they made connections to the characters, themes, ideas, or topics about which we studied, discussed, and wrote.
In my spare time, I would also work at my desk as an editor and researcher. Friends would ask me to edit documents for them, and former students would request help on essays. But it was my work as an editor for a nonprofit called Peacebuilding Solutions (PS) that really meant the most to me. Through this organization, I met some of the most motivated, caring, intelligent, and compassionate people I have ever known. In addition, I was afforded the opportunity to learn so much more about the world community and international, humanitarian aid — the type of work I have always been interested in. From my writing desk, I would edit articles written by staff members, research facts, assist with projects, attend video conferences, and correspond with these amazing people who taught me so much.
It was actually through this work that I first met and became friends with my fiancé Andrew, and I knew him by his words before I ever met him in person. As I edited articles for the rest of the staff at PS, the pieces most often needed quite a bit of proofreading and editing. I enjoyed the work and enjoyed helping them improve the composition of the important information they were communicating through their writing. However, I’ll never forget my astonishment when reading through Andrew’s first article submission to me: there was almost nothing to be edited. A couple of comments about word choice or suggested clarification of meaning was all I could contribute because it was so adeptly composed in both form and style. At once annoyed that my services seemed unnecessary and intrigued by the confidence inherent in his technique, my admiration for him began right then; and I looked forward to each of his articles as his turn occurred in the staff’s writing rotation.
Even now, years later, and so much more between us, I am often whisked along by his storytelling (or “tangents,” as he calls them), and I get caught up in and captivated by his words.
Finally, my writing desk has also been a place of refuge for me. During difficult times, especially in the past couple of years, it became the one place where I could find a quick escape from anxiety, frustration, and loneliness. With my earbuds in, I spent frequent evenings allowing myself to be enveloped by moving instrumental scores and songs that spoke to the emotions I was feeling at the time while writing letters to friends, chatting online, or even doing something creative but simple like coloring. For individuals like me, stress relief comes in the form of productivity, so lying on the couch to watch movies for hours was never an option. My desk, therefore, gave me space to work through big feelings and big moments.
So, in planning for life abroad as I marry into foreign service, a question I asked in a previous post was “how does one plan for the comforts of home while anticipating life in government-provided housing?” Since each home Andrew and I are placed in will come furnished, and since he and I will be merging our belongings together, I have decided that my writing desk and chair will be among the most important items I take with me.
Amid all else, I know I will need a place to work, a place to connect or reconnect, a place to find peace or a place to reflect. And no matter where we are posted, in any corner of the world, I know I will have this place as long as I have my writing desk.