My Mother's Chest of Drawers # 2, 1995, Chronmogenic dye coupler print, 23.25 × 18.5 inches; © 1995 by Fumiko Nozawa, courtesy of Sepia International Inc.
My Mother’s Chest of Drawers # 2, 1995, Chronmogenic dye coupler print, 23.25 × 18.5 inches; © 1995 by Fumiko Nozawa, courtesy of Sepia International Inc.

In 1968, a couple of months into first grade at St. Mary’s Elementary School in Ayer, Massachusetts, I notice that my desk is looking kind of funky.

From where I sit, I can peer into the desk of the little girl in the next row: mainly empty, with a neat stack of construction paper, a pair of blunt scissors, a box of crayons, and a few pencils lined up in a groove.

Mine, on the other hand, is overflowing with crumpled, crisscrossed papers—spelling tests, math worksheets, stick-figure drawings, a turkey made from a toilet-paper roll, a laboriously copied excerpt from A. A. Milne, with every p backward: “Christopher Robin went hoppity, hoppity, hoppity, hoppity hop…” When I reach inside to scrabble around for a crayon, my hand lands in a puddle of Elmer’s glue.

I’m not sure how this has happened, and I don’t have a clue what to do about it, but I know it’s not right. Whenever Sister Mary Monica—an immense, stern woman in a black veil and floor-length habit—moves to the back of the room, I hunch over my desk, sliding from side to side in my chair so she can’t see inside. This strategy is futile: Sister stands over me, glowering, while I empty my desk contents into my schoolbag. I am too embarrassed to show my work at home; each of the pages contains a mistake, a misspelled word, a misshapen letter. So instead I cart my heap of clutter back and forth to school with me, papers erupting out the top of my bag.

Thirty-six years later, I am sitting on the floor in my home office, paying bills. My desk is so littered with papers—unpaid bills, unanswered letters, outdated check registers, notes written on napkins and ripped envelopes, a phone number scrawled in eyeliner on an empty paper-towel roll—that I never work there. Instead, I spread out paperwork on the carpet and write on my laptop on the sofa, surrounded by books, folders, and pillows.

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