I think of desks as the home of the mind. In many particular ways, desks are the portals where ideas birth into art or action. I’m not proud to say it but mine is a mess. If our desks give us a glimpse of our thought process, I’m hoping my organized chaos implies spontaneity and invention, along with disorder. In my travels over the last few years, I’ve stood near the desks of Ernest Hemingway, Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, Madame Sun Yat-sen, and Mahatma Gandhi. Places carry their own power. They make us remember; they stimulate senses and ideas.
What can we learn about the mindset of these particular world figures just by seeing their desks?
Ernest Hemingway’s home outside Havana, called Finca La Vigia, was located near the fishing village of San Francisco de Paula. Within an estate filled with gardens, a swimming pool and a guesthouse, Hemingway often wrote in his bedroom area, a space with a bed, open to another space with a desk.
Next to his bed, a typewriter sat atop a chest-high bookshelf. Hemingway sometimes typed his manuscripts while standing up, clicking at this typewriter. Nearby was a large wooden desktop crowded with souvenirs from his life—knives, a compass, a caravan of carved elephants, photographs of women, a feather, stones, two pair of wire rimmed eyeglasses, a leather bound canteen, ammunition shells lined up like a platoon of soldiers, and a large key.
Of course, there is an urge to link each object with a story from his life or a line from his novels, but I’ll resist. It was privilege enough to just stand there, inhaling the scene. I imagined him restlessly pacing the floor until words fell into place in his mind and he hurried back to tap them out on the chest-high typewriter. Or perhaps he’d sit at his wooden desk with a glass of whiskey in his hand, wearing a half-smile triggered by the memory of the skeleton key lying on his desk. We can only guess what door and what reverie it may have unlocked.
The artist Frida Kahlo’s body was injured in a bus accident when she was a teenager, but the strength of her art and spirit endured past her lifetime, making her an icon of individuality. In her home in Mexico City, called La Casa Azul, her wheelchair was in front of her easel. Directly beside it stood her desk, lined with neatly arranged painting tools: two trays filled with bottles of painting oils, a large box with tubes of oil paint, a decorated mixing bowl, three upright books, saved stones, and, of course, a prominent picture of Diego Rivera.
Sitting on the red chair by her desk, looking at Diego’s photograph, Frida could see through the window behind the picture to the large courtyard and azure wall behind it, framing the contour of the complex. We can see the physical outline of her outer world, but we need her paintings to give us the startling images of her inner worlds.
Leon Trotsky came to Mexico City in 1936 to escape assassins sent by Stalin. His home in Mexico City was surrounded by towers, multiple courtyards, and many guards. He spent much of his time at his desk, reading, writing, and dictating his thoughts onto the wax cylinders of his Edison Dictating Machine. Like Hemingway, there was a bed in his study, where he rested between long working hours. He was writing a manuscript on the hidden side of Stalin’s rule.
In history’s twists, the boyfriend of Trotsky’s loyal secretary was allowed entry to discus with Trotsky a political article he wrote. This young man was an envoy of Stalin. He smuggled an ice axe into the compound and attacked Trotsky with a mortal blow at this very desk.
Madame Sun Yat-sen, also named Soong Chiang-ling, was the second wife of Sun Yat-sen, who overthrew the Manchu dynasty and founded the Chinese Republic. Her life was intricately braided to China’s history. She has been called the “Mother of China” by both the Kuomingtang and the Communist Party, competing revolutionary movements. But it’s her desk that I focus on, located in her bedroom on the Beijing estate where she lived from 1968 until the day she passed away in 1988.
This large room held her desk, her vanity table, her bed, and several large armchairs circled around a low table. What struck me was the absence of divisions in this room. She wrote, applied her cosmetics, slept, and greeted officials all in the same space. This seems a philosophic statement, to overlap all her functions in one open place. It also seems particularly female—to live life with porous borders between the personal and professional.
Mahatma Gandhi’s room in Mumbai reflected his extreme simplicity. A white mat on the floor with one pillow served as his bed, his sofa, and his reception place. Alongside the bed sits a short writing table with a slanted top and indenture for pens. This small piece of furniture is hardly two feet tall. From 1917 to 1934 Gandhi worked in this room in Mumbai, the home of a friend, as he crafted many of his non-cooperation, non-violent, home rule movements. Dressed in a loincloth, sitting cross-legged on the white floor mat, surrounded by cotton spinning wheels, Gandhi’s vision was seeded in words written on this tiny desk.
Back to my messy desk. Even in an age of computers, where information can be digitally archived, my papers are strewn all over. There are many categories in my life. I research various subjects, write books and blogs, and tend to business and social matters. The papers co-mingle randomly. Yet having them out at eye level helps me to remember, prompts my conscious and subconscious mind to think about or act on what’s in the pile. I will never write a work of fiction, nor be an artist, nor a political figure. But just thinking about these desks comforts me somehow. It helps me believe that when we sit at our desks, we can figure out just what is in our minds. And maybe we can write or create something from this home plate that will make our own contribution to the world.