When my house was a Volunteers of America shelter for battered women and their children, some of the more difficult kids were apparently shut in the back room of the basement to ride out their tantrums. That room has a concrete floor, institutional fluorescent lighting, a tiny window. At adult eye level the door has a one way glass panel. It’s undeniably creepy. You wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a poltergeist. Whatever went on down there, it left some of its dark energy behind.
Until recently the basement was crammed top to bottom with junk, repository of my refusal to accept that the life I used to have, as well as the life I thought I’d have, are gone. There are still bins of “good” china down there, each piece wrapped in newspapers from 2004. Framed Ray Harm wildflower watercolors. Our wedding invitation, which I designed and was so proud of. Jonathan’s books and camera equipment and weights. And, most terrifying of all, Jasper’s baby clothes and toys and paraphernalia. Every last thing he wore or played with or used, saved for Balthazar.
I guess that’s why the scary basement is a trope in horror movies. The bad guy down there is a metaphor for all the things inside ourselves we don’t want to face.
So I’ve been spending a lot of time down there lately, divesting. Trying to face the stuff, and myself, head on. On the Tuesday before Balthazar’s birthday I drove to Northwest Children’s Outreach with five large bins of clothes. I was liberal in allowing myself to keep things of Jasper’s I especially love: tiny Vans printed with orange spiders, a black t-shirt with a panda on it, monster-faced rain boots, tea collection origami and dragon print pi’s. Still, when you have saved every last item, it adds up to a lot. A couple of elderly men helped me unload my car. The capable coordinator transferred everything to garbage bags and gave the bins back to me. And then it was done. Children in need will get those clothes for free. I only cried a little.
The Tuesday after Balthazar’s birthday I took two high chairs, a stool, a diaper Dekor, some clothes and many, many toy cars, ambulances, firetrucks, garbage trucks and front-end loaders to Goodwill. A woman pulled up behind me at the drop off station and started unloading things from her trunk.
“Ah, the baby stuff,” she said knowingly when she saw my pile. “It’s so hard to let go of that!”
“I held onto it much longer than I should have,” I admitted, smiling.
“How old?” she asked. Wanting to know just how deep my procrastination, or maybe my sentimentality, ran.
“It’s a long story,” I began. But really it’s not. “My older son is nine,” I said. “And my younger son would be three.”
There it was, so smoothly done it might have slid right past her. The tenor of my voice, the expression on my face, nothing changed. She didn’t recoil, or even really react. She kept talking. She told a story about her practical husband and how even he had not wanted to let go of certain baby items. And then she said have a good day and I said you too and I drove off. Good for you, she called as I left.
And that, apparently, is how it’s done. How it will be done. For the rest of my life.
When I’m finished with this project, when I’ve been to FreeGeek and the hazardous waste dump and the regular dump and Goodwill again, what will be left are things that serve the life I have now or the life I hope to have in the future: camping equipment and Christmas decorations, primarily. I still don’t know where the fifty copies of the Australian edition of The Painted Kiss with the smutty cover fit into my future scenario—a free gift for future airbnb guests? If nothing else, a clean basement will mean less work when, or if, I have to sell the house.
If I have to sell the house. The current seems to be moving me inexorably in that direction, and all my sleepless nights and all my efforts to prevent it seem to have come to naught.
During a very difficult week not long ago, my friend Emiliee found me sobbing in the locker room at the gym. That night I received this encouraging message from her: Beautiful girl, you can do hard things.
I’ve already done some pretty hard things. In the last three years I have walked out of a hospital without my baby. I have walked into a funeral home and collected his ashes. I have ended my marriage. I have started freelancing, found a roommate, hung onto my house and for the past year have managed keep the whole enterprise afloat. This was supposed to be the moment when it all began to knit together, when I had a steady job and things were running smoothly. When I could take a breath and think about painting the steps and buying a couple of plane tickets to New York City.
It hasn’t worked out that way.
A creative writing teacher once wrote of a character in one of my stories: “Just when you think you’ve reached the bottom of her self-esteem, the floor gives way and you realize there is another sub-basement yet to go.” That’s how I feel about the work/money thing right now. When will I find solid ground? Or will the floor keep giving way underneath me? What does the bottom look like?
A couple of nights ago I had a dream that the basement had been completely renovated, for free, by some of my friends. It had shiny white tile and natural wood, and was very clean and somehow much bigger. The basement now opened onto a promenade with trees and food carts and the sky was very blue.
In the dream I was concerned that the unspecified friends who had done all of that work might not realize how much I appreciated all that they had done, and how much I loved it. And it’s true that if supportive friends were companies I would have about eighteen jobs by now.
In December I got a fan letter from Bob in Spokane. I don't get fan mail very often and I tend to move through my daily life assuming that no one cares about my writing, those books were published so long ago, they made no impact whatsoever, etc. So the letter really touched me, especially for the last line: "like throwing a stone into a pond, we never know where the ripples may end.”
I’m trying to keep in mind that one of the many stones I’ve thrown in the past few months might have already created a little current that will float me to some as-yet-unimagined place, with plane trees and taco trucks and subway tile and unfinished oak floors and cool air and bright sunshine.