I spent the better part of a long weekend cleaning my basement last month. There were boxes stacked on top of boxes, partially spilled boxes on top of the spillage from other boxes, and the debris left over from some fun game my son played with his friends. That is just the beginning of the mess.
We have a specially constructed set of shelves for the boxes that hold the Christmas decorations, and those shelves were bare but surrounded by the partially packed boxes waiting to be stored on those shelves. We also have the rejected and forgotten furniture from the early part of our marriage shoved along the walls. Sofas, chairs, and dressers, once useful and necessary in our life, now waiting for some second chance that will never, ever come. As they wait, the cats have used them to sharpen claws, and to deposit the occasional hair ball. Coated with shed hair, they reek of mildew and bile.
Beneath the stairs, there is an impossibly packed collection of old toys, Easter decorations, craft supplies, Halloween decorations, more toys, and dress-up clothes. In the event of a tornado, that space will be the safest place in the house, and perhaps our only chance for survival, but there is no way in hell we’ll be able to make room for all of us. Even if we could unpack it, there is no place to put those things, and we’d be forced to carry them back upstairs, back into the path of danger. We are doomed if a tornado strikes.
A basement is like a reflection of the dark recesses of your soul. In our case, it reveals our profound laziness, and how we lack the fortitude to dispose of the things in our life we no longer need. Rather than offer these things, many of them serviceable, to the poor or needy, we pack them away for some undefined future need. I suppose children’s play clothes may come back in style, but no one who lives here will be able to fit into them.
If Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” were made into a movie these days, it would be Dorian’s basement in suburban America that revealed his flaws of character and sinful misgivings. Instead of the deep wrinkles, sunken eyes, and hateful expression on a portrait, it would be the cluttered, smelly, and filthy basement that Dorian would hide from public view.
My wife is horrified to know that I allowed our friends into our basement during its worst state of being. I was not deluded into thinking it was no big deal; I am a man, and sometimes clutter and filth mean little to a man, especially when it is shown to another man. Nevertheless, I was not impervious to the shame.
At its nadir, we had four cats and two dogs. The cats’ litter box was in the basement, and the dogs, perhaps drawn by the various smells, were wont to sneak downstairs to relieve themselves. Two of the cats became intolerant of the others, backed themselves into a cluttered corner, and turned several of our boxes into litter trays. I became afraid that cholera or typhus might be lurking amongst the feces or urine that was starting to accumulate.
Over the span of three days, I spent over twenty hours cleaning the mess. Each day I worked myself into a sweat, and reached a point of despair not quite knowing what to do with certain things. I filled numerous trash bags, and rearranged vast swaths of basement territory.
The operation itself was not unlike solving a Chinese puzzle. I needed to clear a certain area in order to use it for swap space when, later on, I’d clear another. What made it possible, ultimately, was my wife’s absence. She was gone for the long weekend visiting a sick friend, and I was able to spend long stretches below ground level, tearing through the vestiges of our former, happy life. Old pictures, old books, old magazines; what, exactly, possessed us to save so very much garbage?
When I was finished, there was still a great deal of unneeded things in the basement, but I had arranged them to create space and the illusion that we knew what we were doing. While I was working, I had secretly thought that I might stumble upon something — a toy, a hat, an old album — that would cheer me up and make me believe it was all worth the effort. I found no such thing.
I did discover that tidying up my life gives me a warmth and happiness inside, like I might just know what I’m doing with my future after all, if only I can clean up my past.