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Archive for November, 2007

Into The Depths

October – November 2007

When George and I got back home to Heart’s Rest last week, the chill of fall had turned the birches golden and ripened the rose hips. It also, we learned, set off a wave of migration on the part of small animals. Since we live, as one friend said, “backed up to the bush,” we have a closer relationship with some of those creatures than I’d prefer. Last year a whole family of field mice made the crawl space their home. So it seemed like a good idea, a sort of winterization project, to go down below the house this week and check things out.

I’ve been in some dark and miserable basements in my life. I’ve known cobwebby spots, dank corners, rustlings in the furnace room. But our crawl space is nothing like that. It’s neat and clean, well lighted, even warm and dry. Down there you’ll find the boiler for the in-floor heat, along with neatly stacked leftovers of caulk and paint and bathroom tile. Not the sort of place that normally gives one horrors. Of course, that was before we discovered that the packrats had moved in.

Now, packrats don’t have bad taste, per se: just catholic tastes. They collect a little bit of everything that interests them. Into their crawl space haven, these energetic rodents had hauled marigolds, green tomatoes, and herbs, all neatly clipped from the garden; short lengths of copper wire; a drill bit; a pen; corn cobs; insulation; and two of Rose’s poops, carefully transported for reasons that I’d rather not consider. Need I say they also left what seemed like thousands of their own poops?

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes about the difference between mind consciousness—that of which we are aware—and store consciousness, or the unconscious deep within each of us. He compares our unconscious mind to a basement or a plot of ground, full of seeds just waiting to sprout, and the consciousness to the living room of the house. He sometimes talks about the need to make sure that we are not watering the bad seeds that live in the basement. When, as is inevitable, those nasty things that we hide down below poke their heads into the middle of the living room, he recommends that we find something to do other than admire them. We can say hello, he says, and then turn ourselves resolutely to something more attractive. But if they are particularly hardy little plants, we will need to explore their roots, understand their power, in order to keep them out of the living room where they keep raising havoc.

The bad seeds—the poop—in the basement is real to me in more ways than one these days. The reason for our long absence from home, which afforded the opening of our crawl space Packrat Paradise, is that we were in Portland with my mother, living through the end of her life. I had the grace to be with her throughout most of the last days: hard, honest, sometimes horrifying hours, but also time leavened with humour and tenderness. And after the death then the funeral, and the reception, and the service at the retirement centre, and the committal service, and sorting and cleaning out the apartment, and work commitments made months ago.

And then there was the beginning of family life without her, without, now, either of our parents. Exhaustion and grief—seasoned with a soupcon of self-righteousness and a dash of resentment—not only watered but also fertilized the seeds in the basement of my psyche. In what I wish was uncharacteristic behaviour, I lost my temper with a sibling or two. Not nearly as much or as often as I wanted to, I discovered. I ended up feeling lots of things I didn’t want to feel.

So I have been rooting out the poop in the basement these days. I have had to recognize that I didn’t ask for the help I needed. I didn’t take care of myself when I could have. And above all, I didn’t say the things I needed to say because I didn’t want to make anyone else uncomfortable. Instead I squashed those “bad” thoughts and feelings down; but it’s as if I were sitting on top of Jack’s beanstalk. Eventually that big plant and those noxious blooms take over the middle of the living room, just when I think I’m having a civilized conversation.

Now, this destructive behaviour often masquerades as niceness—sort of like the marigold blossoms and the herbs and the bits of copper wire that the packrats drag down to their nest. And certainly those things are pretty and useful, at the right time and place. But not this time, not this place, not for me.

There are things to be ignored—well, we can’t get rid of every rodent on the property, can we?—and things that need to be changed. So in the crawl space, traps have been set and garbage bags filled and in the next day or two someone’s going to come screen off the entrance hole that the packrats found. This has not been easy or comfortable—just ask George, who did the most of it. As for the rats in my own basement, well, I’m working on those too. Trying to fill the garbage bags with poopy old feelings and resentments, and setting traps to catch a behaviour as it begins. I’ve got some help, too, from friends who are smarter than me, who are trying to show me how to keep the rats out entirely. It might just be that if I can see my grief clearly—not just the present grief about losing my mother, but the grief about the way that the role I’ve played for years has locked me in place—I won’t have to be so hurt, and so angry. My basement won’t have to be such a nasty place.

Copyright © 2007 Mary Therese DesCamp