For our upcoming move to Brazil in July, we are only taking 15 suitcases. No furniture, no shipments. For all five of us, just clothes, books, toys and kitchen items that will fit in suitcases on the plane. Since November, we’ve been selling, donating, and giving our stuff away, preparing to eventually shed 95% of the contents of our house.
As each weekend approaches, I start to peer into cabinets and closets. I find an excuse to go survey the basement crawl space. I’m making mental lists: the mitre saw, the Halloween decorations. The old coolers, the potty training toilet, the roasting pan and the ice cream maker. On Saturday morning, my hands are positively itching, and when the baby goes down for his nap, I throw on sneakers and head down into the crawl space.
Like a classic southern crawl space, it doesn’t literally require me to crawl, but it has unfinished dirt walls, exposed beams and a dirt floor. It has some patches of concrete poured onto the ground, but it’s basically a dirt room under my house. The walls show the red Tennessee clay that holds up our 1935 bungalow. I can see where tree roots were severed to dig the foundation, probably done by hand by someone grateful for job digging foundation holes after the Depression. And like a slowly-decomposing work of art, the dirt walls continuously shed a dermis of dust and dirt onto everything down there. The longer something has been sitting in the crawl space, the thicker the layer of red dust.
The dust is a way to date oblivion.
It’s creepy down there. The stairs are rattly and there are strange cricket-spider creatures. I inevitably track dirty footprints around the house when I emerge. But I also love it. That crawl space is living. It’s walls are slowly crumbling, dust to dust. It is the pull of entropy on my house, a measure of the passage of time. I don’t have the energy or desire to go down there and sweep up the dirt that mounds at the base of the earthen walls, but I could. I could fight the decomposition, or at least tidy it up. It would always win, though. And it’s just a room for storage. No one sees it but us. So we feel free to hide things in it, usually things we want to pretend don’t exist. It’s a room of decisions deferred. There’s the antique wood rocking chair that I rocked my firstborn in. I broke the caning on the back of the chair within the first few months. Perhaps I was rocking too vigorously, jamming my shoulder blades back too hard in my first-time-mom agony and exhaustion. Either way, the back split and so it went into the basement.
There’s the cable box we never connected and the landline phone for the line we canceled. The only people who called it were my dad and telemarketers. My fins and snorkeling mask are down there along with my scuba certification. Two camera tripods, even though I no longer own a camera. There’s a gourd that’s been painted to look like Santa. Baking dishes from dead grandmothers’ kitchens. Empty file folders. Ice skates and roller blades. This whole basement ages me. I don’t roller blade or scuba dive anymore. Honestly, my children might want those items before I ever get a chance to use them again.
It could be called the Kingdom of Might down there. I might need that landline again. I might want to rollerblade again some day. I might find someone who can re-cane that rocking chair.
No. No I won’t. I know that for sure now. It’s amazing to clear away all that might clutter. Now I focus on can. I can finish my next novel. I can move to South America in July. I can go blow bubbles outside with my kids instead of reorganizing all the crap I’m storing in the crawl space. And now that I’ve given away the rollerblades and the mitre saw and the empty folders, I am no longer burdened with the weight of all the things I might be doing, all the things clamoring for my attention.
I know now what deserves my attention. My family. My teaching. Travel. My writing. I don’t need a mitre saw or a snorkel. Those are not the things I wish I was doing. I want to be writing. Or reading a new book, or playing Memory with my kids.
And I can.