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A Powerful Trickle

Saturday, December 14, 2019

It was November 18 when I went down to the basement with the intention of getting some of the dozen broken office chairs out of there. The basement was a mess, and I thought that might be a good place to start--get big, easily carried things out so I'd have a little room to move. Our basement has been a miasma of junk for decades. The kind of thing I would close off when people came to visit, except that our guest room was downstairs, so everybody wound up seeing it and probably having to decide whether they liked us anyway. As I bent down to pick one up, I noticed a puddle on the floor. You never want to see a puddle on the floor of your basement. Tracing it back, I found that something in the kitchen plumbing had been leaking down into the basement for some time--perhaps as long as a month. I raced upstairs and found a basin my plumber had put under the water inflow tap when he replaced my faucet in late October. It was level full.  One of the new hoses he'd put in was bad. The undersink area was floating and foul. Everything was wet and it had been coming down the wall and onto the shelves on which Bill had stored many, many boxes of miscellaneous papers that described his high school, college and early work life. So many boxes of papers and photos, and most of them were sopping wet. I knew I had to go through every damn one of them.

This is the kind of thing that will spur even the most work-averse person to action: saturated boxes of stuff. Water and mildew wait for no one. Already it smelled funky. That first afternoon, I waded right in, and six hours later I had gotten the wet stuff pulled over toward the door. It was heavy, it was gross, and it was soul-sucking work. I had to save my paintings, which had been sitting in their boxes on the floor in a puddle of water for I don't know how long. I unwrapped them all, dried them off, and reboxed them. The next day I started early and ended after bedtime, and I got most of that wet wall cleared out and the shelves cleaned.

It was daunting. I took a break for a couple of days so I wouldn't lose my soul. Liam came home for Thanksgiving break. Cooking commenced. I loaded the dishwasher for the first time in months. Turned it on. Unbeknownst to me, water shot out of a huge hole in the dishwasher's drain hose, under the sink, out onto the floor, and right back down into the basement. I figured it out when Liam's feet got wet on the other side of the kitchen. This flood was ten times the size of the last one. I could not catch a break from water. Back downstairs I went, mopping, sopping, pulling stuff out of water, saving what I could, combing through things, laying things out to dry that were precious and still salvageable. Tossing. Tossing. Tossing. 

I became a drone to cleaning. It was all I could think about, all I could do. I knew that I would have to remain in this mindset until that basement was done, cleared out and cleaned. The motivation and mindset might not come around again for another 30 years, so I'd better go with it. The right bay of the garage began to fill up with junk. Ritualistically, I'd load the garden cart and haul it up the hill to the garage. Somehow that felt like getting rid of it, felt right. I was staging it for pickup, and I wanted to make pickup as easy as possible for whomever did it.

90 percent of the stuff I had to get rid of was Bill's. The extent to which he'd accumulated and squirrelled away useless crap became shockingly clear. So many boxes of papers, old love letters; none of them to or from me. Stacks of photos, feet high. Old holey T-shirts. Contractor bag after bag of clothing, bird festival shirts, things that hadn't fit him in years. Boxes to every new thing he had ever bought. Might need to return it. Save the box. Files from his work history, from school back to high school. Broken office chairs (eight!) which, rather than put in the dumpster at work, he. brought. home. and. put. in. our. basement. He didn't announce it, he just did it. He couldn't throw anything out. There were six old suitcases, each one of them, surprise! jammed with mildewed worthless clothing.  Everything he didn't want, he piled in that basement, and he never dealt with it again. When he left to go live down the road in September 2017, he took only the things he wanted--his best guitars and music equipment; his favorite clothes and shoes. The rest he left behind, never to look at it again. The rest was left to me.

This is after countless loads were taken out. I don't have photos of the basement as it was when the flooding started. Who would photograph that?

 For 27 years, I'd lived an upstairs/downstairs kind of life, trying not to see the mess in the basement, even as I kept the upstairs as clean and orderly as I could. For most of our married life, I cleaned religiously, once a week. Friends told me that was too much. I didn't see it that way. I had a job to do. As I worked on the downstairs, picking through Bill's endless crap, I came to the epiphany that this house was a perfect mirror of my parents' home. My mother was a clean freak. My dad was a creative slob. Upstairs was hers; downstairs was his.  Upstairs was warm and clean and cozy with cookies and coffee brewing and two rooms with really nice furniture that nobody much sat on, and a family room where everybody did everything, and a kitchen  always humming with industry. And then there was The Basement. There, DOD had four lathes, any number of antique gasoline engines under re-construction; walls hung with tools; boxes of who knows what...there he did his thing. Ida had to go down there to do our laundry; she had to pick her way through that miasma every day, and she couldn't do a damn thing about it, because it was all HIS.  It drove her absolutely nuts. When I was a kid, I used to wonder why she seemed to be mad at him almost all the time. I have come to the realization that it was likely that mess of a basement and all it symbolized that had her doing a slow burn, one I could smell.

We wind up living our parents' lives. I don't know how we do it, but we do.

Way back on June 15, 2018, after Bill had moved out, but before he got sick,  I got a reading from an intuitive named Ellen Bone. One of the things she said that stuck with me was that my house was upset. She told me houses have souls, and can make their feelings known. I listened, trying to imagine this. She said my house was worried that I wouldn't be able to take care of it, and worried that I was going to leave, too (Bill had been out of the house for nine months by then). Well, at that point I had my doubts as to whether I was going to be able to take care of it, too. Suddenly being charged with doing absolutely everything around here was throwing me for a loop. There was a lot of stuff Bill did that I lacked the skills or know-how to do. He'd stop over and do a few things now and then, but he had his hands full fixing up his house now. I was on my own, and this was a lot of house to handle. I was struggling with the concept of having to hire people to help me. I was overwhelmed.

This reading came back to me as I grunted and lifted and dragged crap out of the basement, mopping the wet floors and sorting through every dumb pointless box, looking for things I shouldn't toss. I thought about how not once, but twice in a row, and in completely unrelated incidents, the house took matters into its own hands, sending cascades of water down onto all the junk that was clogging its ch'i. The flooding, I realized, might have been an act of desperation on the part of a house that had simply had enough of chaos and miasma. Or it might have been chance. Bad hoses. Rotten drain tubes. Whatever. It had happened twice, and why it happened was immaterial. All that mattered was how I reacted to it. This house was calling me to arms, and I had no choice but to sign on for whatever was ahead.


That may have been the hardest thing you have ever done but it has given you full control of your life. And you can now sushi free of junk.

The house called and you answered with all of your energy, hard work, and love. It's hard to imagine so much work, but overflowing flooding waters have a way of energizing us to action. Well done, dear friend.

A turning point as powerful as any could be. I caught that one particularly well-crafted sentence. Blessings, Lady.

You are a champion.

Julie, I am so glad you are getting rid of the moldy wet detritus. You and the house will be so much better for it. My folks' junk was in the attic as we had no basement. When cleaning after Dad was gone in the mid 90's we found all the financial crap (and it was!) of his parents, who had both been gone since 1962. Every tax return, every receipt for furniture, each cancelled check. Mom was horrified. Felt so good to be rid of it all.

This was a terrible and wonderful thing that happened to you. I’m sorry...and I’m glad.

What MarilynT said – terrible and wonderful. Very much a metamorphosis, from which you are emerging lighter, freer, and I suspect happier. For that I am so happy for you. Unfortunately for me, it made me ponder the state of MY home and marriage....

Interesting that you had a reading with Ellen Bone. I have too, and she is sometimes spot-on.

Posted by Louise Barton December 15, 2019 at 3:11 AM

“We wind up living our parents' lives. I don't know how we do it, but we do.”

I’m at the age where that line, not of course original with you, really resonates with me... often feel I even know approximately when and under what circumstance I will die just from knowing their lives; genes hold such a powerful sway over us. Between the interplay of genes, cycles, Karma, and the atoms set in motion in a big bang 13+ billion years ago, our paths often seem more scripted than any result of "free will."

Whoever told you that cleaning once a week is too much is wrong. The time to clean is before it really needs it. Then it is easily done and quickly finished. If you wait until you actually see dirt, it will take much longer and be harder to do.

I death-cleaned my uncles' house after they died. Not just the basement, but the entire house was filled with useless crap. (old newspapers, boxes of the plastic sleeves they came in, every piece of mail they ever received...) Fortunately, my husband was able to help me clear everything out (in the very largest dumpster they had... filled to the brim.) I sold the place "as is" because after spending so much time just clearing it out, I had absolutely no nostalgia for the place anymore and just wanted my life back. This served as an object lesson, and we live a much more minimalistic life-style than they did. Our possessions possess us much more than we possess them.

Posted by mimimanderly December 15, 2019 at 3:54 AM

You know I had to stop and take deep breaths as I read this. Big. Deep. Sighs. It's amazing just how much crap we keep, isn't it? For no real reason. I am so, so proud for you and can almost feel how much lighter and happier your house is now. xo

“Object” lesson indeed mimimanderly. Is the US the only place where storage facilities are big business? I’ve always said that our possessions begin to own us. I have done several death cleanings for relatives, I seem to be the person. Trying to clear the way for my kids. We recently had a ceremonial burning of my dead ex husband’s high school letter sweater.

@Marilyn Kircus perhaps you meant "sashay?" Ha ha!!!

@robin andrea thank you. Work in progress, still in progress.

@digitalzen gimme a hint-- which one?

@Michelle Your plight makes me think of a book I read early on in our union, called "The Bitch in the House." So painfully, shockingly to the point that I immediately wished I'd never heard of it. Hint: Don't read it. I am tempted to re-read, now that I'm (mostly) on the other side of this, but there was a toxicity about it that nobody needs, so I'll leave it lie unless it pops up in the book purge! I hope not to spread toxicity, but I do hope to make people re-examine their relationship with stuff. That relationship often mirrors interpersonal relationships as well.

Louise, I have a line on someone fantastic. Saving it for when I have the mental space to do it.

@mimimanderly, I've no doubt your minimalist lifestyle was inspired by the work your uncles left you. Good Lord!! Enjoy your wings.

@Jayne, you know. You know!!!

@Bonnie, you're a rock. I hope your days of cleaning up other people's junk are over. You CAN say no! You dn't always have to take the dirty jobs. I did a small ceremonial burning too. Most of it was too wet to burn!

Oh Julie, you didn't spread toxicity; I was well aware I'm living with it. Still learning how to live with it, live in SPITE of it....

So sorry you were forced to deal with this mess. But you and the house will be the better for all your hard work. I'm sure it was cleansing in more ways than one.

In our household, one of us likes to organize and dispose of things (or recycle); the other claims "I'll need it some time...just wait."
Well, the day came--a broken transistor radio (no kidding...) and from it a small piece of plastic cut out and used to repair who knows what. But the message was--see, I told you I'd need this for something,
Guess who's the disposer in this story.

@KGMom that is always the rationale. And darned if, the day after you finally toss something, you don't need it again. When you live as far out in the sticks as I do, that's a problem. However. Far, far better to have to go get something you need than to house 10,000 things on the slight chance that you MAY need them someday. Because 9,999 times, you won't.

Amen Julie, amen!

Thoughts of water intrusion (from inside the house) and performing keep/donate/discard triage of another persons possessions, are two things that have, on occasions, robbed me of slumber or permeated my dreams.

Though as you wrote, water and mildew wait for no one.

I’ve had a few of those calls to action. Cleanup and damage inventory is exhausting, though as @marylin pointed out, it is a relief to have more control over your life.

Hi, Julie. I hope you won't be offended when I say that as a reader of the blog since about 2012, and a just-finished reader of Saving Jemima, I've been wondering how the heck you could have dealt with the whole ball of life complications without at least a little anger. I confess I'm relieved to see that you do have a few of the same human reactions I would have had. (Not having had the Jemima experience, I probably would have had a lot more of them.) Keep working at the house; I'm guessing that it's vital therapy. And do keep going in posts here till you get to the lovely pottery you've been showing us on Instagram!

Happy holidays to you, Phoebe, Oscar, Liam, and of course that beautiful boy Curtis.

I admire your grit and determination to get through that massive amount of work. It's so hard. I only had a few weeks to clean out my mom's house after she passed. Shockingly many of her friends gave me a hard time for donating what I could and tossing the rest. They repeatedly said how awful it was that I was keeping so few of her things. Throwing them away was not equivalent to throwing her away! My mom was not returning and she did not exist in her pots and pans. I missed her terribly, but keeping her junk didn't make me feel better. I was relieved once it was all cleared out.

The greatest thing my fantastic mom left to me is that I know, with solid confidence, how very much she loved and had faith in me. No one can ever take that away. It won't fall into disrepair, rot or go out of fashion. Storage is simple as I keep it in my heart and hear her voicing encouragement in my head. Every parent should make sure to leave that behind for their kids. Not their old furniture and 10 years worth of magazines.

Good luck with the rest of your project! I hope it brings peace to your heart.

The butterfly is feeling it’s wings. Fly, Julie!

TL, you are so right! I took some flack from a couple of my uncles' friends for throwing so much of his stuff away so indiscriminately. But there was just so much stuff that sometimes, undoubtedly, things I would have kept or sold may have gotten thrown away. I'm not an archaeologist; I wasn't about to sift through every little thing. As it was, I kept some things, donated or sold others. But the rest was just trash to me.

As I always tell acquaintances who I consider "hoarders", if only because I consider myself a "minimalist": you can keep the memories without keeping the mementoes.

Posted by mimimanderly December 18, 2019 at 4:00 AM

Girl!! This is speaking to me!

eek.... I am on the other side of this...HOWEVER, I am not the one who has beer brewing stuff that was used just 2x and who had an Indian restaurant save a bunch of (wait for it) Kingfisher bottles... yeah.. that really is an Indian beer. I feel as if I am a historian of junk, but I do sympathise with you and it is totally your house to clean up as you wish.

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