The basement makes me feel bad. I have done so many things there in the past. But the memory of those days of radio building, photograph developing, and a hundred other projects and activities nags me. I don’t do that much in the basement anymore. It’s a place where we store things we don’t need and probably never did.
About four years ago, I started very seriously to write dissertation. I put aside all my extracurricular activities. The pinhole camera sat alone on the table where I cut the photo paper I used to create negatives. The crystal radio became a lonely object. The painting easels and paints were left to gather dust. The clay that we used to make heads turned hard and unpliable.
I thought, at the time I started dissertation writing, that I would get back into my other interests when I put the thing to bed. When I earned my Ph.D., I would again be that famous amateur art photographer who would one day see his pictures in famous studios. My paintings would command high prices and wow the art world.
Actually, I wanted not so much to be famous than to be active. I loved taking pictures. Light fascinates me, and the ultra-sharp nature of pinhole photographs, as well as the fuzzy impressionistic pictures of the camera obscura still move me in very fundamental ways.
And I was good at it. I had much to learn but took heartfelt and masterful pictures with my pinhole camera and camera obscura. My painting was that of the pure, untalented amateur, but that never stopped me from hanging my abstracts on the walls. I stretched my own canvases, sometimes made my own paints from linseed oil and various materials I ground myself.
These creative projects took up the time between writing projects, and, in some instances, worked for my creative self in the place of writing. In other words, the activities—building yard art, painting and taking pictures—worked against my writing responsibilities. Writing is hard. Sometimes the material isn’t there, the spark doesn’t come. Often, I sit down to my discipline and watch an empty computer screen for a couple of hours.
It’s often easier to pick up a project that shows immediate accomplishment than to write a poem, even if the results are disappointing. I’ve thrown away tens of paintings and hundreds of photos. Statues and aborted concrete structures have would up in the trash heap. But one thing I can say about fashioning a head of concrete is that no matter how much it winds up as a landfill, a failed crystal radio set is something I can touch and feel at the end, before I put it in a trash bag or take it apart to start again.
After I walked out of my dissertation defense, when my judges had become my colleagues, I thought to myself, well, dissertation is done, I can get started with the things that make me happy. Dissertation didn’t make me happy. I never felt so inadequate or demeaned. Walking away from my Ph.D., I thought that now my creative life could begin again. I figured that after a while, the spark to return to my hobbies would return.
The basements is also a record of waste. The reason places like basements and attics fill to brimming, I think, comes from three related but different impulses. One is to save those items that have some sentimental meaning. Photographs, kids’ art, and mom’s china stack up on each other because they have no place in the upstairs. They are things we want but just can’t bear to part with. Better hidden in the basement than thrown in the trash heap.
Another impulse comes from keeping things that I use only once in a while. I have shelves of camping equipment that see the outdoors about ten times a year. It, too, has no place upstairs, the closets and cabinets filled with clothes and dishes, as well as cleaning supplies, appliances, and toilet paper. The things we only use occasionally still get out on a regular basis. We can’t throw them away. For instance, we don’t want to buy new camping equipment every time we want to go live in the outside. Radio projects, photography equipment, and painting supplies also fit into this category.
The third and most depressing reason the basement fills is that we bring things into the front door in increments, a bag at a time. When the upstairs gets crowded with boxes and papers, we want to clear it out. We pick it all up and take it to the basement where we permanently plant it along with those sentimental trinkets and the stuff we use from time to time.
When I go downstairs these days, I face a disordered mess. I am not a person who needs things tidy but I despise clutter. The basement’s full of it. Just stuff that fills the place like the flood of a backed up drain. Papers and receipts that seemed so important to keep sit around in stacks. Boxes and mason jars fill the shelves. Wood scraps form a pile that takes up a whole corner.
After a while, I avoid the basement. I feel a sense of despair when I have to dig around for a tool down there. There’s just so much that I need to throw away, sort out, and get busy with. I turn my head. I feel pain. I can’t deal with it. So, I fetch my tool from the disordered piles of stuff and get on my way.
But the basement doesn’t go away. I lay awake sometimes and think about the detritus of living. I have to get down there and break the seal on the dark, forgotten side of our lives. When I have time, I either don’t have the energy or will. I forget about the basement until I have to go down there for some reason. I think, better to have the place finished and livable than to have it a cold and forbidden place.
But I don’t act on it. It stays there, unfinished, filled with my past, haunting my dreams, depressing me when I do think of it. I dread the moment when we have to move from this house and have to deal with it.
There is one solace. I don’t own things very well. It’s all disposable, except for the camping equipment. Even the tools can be thrown away. I will get a big dumpster, one of those they haul behind a truck and have it set in the driveway. Then over the course of weeks, I will take things out of that basement as they arrived down there, one thing at a time.
And those hobbies I mentioned. They may still just return to me. I can’t wait to see.