Friday, February 18, 2005

What's that smell?

I couldn’t resist. On the way home from my writing class last night, I stopped in at Wal-Mart. Even at 9:30, reconstruction was in full swing. Outside the building, ladders and scaffolds were peopled by burly, surly workmen who undoubtedly wished they were at home watching Donald Trump pompously fire some pompous and over-ambitious upstart. Or perhaps there was an NC State basketball game they had been looking forward to all week long, but there they were – replacing the light fixtures, repairing the chipped façade, and otherwise doing their part to bring the metamorphosis to completion.

I headed inside to find the dental floss they didn’t have during my early morning visit last week, or at least that’s the excuse I was willing to give to anyone who asked. Truthfully, I was being nosy. Since last week, they have added new cash registers with high-tech screens and scanners. The pharmacy area is still behind wooden barricades, so I had to take a rather wide detour around it to get to the dental care section. As I strolled past the much-expanded magazine rack and marveled at the great variety of periodicals that I would never in my life choose to read, I was wrenched out of my quiet reverie by a horrific odor. It was a nauseating cross between the smell of overturned dirt at a garbage dump and an overflowing septic tank. Even before my mind had time to completely form the question, “What is that smell?” my watering eyes found the source: an open trench about 18 inches deep in the middle of the floor. Something had obviously gone terribly wrong underfoot, and the ground had to be opened up in order to solve the problem. Nevertheless, while all that work was going on, while the very earth under my feet was being excavated, the store was still open for business. People were pushing carts and piling up goods to haul home.

As I gazed down into that pungent pit, I was reminded of a sermon taught by Ian Cron years ago at Trinity Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. He told the story of the basement in his childhood home and the absolute certainty he had that a bogeyman lurked down there. Because of the odd smells and inexplicably spooky sounds that came up from the basement, he hated going down there. As far as his young mind was concerned, absolutely nothing down there warranted his personal attention. If there was anything that needed to be put down there or retrieved from there, he would either let someone else in his family do it or he would run down and back without pausing to look around for fear of what he might discover.

He extended that description to the basement of our hearts, minds, and lives. We sometimes open the door to the basement of our hearts and toss things down there: a painful memory, a conversation that we’d rather forget, or the memory of how we injured someone we claim to love. There are times when we know there’s a lot stored there that must be sorted through and discarded, but it’s easier to just leave it all alone. For as long as possible we avoid all encounters with everything that lies beneath.

In my own life, inevitably there arises from the darkened depths of my heart an especially noxious smell that I cannot ignore. Sometimes it is the smell of a dying relationship that proves to be overpowering. Or perhaps I hear the sounds of what I think are wild animals down there. The voice of a needy friend I abandoned years ago cries out for forgiveness and restoration. The echoes of lies I have told, of hurtful words I have uttered, and of right words I spoke out of wrong motives resound again and again from caves in my soul that I thought had long been ago been shut up tight with bricks and stones of self-righteousness. Gradually, the stones begin to shift, and I realize that someone is in the cave trying to break down the wall that is keeping out the light.

Ian said that at those times, Jesus Himself is rattling around the basement of our lives, looking through all the anger, the resentment, the guilt, and sorrow, and the bitterness we have stored in leaky barrels in our hearts. He is wading through the sewage, knocking on the basement door from the inside, and offering me the option of pulling the plug that will let all the silt and slime drain out. His noisy, unsettling presence means I cannot ignore the soggy, smelly mess anymore. It’s nasty work, but Somebody’s gotta do it.

While all the renovation is being down in the innermost parts, life above ground has to go on. Perhaps I have to set up temporary detours around certain people and situations in order to avoid stirring up the old resentments. Perhaps I need to set up barricades that prevent me from stumbling into those sulfur-scented cesspools of anger, hatred, and prejudice that I seem to be magnetically attracted to. Unfortunately, while the ongoing work of emotional and spiritual construction goes on internally, externally I still have to be a wife and mother, a sister and a daughter, an aunt and a friend, even when I’d rather close up shop and do the work of soul rebuilding without impediment or interference. But life, like Wal-Mart, is a 24 hour business.

After I peered into that smelly trench for a while, peeked around the pharmacy barrier one more time, and eavesdropped on the crew setting up the new rifle display, I grabbed two packages of dental floss, two sets of pens for rubber stamping projects Kristiana and I are working on, and rushed home to watch ER. I wonder what will be new at Wal-Mart next week when I go back for a brand new toilet snake.

No comments: