Thursday, January 05, 2006

What is the Greek word for "fear of basements?"

I grew up in a house with a basement. Two of my three brothers lived down there. The washing machine and dryer were down there. So were the ping-pong table, my father's workbench, the oil tank, the oil burner, the electric meter, two very musky, mildewy, and over-stuffed closets, and countless shadowy creatures I never actually saw, but was convinced lived down there.

During all of my growing up time, I hated that basement. Rare was the time that I ventured down there without loudly beating heart, a well-marked escape route, and deeply-treaded shoes tied securely on my growing feet. Plus there were the occasional NYC sized waterbugs that would scamper from pillar to post right when I was at the narrowest part of the hallway at the greatest distance from both exit doors. I hated it down there.

With all the lights blazing, the windows clamped shut, doors locked from inside and out, even then I was terrified. Every sound triggered a new round of heart palpitations. Every shadow a shudder. Every movement a moan. It was that basement that taught me how to count stairs on the run, how to get up them two or three at a time, and never to turn my back on the light source. Keep the light between me and whatever is unknown. Darkness had to be avoided at all costs. When in doubt, sprint for the stairs, and take them in pairs.

Two years after I graduated from college and returned to Brooklyn to teach at my high school alma mater, I asked my parents the unthinkable: I asked if I could rent the basement bedroom and bathroom and make it my home for a year or two. They agreed. Before I moved any of my belongings down there, I made a thorough inspection of the entire space. I opened the closet doors and discovered coats that my parents had worn in earlier, thinner days - coats that would later catch the eye of my vintage-hungry students. I found books that I'd read as a child, books I'd been forbidden to read (Letters to Karen, A Hiding Place, and Arnold Schwarzenner's books about working out among them), and the carcasses of many dead bugs that never had found water. I swept, vacuumed, cleaned, organized, alphabetized, replaced old bulbs with newer and brighter ones, and made myself at home.

I learned to enjoy the flickering shadows created by scented candles, the minute but irresistable glow at the end of the stick of incense, and the hypnotizing glow of the television screen there in my new basement hideaway. And darkness, especially when Steve came to visit and spend the weekend, became a welcome friend.

Right around that same time, back in the very early 1990's I was learning to rattle around and make myself at home in another dark place: the recesses of my own heart and mind. I'd climbed out of the dungeon of a suicidal depression after breaking up with my first serious relationship during my sophmore year in college. I'd scampered out of the cellar of serious loneliness during a six and half month stint in Europe as a senior in college. It wasn't all about me though; I'd looked on in horror as college friends and alumni drank themselves to death. I watched one friend agonize over the decision to have an abortion; on the one hand, she so longed to carry the child to term. On the other, she knew that her parents, her friends, and her college professors would be so disappointed with her decision not only to be physically intimate with a fellow student but also her desire to live with the consequences. Those were dark days indeed.

But in that basement where I lived, in the classroom where I taught, on airplanes when I traveled for business and pleasure, during the lonely walks back and forth to class in Madrid, as I held hands with a hospitalized friend who'd attempted suicide because of boyfriend troubles, even as I sit here at the homeschooling desk in tony South Charlotte, I have learned that I no longer need to fear the darkness. In fact, in the darkest times I have learned the most about myself, about my friends, and about the God I love and praise.

Sitting next to the hospital bed in North Adams, Massachusetts, as a frightened undergrad trying to comfort another frightened undergrad whose stomach had been emptied of the poison but whose heart was still groggy with terror, I reached out for her hand and found the darkness a little less eerie. While a student in Madrid with only enough money for a one way busride every day, I learned to appreciate the architecture of that grand city as none of my other classmates did. Walking home in the wee hours of the morning after public transportation stopped running, the darkness was a reminder that I'd spent all evening and far into the night with new friends. In that Brooklyn basement, the darkness provided cover for my tears when I heard the news that a beloved, perhaps over-loved, college professor had died in a plane crash.

And now years later, living in a house that has no basement, I am no further from the shadows. In fact, I now believe that when all of life is lived above ground, the inner darkness can be even deeper. Without any physical place to hide away from the prying eyes of family, friends, and neighbors, the emotional, relational, and spiritual hiding places abound. So I am learning to love the darkness. When others look at me askance and tell me to "just snap out of it," to enjoy the new clothes, to be thankful for my friends, and to take myself and my navel-gazing tendencies less seriously, I wonder what's rattling around and taking up residence in the basement of their lives. I wonder if they are as afraid of the dark down there as I used to be. I want to tell them: buy some new light bulbs, a good broom, and some strong garbage bags, tie on good running shoes just in case, plan an escape route, and take the plunge. Who knows? They may very well find long-lost treasures and family heirlooms worthy of display.

In truth, I've become enamored with venturing into the shadows. I want to know what's driving me to fill my closet with new clothes and Wonderbras; it's not just the fabulous sales at Hecht's department store. What parts of my life are feeling naked, too visible? What parts are feeling flat and need to be pumped up a little? I want to know the real reason why I'm obsessed with losing ten more pounds. I already weigh less than I did when I got married. What parts of me feel excessive and need to be trimmed? Why do I go to such great lengths to feel paralyzing guilty for every good and beautiful object I own, for every caring friend I have, and for every hug and kiss my family gives me? Why do I feel so unworthy of love and blessing? Why do I make up so many excuses for not submitting my work for publication? What happened to me to make me so unsure of my gifts and talents and so afraid of failure and rejection? Why do I clamor for the attention of people who seem to care nothing for me but ignore the advances of those who demonstrate their love freely and frequently?

I ask myself these questions - and so many more just like them - on a regular basis. I journal about them. I blog about them. I read books that claim to answer these questions. I expect my insurance company to pay my therapist so I can explore them further. And I talk to friends about them.

One fellow seeker, traveler, and questioner told me to stay right where I am: to take up permanent residence in the darkness. It is there, she assured me, that I will find both The Light of the World and myself. She sent me the reference to an obscure Old Testament verse that deserves prolonged scrutiny, but here it is with none whatsoever.

Exodus 20:21 - The people remained at a distance,
while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

1 comment:

Goddess of Leonie said...

gosh gail,

you never fail to amaze me with your writing.

this entry gave me delightful chills up my spine.

i can't wait to hold your book in my hands.

thank you for being you ~ graceful, joyful, shadow embracing you.