The Leak – Part I

All people can be divided into two categories.  Psychologists may quibble with me on this, but it’s simple.  The first group sees a problem and says, “Here, hand it to me.”  Think of surgeons in the OR, generals under siege, camp-directors on the rainy day, and my husband.  The second group may or may not notice the problem, but if they do they give a distracted, “Hmmm,” and go back to weeping enthralled tears over their novel.  Good examples would be Christie Mulkey and me.

On rare occasions, a soul from Category 2 is forced into Category 1.

This is my story.

A cool May morning, my husband was out of town and I was at the family helm.  As a staunch Category 2er, it is remarkable that I even noticed the sound of running water as I stood in the kitchen at 7:25 a.m. on a gym-duty Tuesday, laden with the multiple bags required for one day of school.

Unbagging myself, I assumed the crouch and head-tilt of a tracker of the woods.  Silent.  Listening.  Homing in.  Here.  Yes.  Just here.  I pulled out the refrigerator and found the tracker’s equivalent of the broken twig and partial hoofprint.  No water was evident, but the sound increased – steady, not drippy but spraying.  It thrummed against something taut and echoey.

Resolving to pray that it didn’t get worse, I pushed the fridge back and headed on to school like any good Category 2er would.  God hears us because we need Him more than Category 1ers do.

 ~

A Category 2er can’t live with a Category 1er for 26 years, as I have, without some 1 rubbing off.  So I did have a sense of urgency as I returned from school around 1:00 and trotted up the back steps, game for the task ahead.  But the phone rang and it was Eliza.  So we chatted for awhile.  2ers respect the need for quality time.  Soon, though, garbed in grungy shorts (a mistake) and clunky shoes I opened the door to the crawlspace under the house and mentally heard Edna welcome me to hell.

We live in a long rectangle of the 1969 brick-rancher variety.  The crawlspace door is at the east end and the problem site was at the west end.  Also at the west end the crawlspace finally peters out into the garage slab.  So the space narrows of course the farther one crawls on one’s knees and belly into the lair of mole-crickets, meth cookers, and general boogeymen.

I confess here that I moaned aloud.  I did.  As I crawled I moaned.  And I laughed at myself and moaned more and became a little hysterical the farther I got in.  Dodging ductwork, cursing the builders for putting the ductwork just where I needed to go, I swung wide and homed in on the thrumming sound.  A healthy spray was coming from the ice-maker hose and hitting the tarps, filling the wrinkle troughs and making mud where the tarps didn’t meet.  It was a mess.

So I called Andrew from the inky depths.  Breathing heavily, trying to sound game on point, I said, “There’s no shut-off valve, so I call a plumber, right?”

He’s a Category1er.  1ers don’t call plumbers.  1ers become plumbers.

“Oh, no.  We can fix this ourselves.”

He said ‘we’ here metaphorically.  He was 400 miles away.

He continued, “You’re going to need to turn off the water at the street.  Dry off the hose. Duct tape it thoroughly.  And I’ll replace the hose when I get back.”

I think I blacked out at this point.

When I came to, I was crawling my way back out, around the ductwork, moaning, muddy, knees shredded and stinging causing me to wonder if some vile under-the-house chemical was entering my bloodstream.  I also wondered if any of the kittens had discovered the open crawlspace.  But I couldn’t worry about them.  They were on their own.  The circle of life and all.  The door spat me out heaving on the pine straw, and I lay there looking at the blue sky.  Life.  Birds.  I had survived.  But I would have to go back in.  Could I do it?

~

I would bolster myself with lunch and then make a plan.  My legs were like rubber because I had done a good bit of crouched-ape walking under the house before I realized that this was going to be a full-body slog.  I am embarrassed to admit that my hands shook, too.  Delayed claustrophobic response, no doubt.  So it is not surprising that when I reached overhead – I am a short person in a tall people’s world – to get the lemon squeezer dish, I bobbled it onto the tile floor and it shattered.  It is a testament to my fuddledness that my first item of lunch was a lemon.  But anyway, I stood muddy-legged and barefoot amid chunks and slivers of my lemon-squeezer.

I might have blacked out here, too.

In that dark moment, when I most needed an authentic 1er to walk in and say, “Here, hand it to me,” instead one of the first wasps of the coming summer hove in through the kitchen window.  Have you noticed how gigantic those early wasps are, and how malevolent looking their dangly things?  I had to pick my battles. So I ignored the wasp, swept, palsied, and dropped things, finally plopped some three-day-old slightly funky chicken salad on a plate and retired to the porch to meditate.

Under a house, I concluded, is an unnatural place.  It is like the dark side of the moon, literally unfit for the human life form and containing the embodiment of all fears.

I couldn’t face it alone.  I would wait for Will to get home from school.

Stuffed Up

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I need a theology of stuff.  This need has come home to me recently both in sober and in light-hearted moments.

To begin with, my mom, my in-laws, and my aunt are all in the process of downsizing and moving.  That is 6 people times 70 years each of stuff accumulation.  That’s 420 years of stuff. Enough to get my attention.

Then, during my parents’ recent house clean-out, we contemplated a yard sale.  We abandoned the idea quickly for many reasons, one of them being the jarring task of putting prices on their stuff.  What does 25 cents mean when it is stuck on the carved box from Honduras?  In the end it was easier to let the box go for nothing.  As a gift it retained some of the value Dad gave it by bringing it home with him.  For a quarter it did not.

Next, on a recent evening out with a friend who manages a storage facility, she described to us the world of storage facility dysfunction.  The place is a psychologist’s dream.  You probably never considered a storage facility as anything other than an off-campus garage for extra stuff.  Oh, no.  It is far more than that.  People who cannot pay rent and are homeless have storage facilities, for stuff, that they manage to pay for by hook or by crook.  They have no home, but their stuff darn well does.  Others spend thousands and thousands of dollars over years housing stuff that isn’t worth a tiny fraction of the storage fees.  Legal battles and illicit lock-cutters rage over access to certain units because the relationship is o.ver. and she wants her stuff, but his name is the only one on the paperwork.  Her stuff is his leverage and he wields it like a third-world chieftain.

And then, the clincher:  I looked at my bedside table the other day and saw something chilling.  Here’s how my thoughts went:  If I suddenly go on to glory, someone will be cleaning out this table and drawing conclusions about me.  This stuff, they will say, most sums her up.  This is what she used every day. This stuff tells her story.  Fine, no problem.  Except that among the Bible, lotion, and back-scratcher, was a hilarious little dictionary on flatulence.  I didn’t buy it.  It was given to me.  I have laughed over it several times. And somehow in the cleaning and flux of books that come and go, that one has stayed there.  Why, I don’t know.  But the chilling part was the thought of someone on the ‘Allison’s-gone-to-heaven’ yard sale crew thinking that I cherished that little book.  You know?  Go look at the table by your bed.  You’ll see what I mean.

So, I reasoned, our stuff tells a story of our life.

Yes, I agree with you; the real story of our life lives in the people we love and influence during our time here.  But, like it or not, our stuff tells our story too.  It is a story read and interpreted by the ones who handle our stuff when we are no longer here to do it.  And what if they get it wrong?  Like the obit might read, “A loving mother, among her precious possessions was a flatulence dictionary.”  For the first time I find comfort in James telling me “You are a mist that appears for a little time, then vanishes” (4:14).  No one will remember me.  Thank goodness.

Unless I become famous.  Because I do worry about that.  My biographers will include the little dictionary.  They will inflate it into an obsession.  400 years from now, A.D. 2415, after a ho-hum unit on Shakespeare, American students will thrill to finally get to study the odd turn-of-the-millennium gas-obsessed blogger.  Such are my daydreams and nightmares.

Yes, one day it will be our stuff – yours, mine – out in the spotlight and telling stories.  Like Pip in Great Expectations I will find myself hoping then for people to look on me with a kinder eye than I deserve and to forget my faults.

And I can sure mock those stuff-enslaved storage folks until I try to clean out the bins of baby memorabilia.  Ha!  Try to throw one thing away that baby wore or touched.  It’s like an amputation.  I can’t do it.  And one day, stuff – rooms, beds, food, books, toys – will be the way I love my visiting children and grandchildren.

So, stuff.  It’s inescapable.  It’s odd.  I’ll be working on a theology. What do you think?

(With thanks to Carolyn Byer for the dictionary, and with acknowlegment that larger things are happening in the world, but what can I say about Baltimore that Jen Hatmaker hasn’t already said well?)