In her book The Creative Habit renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp writes about her work process. She starts a new box for each new project; anything that serves as inspiration goes into the box, along with every other object that has some meaningful connection to the work. When the project ends she puts a lid on the box and off it goes to storage. Then she gets out a new box and starts another project.
I find that methodology so appealing in so many ways.
And while an emotion is not exactly a project in creativity, like a piece of choreography or a Broadway score, I’ve wondered whether you could take them—especially the difficult ones around an episode or event in your life—put them in a box, and after you’ve eviscerated them, processed them, and feel “finished,” put a lid on the emotional box and schlep it off to storage.
I knew there would be sadness in the wake of losing my family and my home nearly four years ago; what I did not anticipate were the waves of sadness that would continue to wash over me for years after my marriage ended, pangs of grief, maybe, that still catch me off guard when I least expect it. I don’t miss the unhappy marriage, but I mourn for the things that were important and yet were somehow deemed disposable.
Lately the sadness has centered around the house where my son grew up, where a handful of beloved family dogs lived and died, a house that was nearly lost to foreclosure, saved in the nick of time by an auction where a calculating buyer snapped it up for a fraction of its true worth. The white auctioneer’s tent on the front lawn was replaced only a day or two later by a big yellow Penkse truck stuffed with what could fit into the small rental awaiting me a thousand miles away in Vermont, a fraction of the sum total of my belongings. I had exactly two days to evacuate the house I loved and had every reason to believe I’d live in until I died.
If you wanted to orchestrate a fiscal and domestic disaster of epic proportions you could not score it better than the cacophonic sypmhony that unfolded on a particular corner in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2011. The location of our beautiful home already invited a fishbowl-like existence; it was not unusual for people to stop and photograph our prominent corner because of the centuries-old trees and beautiful Tudor Revival house itself—a house we were lucky to call home for about sixteen years, but whose care and upkeep grew to be too much in the face of a slow economy and a series of very bad decisions.
When everybody in a town and neighborhood already fond of gossip caught wind of the drama being played out on that corner, life in the fishbowl grew worse, at least it felt worse to me. As the house and grounds fell into neglect I became embarrassed and angry. I don’t miss those final days one bit.
But what catches in my throat when I least expect it are the detailed memories of the bones of the house during moments when I felt my life was in complete synch with it. And being a student of historic structures to begin with, I appreciated and knew every square inch of it, from the loose finial with the protruding nail at the bottom of the steps, to the 1920s stucco on the walls that would draw blood from your knuckles if you miscalculated their whereabouts with an overloaded laundry basket in your arms. Or the basement “stairs to nowhere,” as we called them, formerly a service entrance that had been capped over at some point during a courtyard renovation. Or the panel in the basement stairwell behind which a servant’s call bell was once stuck somewhat comically in “on” mode while we scrambled to undo the paneling and switch it off.
I knew the damage on a living room floor vent that happened when our 140-pound Shiloh playfully slammed onto the sofa, sending it skidding across the slippery hardwood floor and into the wall. Just above that vent was window hardware left behind by the previous family, jury-rigged with a nutcracker in the top left corner; you could see it if you were looking for it, like finding Waldo in the familiar children’s books.
Next to that was one of two front doors (when you live in an ell-shaped house on the corner that is what happens), the main one that welcomed trick-or-treaters every year. And just on the other side of the door was a small built-in telephone cubby from the earliest days of the house, arched at the top, with a beautiful hardwood shelf for the phone. Underneath it was another stucco-ed hole for a very small phone book.
I know exactly the sound of the heating and cooling system cycling off and on, my son’s voice on the answering machine recorded when he was in kindergarten, the way the sun streamed through his west-facing bedroom window revealing every single cobweb and speck of dust that needed cleaning. If you sat in just the right spot in his sunny yellow room you could see the slate-roofed dormers from the adjacent section of the ell outside his window, and the copper gutters and flashing, transporting you to some Old World locale. It was the backdrop for all our read-alouds, the perfect evocative setting for Harry Potter.
I cursed under my breath every time I closed the door to the tiny bathroom just off the kitchen and observed where my child had carefully, over years, encouraged the toile wallpaper to peel as it rounded a tricky corner. With some success I had used white glue to repair it. And it was that same bathroom where he left the water running one morning at age three after he finished brushing his teeth, then turned around and stumbled over his own feet, taking a spill onto an unforgiving terra cotta tile step in the foyer, ripping the skin on his cheek right away from the bone; a day that began innocently with an anticipated play date resolved with plastic surgery to repair his face later that afternoon.
And it was that same unforgiving surface that every single dog who lived in our family loved so much in the heat of summer, because the stones remained cool to the touch. I can still see them—any one of them—sprawled on the wide stones in front of the open front door, the sun streaming in through the glass of the storm door on ribs rising and falling to the cadence of contented breathing, but instantly at the ready to announce every passerby or errant squirrel.
I knew every single lovely original casement window in that house, I could tell you which ones opened easily, which had to be cajoled (a bath towel and the palm of the hand is what it took). Some still had their crank apparatus—there were two old metal cranks floating around, one was bent—but the upstairs windows were all missing theirs because it made them easier to open. The massive old window sills were deep enough to display homeless casseroles and candles and all manner of other things. Later we replaced the old windows with their more efficient modern cousins, which I admit were also lovely and missing the annoying gloppy layers of decades of paint that burdened their forebears. No longer could you feel the winter blasting through them, but they emphatically lacked character, and they ate up those incredible oversized sills.
I know about the fire that happened long ago in the master bedroom, strangely, in one of the two window seats in the small dormers on either side of the fireplace. It had long been painted over, but if you lifted the bench to reveal the storage under it you could see the charring on its underside.
I also know a nine-year-old child died from tuberculosis in an upstairs bedroom in that house. And that one of two sisters who subsequently grew up there died in a drug-related incident in Atlanta. And that the eldest child of the family who sold it to us also struggled with addiction. And that the three families who ever lived in the house—including ours—had adopted children. So much sadness, and still so much hope.
I remember just about every single detail of that house. I will never go inside it again in my life, ever. I’m okay with that, I think. I hope the new people are giving a beautiful home everything it deserves. They have no idea of the stories that unfolded there.
I just wish I could make the lid fit more tightly on the box.