There’s a house in all of us, a bedroom voice, a forward-facing foyer that is at once welcoming and utterly staged. There's a kitchen, a radio (on that seems determined to play Hamilton and the Free Credit Report dot Com jingle on repeat), photos, memories. And there is a basement.
To put it bluntly, the shit goes in the basement. The stuff that isn't really flowing with the house's design, the secrets, the past, the scars, the tears, the broken-open vases with flowers that have long died. It goes down there, usually in the determined look in the mirror that says, "I'm done crying about him." The sheets wrapped around shoulders that rustle, in morse code, "that never happened." And, of course, the mementos of their pain parents leave in their children. It all goes in boxes, usually neatly labelled, and gets stacked in the basement. On really bad days, it all gets thrown down the stairs, along with the key. And there it stays, in the dark, with the rats, rattling in the middle of the night, making itself known.
The problem is that the basement gets full. And the floodwaters come. Sometimes, when His kindness feels most like cruelty, God Himself will start pulling boxes up and stacking them in the foyer. There's no escaping 2009 anymore. It's right there, right in the way, and now the choice comes. The options are simple: shove everything back down, and sort and sort and sort and sort. Find the things that should be held onto, displayed. Keep the past safe, by bringing it into the light and checking for leaks and dust and termites. Cry, and cry some more, about the things that have been long forgotten. Install some light fixtures, and return the past to the basement, organized, understood, explored, and return to the work again on another day, with a glass of lemonade. Clear the floodwaters. Check the structures. I have to live in here, and this a part of the house. It might as well be beautiful.
There are a few times in my life that everything in the basement has been dragged into the living room of my heart, the place I cannot escape. I've learned a little bit about what I need to do when that happens (it is, in fact, what I'm doing now, writing this).
Collect the reactions. So often, I find the common thread in my hatred and envy is fear. Fear that I will be unloved if someone else is loved. That I will be alone. That nothing will be as it was ever again, not now that the Thing is in front of me, and not in the basement where it belongs. The nature of fear is to lie about the goodness of God. Sometimes, putting all those things in a new cardboard box labelled "Things I Am Afraid Of" works far better than dealing with each thing as a random object. Instead, fear can be addressed as the uniting factor. People can be called, reassurances can be made, prayers can be answered, and at the risk of showing just how dark and dirty my soul becomes by sheer inertia, I am clean again.
Phone a friend. No one's basement is as scary as mine, even when there's really dark stuff, like rape and illiteracy and racism down there. It's just not as scary, because somehow I am clever enough to bring a flashlight, to shine some truth, down the stairs for someone else. Most of the time, if I'm quiet, the still small voice will know exactly who would know what to do with the boxes. So often, my whole body hurts just looking at the mess. So often, nothing speaks so strongly of grace as feeling someone else holding me up in the overwhelm.
Take all the time the shelf needs. Some stuff just never seems to go away. Some things have rats who have taken it upon themselves to make sure that thing never leaves the house. And when that happens, I have to go through it again.
Feel the process. The first really big basement instance, I tried to play it off as a strictly positive thing. The wonderfully kind woman I was talking to teared up and said, "and those are some of the most painful seasons of life." And I cried a little, right there in her office. This stuff is heavy and no fun, and the only way to make it bearable is to bring the whole team in on the process, let God carry the big stuff (and sometimes me) up the stairs, and enjoy the surprising moments of joy, the toys that mattered preserved in a fishing tackle box right next to all the pain.
Rearrange it to show the truth. Basements are only as scary as the secrets they hold. There are times where the key is needed, where a very privileged few are the only ones who can hold the truth of what happened (abuse works like that, the truth growing slowly into something that can hold its own even when others cast doubt). To rephrase Anne Lamott, if other people wanted to have better mementos, they should have treated you better.
Don't turn off the lights. The mess is there, whether I see it or not. The question is if I will trip on it. Sometimes, that just means calling someone who I trust with the mess and asking them to show me the way back out. But I'm not giving up on having a house that I am free to walk, from top to bottom, and that will mean spending far more time than I really want down there, in the basement. And pray, even if you believe no one is listening. Light can come before the source is identifiable. In myself, I never want my eyes to adjust to the darkness, to grow used to the pain and make friends with it. Because the very worst thing I can do with the basement is live in it.