Burning Down the Room

I just came back from visiting my son, now 21. As I think about my next steps in the world—I’ve moved into my third rental space in less than two years—it seems like a good time to post this draft of a blog post I found in my files recently. I’m not sure why it never got pushed live when I wrote it over a year ago.

 

Burning Down the Room

 

Burn it all down. Room by room. Tree by tree.

I was in a trauma counseling session, trying a technique my doctor had recommended called brainspotting. It’s based on EMDR, and doesn’t seem significantly different to me. In any case, I’d been having a lot of panic attacks and my doctor thought this would help.

I had headphones on, playing music that randomly went from ear to ear, so that both sides of my brain could process the episode I was grappling with. My eyes were open and focused on a single point in the room, I think to give my mind a point of “rescue.”

I’d been cooped up all winter with a broken ankle, so it hadn’t mattered so much that whenever I had to go anywhere I had to put my head down between my knees for several minutes, maybe an hour. But now that I needed to catch up on a bunch of tasks as well as move forward in my life, this type of handicap was unacceptable.

We started by focusing on a wildfire that affected my neighborhood the previous fall. I didn’t think the fire itself was the problem. It was a metaphor for many other disasters in my life, many lovingly built structures that had been destroyed. I was having a hard time finding shelter. Believing in shelter.

The trauma specialist told me to burn the whole house down. And the entire surrounding forest. And then see what happened. In my mind’s eye, obviously, not for “real.” But when you mentally enact these scenarios with these headphones on, you’re in a slightly hypnotized state, and the affect is high. It does feel real.

house8However, it wasn’t as hard as I’d expected to burn down most of my little house. The kitchen I’d designed so carefully. The walls I’d stayed up all hours mudding and painting. The floors I’d refinished. My wonderful soaker tub. Those beautiful windows and skylights. The gleaming golden ceiling. The “spirit in the sky” turquoise paint in the hallway. Bye to the Persian rugs chosen for these spaces. I had to close my eyes, but all the bookshelves my brother built and all their contents went to house3ash without the world collapsing into a black hole.

It was harder to see the old lilacs and the monster Ponderosas go. Some of those trees are among the oldest in the canyon.

I stopped when I came to Julian’s room. I mentally stood in the doorway for twenty minutes or more, keeping the flames at my back.

What’s happening? the trauma specialist asks.

I’m trying to burn my son’s room, I say.

Oh, she says. We’d both been expecting other, older events to come up, stuff from my own childhood, as the walls of my house fell.

It wasn’t what this room was, but all the things it wasn’t. It was never sunnyhouse7 and welcoming, like the south-facing corner room Julian had in our pre-divorce home, with its warm, pine-paneled walls. I was never able to get the furniture arranged so the room in this “new” house felt right. Partly because while we lived there Julian was at an age where whatever I said wasn’t going to be received.

There were things I found in this room, over the years, things I didn’t want to find. In some cases the use was all too clear. I never figured out what some of those other things were for.

This room was empty a lot of the time. When you’re divorced, you only get to be a parent half time. If there’s a hint of conflict—and when isn’t there?—with a teenager, there’s always the other parent, promising no curfew.

Standing, in my mind, in Julian’s doorway as the flames try without success to eradicate all of that—the rap and the Sponge Bob posters with their mixed messages, the other signs I found, almost too late, of his psychic pain, I realize it’s not that I don’t want to let it go. It’s that I don’t want to let go of the hope that I can roll back time and fix it. THEN.

But how’s Julian NOW? the trauma specialist asks, gently.

I want to say he’s fine, but then I realize that’s just a statement of faith, or even hubris, like some guy from Arkansas who knows nothing of foreign policy who pontificates on Iran. Julian’s in college, and I see him once or twice per year. I had the money in savings to pay for tuition, but not much extra for travel. All I have to go on is what he tells me over the phone, and what he posts on Facebook, which isn’t much.

What’s your relationship like?

Pretty good for long distance, I say. But we don’t talk or text every day like some parents do. He tells me what he’s thinking about as a consequence of his physics seminars. I listen to his music uploads on Soundcloud. He shares his thoughts on relationships.

THEN WHAT ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT? she asks. Do you realize how many parents don’t have this?

I don’t know, I say. I wasn’t the kind of mother I thought I’d be. I never made this room into what I imagined. In fact, I was sort of thinking this house was just the first post-divorce house, and then I’d give him a *real* home.

So it’s okay if this house burns?

In a way. If I had a better house to go to. But that never happened. And now it doesn’t matter, because he’s gone anyway. It just all seems…irrelevant… now. I didn’t finish the nest, really, and now what’s the point?

I kept trying. I kept thinking tomorrow would be another day. But it feels like we’re out of tomorrows.

So now it’s time to go build your nest, she says. What would that look like?

Good question. I never for one minute thought I’d have a tough time answering that. I’ve always been an independent person, with a strong sense of who *I* am. But maybe because I also had a strong sense of WAIT, GET BACK HERE, KID, I’M NOT DONE WITH YOU, I wasn’t quite as ready for this next step as I expected. 

I move out of the doorway and let the roof come down on the last room standing.

But I don’t feel right about it.

 

Hat tip to Andi O’Conor’s blog, Burning Down the House.

<<Please note that post draws on an exercise, a guided meditation of sorts, that took place in a therapy session. The purpose of the session was to process fear and uncover underlying issues (I’m simplifying). As those who have been following this blog know, there was a fire, but it did not reach my house. I am not literally planning to burn down my house, nor have I ever burned any structure, intentionally or otherwise.>>

 

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Thinning Down the House

I’m moving on again. I’ve had to do this a few times in the past couple of years. Like a lot of people, we’re finding that the jobs we want or can get are not necessarily where we were living, or where we wanted to live. (Yay for the efficiencies of capitalism, as people take great losses to truck around after work, often forced to leave perfectly good homes and positions.)

As we rent out the home we own near Boulder, we’ve entered a new phase as tenants ourselves. One new liability of this role is that, in this economy, landlords are going into foreclosure quite frequently. Including the guy we’ve been renting from. So once again we have to move.

I was just reading an account in The New Yorker by someone who loves moving. I find it emotionally exhausting. 

Each time we’ve moved we’ve “streamlined.” Each time we still can’t fit our stuff into the new place. Too much of the past gets excavated, and there are too many decisions to make. I get why my partner wants to keep these pictures of his deceased wife and some of her jewelry. But what about her high-school diploma?

What about the dollhouse? he counters. He means this HUGE dollhouse my grandfather built as a replica of the home I was living in as a child. My grandfather also built miniatures of all the furniture in the house. The craftsmanship isn’t excellent, but it’s still a cool dollhouse. All of my siblings played with it in some way, even if was to use as a gerbil cage or as a matchbox parking garage. Somebody, possibly my kid, re-tiled it throughout in construction paper. Okay, it needs some remodeling, but I don’t think it’s a scraper. The point is, it’s been a imaginative focal point for generations of Steeveses.

The problem is that it’s competing for storage space in a very cramped basement with dozens of crates of my books. And with Tony’s climbing gear. 

Just the other day, I got an email from some advice guru—not sure why I’m on her list—on how to declutter. It appears that it’s energetically congesting to hold on to stuff. Put questionable items in a box, she says, and if you haven’t gone looking for them in six months, have your partner donate the box without your even checking it.

Nice, but what about the dollhouse? We’ve got stuff in boxes we haven’t seen in two years. I’m not throwing all of it out. I know I won’t need it all in six months, but I can’t swear I won’t need it in 12 or 24, or that I’ll be able to afford to buy it back if I do. Everything is way too uncertain.

I have decided to let go of the sheet cake pans. I’m pretty sure I won’t be making cakes for elementary school classes, thank God. But when it comes to things like the dollhouse, I was saving it for grandchildren, so the longer it’s stored, the better. My son is only in college.

So, I guess the dollhouse needs to be dragged around, at least until I know if a) the kid is even having kids, and b) he and his partner will want it for their kids. Maybe he’ll connect with the kind of person who would hate the idea of their perfect children playing with a dollhouse that was once peed in by gerbils. You never know with some people. 

But didn’t you have a crappy childhood? my partner points out. It’s a hundred degrees out and we’re sorting stuff in an garage without air conditioning. What’s so great about a dollhouse made by a grandfather who otherwise sounds kind of mean, and that replicates a terrible little house you hated living in?

Well. Um. He did put a lot of work into it. It doesn’t seem right to just… Anyway. Just put it in the keep pile, will you?

You can only get so thin right at mid-life. Maybe you can ditch a bedroom, but you’re still serving as a storage unit for your kids. You still have leftover pets. You still have to work and need good closet space for your professional wardrobe and a bathroom big enough for two people to get ready in.

In this economy, you don’t know what’s next. Are things getting worse for us or better? Will a smaller house or a bigger one be around the next corner? I don’t want to be a hoarder, but I also don’t want to give up hope.

“No one expected to feel this uncertain at this age,” said one friend, let go after decades at a multinational corporation. I agree. We’re not wired for it. In many cultures, people over 45 are elders. We’re not supposed to be rushing around trying to find jobs, trying to convince landlords that just because we have pets we won’t trash their places, trying to decide what to do with that photo album that’s always been on the bookshelf built into the dining room wall.  

Contrary to the “wisdom” of almost all these self-help gurus, it almost never feels good to let things go. Tony and I have almost always regretted the books and records we’ve sold or given away. Inevitably our tastes (okay, except the Bay City Rollers) have circled back. The grad school notes I tossed in the dumpster during one purge I then went looking for after I reconnected with a high school friend on Facebook. Turned out he was a professor working in an area I’d written a paper on, and he wanted to see that paper. Damn it.

In this last round, Tony has been putting his MSW notes into the recycle bin. “It almost feels like these parts of you never existed when you throw them out,” he said. I know that’s why I hold on to my books. Sometimes I forget I read whole shelves, but it all comes back to me when I stand in front of them.

And then there’s the stuff that maybe is best to leave in the back of the closet. It turns out that there really isn’t that much that’s “energetically liberating” about going through every single box. It would have been fine if you left the dead wife’s jewelry at rest and spent your weekend out in the sunshine, roped up on a technical route on Independence Pass. Who’s to say that isn’t also a form of moving on?

Anxiety—it makes you fat and clingy.   

In Progress

Positive discipline, like going for a run, or studying, or writing a first draft—THAT I can do.

But negative discipline: NOT eating the chocolate, or having the second martini, or sleeping with the guy on the first date. That’s harder.

Then there’s accepting, moving on, whether it’s positive or negative. Integrating things I didn’t want to have happen and letting them change me and take me in new directions. The death of a child. A divorce. Like a lot of people, I’m not so good at that.

What I suck at most is allowing the good stuff to happen. What if it turns out I didn’t mess up my kid? He’s at college right now and apparently doing fine. He just got a National Science Foundation scholarship. He’s composing interesting techno music—a former perfectionist, he’s not afraid to put works-in-progress out there for the world. Not to brag; these are his achievements. However, it seems they might be at least partial evidence that he’s alive and well.

What if he’s all right in spite of the fact that I wasn’t the perfect parent, or the perfect wife?

I know. It’s a banal realization—there have been whole novels and movies on this topic—but there it is. I’ve been sitting stunned in my house since my son drove off to school last fall.

What if it’s okay for me to move on, too?