The Monsters in Our Basement

Ominous staircase down to the basement

This Halloween, forget about the frights outside. Focus on what’s lurking in the depths of your creepy crawl spaces.

Don’t fear what you find. See what our client discovered when she hired us to tackle her basement; years of forgotten electronics, decades worth of old notebooks and sketchpads, clothes and nicknacks galore and so much more. So impressed was she — with us — and the process, she wrote about her experience and we’d love to share it with you, obviously with her permission!

The Monsters in Our Basement
by Rebecca Wiegand Coale

There are monsters in our basement. I know because I fear them. When I slide open the lock, turn the handle, open the door, step down the dusty steps, I can feel them lurking in the mildewed gloom.

These are no ordinary monsters, with claws and teeth and glittery eyes. They take the lumpy shapes of tattered garbage bags, filled to overflowing with belongings of the past. They skulk about as crates, stacked high with old electronics, old books, old journals, old memories. They menace me with great and small unknowns. Are all our letters destroyed? Will we ever find that priceless edition of Ulysses? Whatever did happen to that bag of designer jeans that stopped fitting me when I gained 20 pounds…but maybe (fingers crossed!) would fit me again now?

If people were to see what I see down here now — the piled mess of a decade of family life, disorganized, shut away in clumps on the floor, in cardboard boxes falling apart — what would they think of us? Would they think we were hoarders?

Our house looks perfectly lovely for the most part on floors one and two. But guests aren’t privy to the monsters in the basement.

For years I fantasized about cleaning out the basement, but actually doing it seemed impossible. I imagined a junk truck showing up and carting everything away. Glorious! But what about artifacts like my stepdaughter’s childhood drawings, my husband’s published illustrations, that damn edition of Ulysses belonging to my father-in-law, now deceased, and, Alas, Alack, my expensive skinny jeans — we couldn’t consign such precious relics to junk.

So. What if I went through it all myself? Piece by piece? But, HOW? It seemed an endless obligation, once undertaken. I did not want to devote all my time to sifting the past. What about the present? My work in the now?

OK. So. What if through some wifely conjuring I got my husband do it? But, we both already work so hard, 24/7. The last thing I want is for him to have to face those monsters in the basement all alone.

I didn’t know what to do.

On the fridge I have a magnet on which a perfectly coiffed 1950’s housewife exclaims, “Oh My God! My Mother Was Right About Everything!” When I showed it to my own mother, she looked perplexed. She didn’t get that it was a joke, because she has, in fact, proven to be right about most things in my life.

When finally I moaned to her, with no small shame, about the monsters in the basement, she thought about it for all of 30 seconds and said, “My friend Jocelyn is a professional organizer. I’ll ask her to recommend someone in Philadelphia for you.”

Could it be that easy? I thought. Wrong question. Could it even be possible?

Joy and Kelly, an indomitable mother/daughter team, came into our home and flung open the doors to the basement. They let the light come streaming in, and they set about slaying every monster in sight. Moreso than Beowulf or Achilles, these women deserve an epic poem in their honor.

But what I want to ruminate on is what I, myself, am learning in working with them. Because this process requires me, my husband, our family, to work and grow to create a household and home where we can enjoy our treasures and where we do not feel besieged by clutter. Joy and Kelly lead the way but ultimately, it is up to us. Even as we make notable progress, I find it hard to believe that we are tackling this problem and succeeding. How am I even doing it and staying sane? I was so afraid for so long.

In The Zen of Creativity by John Daido Loori, a teaching by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is quoted: “You can wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes, or you can wash the dishes to wash the dishes.”

I think about this idea every time I sort through a bin or tear open a bag of stuff to see what is inside and what we should do with it. I realize that so much of the fear and shame I felt about the basement had to do with the “end goal state” of organized perfection, which I found so easy to visualize and yet absolutely impossible to work towards. That end state was so desirable to me that it had actually become my major hindrance. I was focused only on the ultimate goal, which was in the future, and so the present seemed insurmountable, arduous and torturous. My thought process was a constant, stifling illogic: Going through one bag is not going to make my basement a paragon of efficient storage, so why even bother?

To make progress on the long term project, I realized, meant I had to focus on each step and find intrinsic value there. Don’t clean out this bin to get a perfectly organized basement, I tell myself each time, clean out this bin to clean out this bin. And so my mind refocuses on the experiences and surprises of each moment. I see each item I pull out in real time and make a conscious decision about it. I embrace every feeling that comes up, whether frustration at yet another phone charger lost and left to moulder when we could have been using it, or tearful memory, or raw nostalgia, or enormous delight at rediscovering cherished belongings and handiworks.

I know that, thanks to Joy and Kelly, our basement will soon enough be the envy of all storage spaces in Philadelphia, PA. The “before and after” pictures will bespeak ingenious orderliness and belie the long ordeal. And yet, it has turned out that each bin, each bag, each piled crate is its own epic journey in miniature. I have given myself over to the experience of each item, each moment, each sigh of relief in recycling something unneeded and then sigh of gratefulness in rescuing something cherished and long-hidden. I am humbled by the emotional richness of this journey, which is less than halfway “complete” as I write this.

Where did all the monsters go? They’ve fled the basement, but no doubt they will soon be lurking in some abandoned drawer or cabinet nook. But now I’m not afraid to keep on slaying them.

Rebecca Wiegand Coale is a writer who lives in Philadelphia and New York City with her husband, Howard Coale, and their family. Along with her childhood best friend, Jessica Massa, she founded multimedia project The Gaggle.

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