the banister on the dark cellar stairs

It’s 36 outside this morning. The real November has arrived. This Thursday marks the first of December, and there are Christmas lights twinkling a little here and there when I drive after dark.

The kids and I pulled out our Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving. I’ve still got a bit to do around here now that the heavy lifting of the remodel is out of the way, but it is slowly starting to feel like the home we love again. And I really think nothing can make you love your home more than watching it get taken apart and put back together again. It feels good to be back where we started – but with a few improvements which I’m grateful for.

Our tree is quite a sight. It is dripping with ornaments, and I usually go along after the kids to rearrange in a more sensible way, but this year I didn’t. They’ll cluster 5 close together or insist that one particular one have a place at the top. Our mantle is adorned with kid crafts and not the least bit coordinated or symmetrical. But the way I look at it, I have so many years ahead of me where things will stay in their typical place, but for now, it’s important to me that they feel ownership here.

They are at this perfect age where they don’t require nearly as much hands-on constant involvement as years past – no diapers (hallelujah, never again), no bag of extra clothing when we leave the house, no strollers or carriers or special accommodations. They dress themselves and brush their own teeth and generally listen if I tell them to play for a while in the other room so that I can get dinner done. But they are also easily impressed and still at that age where they are curious and want to learn and genuinely like spending time with parents. I can finally exhale a little with them after 2 years of life’s outrageous demands. It feels easy when it is just the three of us, and it’s natural to take that for granted or focus on other salt on the melon like sibling arguments and messy rooms, but as I think back on life with a newborn and a two year old or those first months of single parenthood when my youngest was only two, I gain a lot of gratitude and perspective.

I’ve spent part of the holiday break alone as well, and I’m grateful for that, too. I’ve listened to podcasts, put the house back together, and read a good bit of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir. I’ve cooked a lot as well – both for Thanksgiving and to stock my freezer for the weeks ahead. Thursday morning, I had some time alone before the kids got home, and I baked a sweet potato pie from a scribbled recipe card I found in my grandmother’s things this summer.

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Food is so much more than physical sustenance, isn’t it? A holiday that centers around a full table reminds us of this, but it is true year round as well. It can bring health and comfort and a nostalgic longing like nothing else. Certain dishes send me tumbling down a tunnel of memory. In Karr’s book, she tells us “Memory is a pinball in a machine — it messily ricochets around between images, ideas, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt, snaps off. But most of the time, we keep memories packed away. I sometimes liken that moment of sudden unpacking to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk — how did so much fit into such a small space?”

This happens to me all the time. One taste or one sight or one old photograph. The ricochet begins and the clowns pour out of the circus car. Sometimes it’s sweet and sometimes it is sad and hard. You have to wade through all the pieces before arriving at something true. And for me anyway, I only arrive there through writing. As the book opens, she tells me that for memoirists, “truth is not their enemy. It is the banister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs. It’s the solution.”

I have felt that so many times while writing. I think I referred to it once before as feeling the walls for a light switch. And it’s only when I land on that truth that I know that the writing did what it is supposed to do – for me and for you as the reader. And it is the moments when I have landed on an especially hard-to-swallow piece of my story that readers have reacted most strongly and sincerely.

I read something recently that phrased it as the truth has legs to stand up when everything else falls away, and I love that. As the dust settles from the last few years of my life, I am seeing this – that you cannot hide truth, you cannot run from it. And when you claim it for what it is, you stand a little taller inside and see things with a lot more clarity. I was poking around at the etymology of the word true and found that in Old Irish, it was referred to as derb, which sometimes also meant tree. How perfect is that? Getting to that tree can be hard. You have to be still and lose the impulse to protect your ego. You sometimes have to wade through past experiences and memories that make you ache to revisit them. But that image of a tree is precisely what truth feels like when you land on it – strong and steady and incapable of withering or arguing or comparing. It just is.

 

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One thought on “the banister on the dark cellar stairs

  1. Dorothy N

    I have followed your blog for about a year now. Over and over I am so impressed with all you give me to think about and all the new ways to look at the ordinary. Thank you so much for your beautiful, crisp, clear writing.

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