Roofs and basements: I am here to tell you, to warn you not to attack these two extremeties of your home at the same time–repairing your roof and cleaning out your basement. One is bad enough, and half of a folly. But the two together is unadulterated madness, and there’s a difference between folly and madness, a qualitative difference. I am here to tell you, be reasonable.
You would think, if you follow convention, that the basement is the worse of the two–the lower depths, the subconscious, the debris of your (and other people’s) lives past; stuff you don’t want, stuff you have abandoned, stuff you have outgrown, stuff you want to forget, even stuff you’re not particularly proud of ( your thesis and dissertation, for example); things and objects that make you sad, that make you wistful, that make you feel angry, that make you flee the dungeon, that brings you face to face with your (and others’) fickleness, impulsiveness, vanity, gullibility, resistance to logic, but also lapsed purity, childlike way with things utterly useless. Stuff, it’s the American way; we have way too much, and our basements are the proof, the dark lace around our domestic tranquility upstairs. Dusty, musty, basements are the graveyards of the rejected. And so when you clean your basement, you come face to face with all, with your past, with stuff which is moldy and grey, crinkled and brittle.
The logic goes that once you clean all that, you will be free, you will have gotten rid of the debris of your past, you will live in the present (whatever that means!). No one thinks about the void which the debris, once taken out and loaded in the dumpster, leaves behind; the eerie darkness of an empty, desolate, dark place, the hum of the boiler the only sound in the vicinity. But that’s what happens too, once the slate is clean, the junk is gone.
Still, that’s tolerable; you can get used to it in time–your basement empty. You can. But cursed is the person who, like me, is seized by hubris, is dying to pick a fight with the gods. Cursed is the person who tries to have the roof and the basement “taken care of” at the same time.
I did not anticipate the strange, unsettled sense that would wash over me when Roofer Fabio and his crew began tearing down my very old, very weathered roof. There is, I came to realize, a reason why the image of the roof is so pervasive in our parlance: hit the roof, dancing on the roof, but most of all “a roof over one’s head.” That’s the one that stuck for days as the crew tore, and punctured and hammered and laddered, going up and down the ladders, throwing the old shingles down, running the machines, tapping and pounding, thumping their feet, braving the elements. Like basements, roofs are outside our human optic (that word, optic!); outside our daily sphere. But unlike basements, roofs are surfaces of exposure, simple demarcations to hold up the sky, to make sure it does not fall on us or signposts which tell us that when it comes to our roofs we are all on the same level, the great equalizers, the common denominator.
Home: something suspended between the basement and the roof. When your basement is being cleaned and your roof is being stipped, you realize how tenuous everything really is, how narrow the strait, how illusory stability. And that is why I have come to tell you that if you decide to do both together, you run the risk of total exposure, the possibility of the sky above and the void below. Be reasonable. Compartmentalize, go for sequence.
Milosz has written: “It’s not my fault that we are made so, half from disinterested contemplation, half from appetite.” It’s not my fault, I can say, that we are made so, half rootedness, half flight, in the grip of the past and the future–our houses the terrain of the battle these two wage with each other day in and day out. The prosaic advice is, of course, to do one at a time–the roof and then the basement, but we are nothing if not full of folly, even madness, full of paradox and contradiction, seeking peace and serenity (that word!) while hungering after the excitement of the sky, of the earth shaking under our feet and our forehead exposed to the winds, as though the sky, after Darwish, were “the last sky.”