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Clearing the clutter of a basement, a soul


For eight years I watched the smooth forest-green top of my old Ping-Pong table bow under the combined weight of matrimony. His old Abba records, my stuffed owl, our new garden trowels, the 30-pound adding machine my father-in-law used his first year at the bank -- sentiment and necessity layered themselves on that table like garbage in a Roman fort. I began to get a little panicky when I went down to do laundry. Then I began to get a little resentful. I’d fantasize about slamming the little plastic ball diagonally, then gently dropping it over the now-obscured net to win the point.

Sensing obsession, my husband offered help. Then his own passion for order kicked in. Done right, Project Free-the-Table would mean re-configuring the entire basement, which would mean reorganizing all the stuff in the attic.

Four Saturdays later, our backs aching and our noses smudged with dust, we gazed upon a miraculously flat Ping-Pong table, an oasis surrounded by shelves of neatly labeled see-through storage boxes. Every extra, outgrown or absurd object had been given away. Everything else was in a place that made sense. At breakfast the next morning, I ran gaily downstairs for the waffle-maker, sure where I’d find it. The following weekend we had friends for dinner, and I invited them downstairs to choose a bottle of wine. Even the notion of someday moving ceased to terrify me. In this lightened, orderly world, all things were possible.

An odd thought occurred to me. If freeing a Ping-Pong table was this empowering, what would happen if I put my spiritual house in order?

The prospect of venturing with scrub brush energy into the nether regions of my soul made me feel like a reluctant Hobbit. I know what it’s like in there. Castoff ideas have piled into chaos. There are old guilts and bitternesses, and bursts of scrupulosity I drag out every Lent, even though I no longer believe them necessary. There’s a whole trunk of childish hopes and tricks: If I just think the worst, it won’t happen; if I bargain with God, I won’t have to trust God. And on the bottom shelves lie the assumptions -- I’m not the activist type, I’m just not political -- and smashed beneath them, all that courage I forgot to use.

In the darkest corner, I’ve stacked up questions about evil and suffering; opposite them, there’s a pile of answers about brokenness and love and inevitability. Maybe they should be kept together? I should have been sifting and sorting all along.

Of course, we should have been working on the basement, too. But this was our first house, and for a long time it felt like a container, a big hollow shell where we piled up the accumulations of our lives. Now it had dawned on us: A home isn’t a shell, it’s a process, a way of constantly discerning and reorganizing the stuff you need to live your life. You make a home, and you remake it in little ways every day.

A “soul,” on the other hand, had always suggested a swirl of purple ether, trapped somewhere inside my rib cage, patiently waiting to live forever. This soul was a mysterious spiritual stuff, paradoxical as light, which perhaps existed in different degrees in each of us -- transparent to God, yet with our personal details sewn into the label. I knew Willie Akins, an old St. Louis saxophonist, had soulful eyes, and I had no trouble pronouncing a friend’s 5-year-old “an old soul.” My hope for my own soul was that it would deepen over time, glowing more brightly as flesh and desire wore away.

But I’d never considered participating in the process.

Then I read Love and the World, in which Robert Sardello defines the soul as “the capacity for life to be meaning,” and indicates that soul is not a static presence, but “a deed we humans do.”

A deed? A deliberate, ongoing activity? My soul was a noun, not a verb. It sat there, divine and immutable, watching me live my life. It was the only part of me that would persist. This notion of flux was therefore doubly unsettling: Did Sardello mean I’d enjoy eternity only to the extent that I had lived soulfully in this world?

You can’t mete out eternity, I consoled myself. You either have it or you don’t. Which was why it was always so easy to see my soul as a possession, a key to the kingdom locked away in a spiritual safe-deposit box. Rethinking soul would mean clearing away a lot of clutter, and making meaning, tirelessly, from what was left. Done right, it would probably mean reorganizing my heart and mind, too.

I wonder what I’d free.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002