Ground Level

In the photo from an unidentified year, Christmas is a litter of red bows and crumpled paper. Two grinning and sleepy-eyed girls hold up matching nightgowns. As they kneel there, a drab stretch of olive green peeks through the debris. That carpet was already flat and washed out when we moved into the house in 1983. Wall-to-wall padding the color of tinned peas stretched along the hallway through the living room and out to the edges of the dining room.

For the years we lived in that house, I barely noticed the flooring. It took a beating under our adolescent feet. Forgotten Easter eggs and candy canes gathered dust in its corners. Dander from a revolving menagerie of dogs and cats dusted its depths. Embers popped from the fireplace burned dark scars into its skin. Everything we tracked in from the woods and sidewalks worked its way into the fibers, along with the desperate sweat from our middle school dance parties, the busted lamps and windowpanes from our high school drinking parties, and the spilled ink from our volumes of love notes to uninterested boys.

My sister and I lay on that floor with the usual suspects from the neighborhood. Stretched out on our bellies, we played Trivial Pursuit and rubbed the belly of one dog or another. From the record player, Prince and UB40 belted out the soundtrack to our epic conspiracy to win the attention of those aforementioned boys.

The carpet is such an expanse of dingy green, almost popping out of the photo now. In all those years and all that proximity, I don’t think I ever even noticed that it was holding me up. It was as invisible as dust mites, as overlooked as the native tongue.

The surfaces that hold us and bind us are this way. They meet us on our arrival, having been laid down by the folks whose arrival preceded our own. The pell-mell approach of our predecessors becomes a Way that eventually mellows into The Way Things Are. It even becomes ours. We walk upon those planes, the familiar buoyancy cushioning our feet even as we are oblivious to its presence.

As willing as I have been to bore with drill-press intensity into definitions of justice and art and the magical capacity of the human mind for learning, I have never quite turned the implement back on myself. Have these eyes ever looked straight at my own assumptions about work and family as they relate to my choices? Oh, sure, I have burnt a few gallons of midnight oil playing psychobabble ping-pong with friends and lovers about what relationships are all about. Breathless with certainty that I had re-written the script, I managed to skirt around the scrupulous inspection of my notion that I would and should have a partner in this life. Even while raging against gendered and racist patterns of thought and behavior, I avoided focusing too closely on the preconceptions about what roles my partner and I are to play in creating our very real shared narrative. Similarly, I have never looked dead in the eye of my own sense of what it means to succeed. The ideas that I am gifted yet troubled, and that I can do anything but end up doing very little, are a little too densely packed for whatever tools I have brought to the task.

Is this experience true of other people who have had minimal struggle in a largely unremarkable life? Do others share this comforting idea that native ability combined with a little hard work will pay off, and that the pieces will simply fall into place? Have I been piling faith and weight onto a belief that a spouse by my side would lead clearly to kids and then to home and then a future, and the whole package would coalesce into something not so different from what surrounded me in my growing-up years? Tee and I fell into each other. We set up house on a foundation poured long before our arrival. This is what family is (isn’t it?) This is what work will bring (won’t it?) All you need to do is stake your claim to this stretch of land, and the rest will come.

Right?

Not to heap too much abuse on this old girl, but I realize now I have been living like that grinning adolescent in the photo. Sprawled on a floor I take for granted, I parade my plenty. All the while, I gaze past the person at who is holding the camera and even past what might be gazing back from the other side of it. A bill is on the table, detailing the price my own parents had to pay for creating that little postcard snapshot for the album. What child wants to look at that? It is so easy for a kid to avert her eyes from the sweat popping on her parents’ brows as they hand down the double-edged sword of their labors: the unquestioned assumption that such bounty is a birthright.

Since leaving home (returning, leaving, returning again), I have padded along the familiar set and slipped into unquestioned grooves, following a script written in another time and place for a character who is not me. The ground below, not solid at all. Particle board and paste, leading nowhere, threatening to give way.

My childhood home went on the market in 1990. Seen through the eyes of potential buyers, it came up lacking. First came new kitchen linoleum, then fresh bedroom paint, and by all means, get rid of that awful carpet. Our family went to work yanking up the foul, green stuff in strips. The first among us who tore the padding from the nails below stopped and called the others over. We gathered round in slack-jawed awe. Down below, hardwood floors. Miles and miles of gleaming, untouched boards.

We pulled up every inch of carpet and exposed the honeyed oak. The glossy surface shined even brighter with a sanding and a polish. Like a new copper penny, it caught the light spilling in from the picture windows and cast it right back up to the very corners of our home – the home we would shortly be leaving. We had never thought to look. We had never thought to dig. It had simply not occurred to us that a treasure might be less than an inch below our feet.

It was not without regret that we left a home we had never truly seen, never really been able to know as beautiful. Who among us considered the true potential of what is right within reach? The cushion of the familiar is usually good enough.

Last week, I walked out of the courtroom, frayed at the edges. My corners were beginning to tug away from the known, the bare underneath of me exposed. As raw as I felt, the experience was not as traumatizing as I expected it to be. The procedure of the divorce is an exercise required by the state. Tee and I have long since vacated the premises of the marriage. I have already begun to pull up and shake out the memories, the stains and glitter alike.

I may not be stripped down yet, but I am getting close. Without the name, the spouse, the soft layer of family that has absorbed the falls for the better part of the past decade, the very ground can feel uncertain. Too hard, perhaps, to cushion the blows. Or maybe not hard enough to hold me.

Despite the uncertain topography, I walked out with my paper and its Commonwealth seal feeling oddly calm. I have a sense that something extraordinary might really be under the surface of this life I have been living. If I can pierce through my own patterned ways, crack open the legacies I have handed myself through years of unquestioned approaches to things – to men, to work, to the very sense of what I might do with the time I have left on this earth – then I might uncover miles of lush, open terrain. A gleaming way, made for my very own feet.

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