When I was in Nepal, I felt as if the place could make anyone a photographer; perhaps, because I came back from that trip looking at the world in a very different way, and some of the photos I took while I was there became a kind of home. Something to return to when lost, or confused, or in need of comfort.
Port Townsend, I think, can make anyone a writer. I come here, and the stories come like the tides, regularly, with a rhythm. Take pictures with the good early light. Write in the morning. Cobweb clearing. Walk the dog at the lagoon, the ducks quacking their laughter behind my steps. Find somewhere to be in the world. Watching people. Recognizing family features in the faces of people I either haven’t seen in nearly two decades, or, squinting my eyes perplexed, trying to figure out how the little boy I grew up with is still nine (he isn’t; he’s the child of the little boy I grew up with). Revisiting old places; most of which aren’t even familiar. Some are. Listening to stories, having the kind of easy conversation with strangers that I became accustomed to while trekking. The kind that I’d forgotten were familiar, until spending a month’s worth of weekends in my home town, and noticing them again. Impulse to write in the afternoon. That time, the kind of writing I feel like sharing. Like right now.
This afternoon’s task was to clean out the remaining six or seven boxes in my parents’ basement that I’d squirreled away down there either fifteen or twenty years (depending on the box) ago. By volume, the boxes contain mostly books; next, paper of other kinds — that paper is the reason I didn’t just tell my parents to chuck the boxes, contents and all. I wondered if, by taking the time to go through those boxes, I could come to know myself better. For various reasons, I don’t remember much at all from my childhood or teen years, and perhaps the scraps of paper in those boxes might give me a few more stories from those times before. The rest of the contents were treasures-then-junk-now: trophies, ribbons, dried flowers, old magazines and newspaper clippings… I didn’t take the time to figure out why I’d saved each piece. The books: sorted into a box to donate, except for a few. The papers: sorted roughly into another box to keep, the rest recycled. The other stuff: unceremoniously sorted into boxes to donate, recycle, trash. All things I might have gotten rid of years before, if I’d learned sooner how to let go of things.
I didn’t learn that skill at home, growing up. As I started sorting through the first box, my dad looking over my shoulder, my mother sitting on the stairs to the basement, I remembered something. When we cleaned our rooms growing up, we’d get a talking to from our normally unflappable, full-of-smiles-and-love dad if we threw away anything of use. That’s fair, of course, except that dad’s definition of “anything of use” was quite generous. A single dangly earring, found run over by our car tires in our driveway: of use. For example. So learning to let go of things is something I learned long after leaving their house. I was thirty one or thirty two, I can’t quite do the math right now, and I packed my camping and climbing gear in my roof box, my law practice’s files into a laundry basket, and a bag or two of clothes and drove away from the home I’d tried and failed to make for myself.
Things, let go of.
My early programming is still there, though — and strong — while going through boxes in my parents’ basement. I did my best. In the course of the month, I got through all of the boxes but two. And I found what I was looking for. Stories and poems and letters and pictures I didn’t remember and my high school newspapers and some newspaper clippings that I’m glad I saved, and research I did that I don’t recall an ounce of, but I’m intrigued to rediscover.
Apparently, I crafted a survey about peoples’ use of the internet, in 1995. I posted the survey on newsgroups (remember those?) and people emailed me their responses. From all over the world. And I’m not sure what I did with the results — I only found print-outs of some of their emails, and my tallies of data, and a three page write-up on some of the “personalities” that had responded. At first, I’d tossed it all in the recycle bag. One box saved, the rest let go of. And the one box saved, likely still with some clearing out to do.
I carried the heavy box to save up the stairs to the kitchen. I washed my hands of the dust and grime that comes with a few hours spent in the basement. I went into the living room to check on Gibson, and the front door wasn’t how I left it. The little door that covers the old window out to the world was open. I got chills: that door doesn’t open easily. I’d left the door unlocked. Was someone in the house? Impossible: Gibson would have alerted. But the chills wouldn’t go away. I locked the door and latched the chain, second-guessing the decision, since if this were a horror movie, I’d have just locked myself in the house with whatever specter had opened the little window’s door.
When Megan and I were little and shared an upstairs bedroom, the bedroom that I’ve been sleeping in every weekend this month, the house would creak and groan and we’d be scared. The story I remember is that a little old lady lived in the attic, and she had a rocking chair. And when we were babies, she’d rock us to sleep in the rocking chair, and that was the creaking we’d hear: the sound of her rocking chair. And I think it was my mother who told the story — again, I can’t really remember. And it was intended to calm us, to help us feel safe, to let us know that there was a benevolent grandmotherly figure in the attic, who loved us and kept us safe. But in my mind, the little old lady in the attic was creepy. And there were other creepy things in that house… my sister had dreams or ghosts or a prolific imagination, I don’t know which, but the upstairs and the basement have always given me the creeps. The only safe floor, the only one without those haunted places, is the main floor. And today, with the inexplicable window opening — Ryan at school, my mom and dad gone for the weekend, me in the house alone with Gibson — even the main floor felt its age. Like a house built in the early 1900s that had seen it all.
I decided to retrieve my “internet anthropology” research from the basement. I just was too curious to see what stories might be found in there; what insights might be gleaned. As I was digging through the box of recycling, I heard the basement door above me blow closed. I thought nothing of it. It happens, in this house — drafts close doors. Perhaps they open windows. The make noises. I was glad Gibson was sleeping happily on the sofa upstairs.
Until I went back up to finish packing and tried the basement door and found it locked. From the inside. Ghost, draft, little old attic lady — whatever closed the door, decided to lock the deadbolt as well.
I didn’t even bother hurrying to the front door — I could remember the feeling of the chain on my fingers, that I’d latched, from the inside, that would prevent the key in my pocket from allowing me entry.
I called Terry. The locksmith. Port Townsend has one, I think. As I dialed the number, I pondered the logistics: Sunday noon. Ryan needs his lunch. The dog is locked in the house. We’re in Port Townsend. I’d imagine Terry doesn’t work 24/7. How much damage would I have to do to my parents’ post-Victorian, home, in order to regain entry?
Miraculously, Terry answered the phone. He was just leaving town on his way to Bainbridge Island. He turned around, and came to my rescue. I was still shaking, and sweating, when he arrived; he quizzed me about whether I had permission to enter the house; about what proof I could show him that I had any business being there. Being Port Townsend, he quizzed me only hard enough for him to believe me; not enough to actually prove anything. As he worked, he asked how I’d wound up in this predicament, and I told him. I mostly told the whole story, a little bit abbreviated; when I confided how creeped out I was, he just smiled. “These old houses,” he said. “It was probably the sunshine: it warms them up, and makes them creak and move. Or — it could be haunted. You never know. I’ve seen stranger things.”
And he was kind to me, and reached through the three-inch gap the front door would make with the chain I’d latched still latched and scratched Gibson’s nose. And I watched him try three different methods of breaking and entering my parents old house; its defenses stronger than most he works on. I thought about the business of breaking into peoples’ houses for money, at their request. I’d imagine that you become quite the judge of character, in that job. The stories he’d have to tell.
In the end, the house yielded, with no damage done. Gibson was fine. Ryan hitched a ride uptown with his teacher, and we met him and still had time for lunch, and I told him about the papers I’d gone back for and he agreed, although inconvenient and expensive to retrieve them, it was probably worth it. And Gibson played on the pocket beach next to Waterfront Pizza while Ryan ate slices heavy with Linguisa and I watched the water and gazed across the blue at Indian Island, a still-operating Naval munitions base, where bombs, bullets and missiles get loaded into marine vessels headed out to sea.
I left this place nearly as thoroughly and completely as I left my Poulsbo home; leaving behind boxes and people and stories and parts of myself. And it’s been a gift to come back; to be here long enough to know my parents a little differently. Acceptance. Love. To do the work of going through boxes and finding stories from a much younger me. To find, as I move around town, old names popping into my head as I look at houses and faces.