I spoke to my parents the other day. My father was criticizing the way my mother cleaned a window, and in the middle of the video call went over to clean it better. I shook my head and commiserated with my mom.
“He’s suddenly so good at cleaning, huh? I wonder if he’ll use his talents on the basement.”
The only place in our house that none of us have any reign over is my father’s basement. He has his lab down there (dental technician), and with the rest of the space are things that he simply refuses to get rid of. Relics of the 90s, video tapes, elliptical machines, rugs and chairs. Convex TV screens and the smell of cardboard. The space is large enough to be a livingroom, and there was a long time when I wanted a spot down there to use as a studio space, but he filled every last crevasse with an empty promise that he would clean it. One day. Someday.
Every thing is in the shadow of another. No floor, no tables. Stacks and piles, concrete and dust and flickering fluorescent light. Boxes and clear plastic containers, shoved miserably together. Trellised wires and the diminished gleam of metal under grime. And a man who spends most of his time there, in the harshly-lit dark, surrounded by his work and his things.
I thought of that basement today.
My suitcases have been open and empty for days. Clothes strewn about, piles of papers, Christmas cards that have reminded me of home. My eyes have grown tired and used to the mess. What do I keep? What do I leave behind?
How do you pack these feelings away?
I built a life here. I found friends, a niche in my job and a favorite place to eat. I passed through cycles of losing and finding my way again and again, denying the night’s end into the cool, crisp morning. Shopkeepers to smile at. A path home that I liked to walk. A place where I could be alone if I needed to. Breathing the air in each season, looking up and recognizing the familiar smoky blue that forms the night.
How do I say goodbye, to this life in Korea that I forged so carefully? It’s been a year’s work. When I go back will it, too, find its way into my father’s basement, cluttered by cassette tapes and trampolines, joining my other projects, buried there?
I sort uselessly through the writings and drawings my students have made, and for once in a long time I feel like crying. I found so much happiness here. Can’t I keep this too?
Maybe, for my father, the things he keeps are a tangible reminder of the life he has slowly built up. Coming from a different country, making it through all of the difficult jobs to afford that first TV set, to accumulate all of those cassettes and carefully recorded home movies. All the faithful stereo systems that would blast Caribbean music through the windows, no matter where we lived or how bad things were, telling everyone that we were making it through and proud of where we were, having a good time. It’s all broken and damaged now, but he won’t let go.
In his act of keeping, I see that I cannot.
I can’t turn my happiness into a thing that I can hold on to. I haven’t the space for it.
And so I find the strength to throw away.