The contrast in the room was marked: new carpet, new paint, that lingering smell of cut wood and carpenter’s glue. The dark and dated wood paneling replaced by bright neutrals, the musty drapes pulled down to let in simple light. A new, fresh room. But filled with old things: bulging black garbage sacks, water-stained cardboard boxes, damaged furniture.
This was my mother’s downstairs family room, where my sister Becky and I stood, not exactly sure how to start but certain we needed to accomplish our goal: get the room clean before Christmas day.
This spring, my mom’s basement flooded. She was away on a trip when this happened, so she came home to a puddled basement and some very damp possessions. Most of this was put into the black garbage bags, to be sifted through and sorted at a later date. When the restoration was finished, the construction men just moved all the stuff out of her garage and back into her basement, where it waited until that Saturday, the one just 8 days before Christmas, when Becky and I and our mother all took deep breaths and got started.
The stuff in the bags and boxes and drawers was a portion of the accumulation of a lifetime. Much of it was my mother’s sewing projects, lengths of quilting cotton and flannels waiting to be sewn into quilts. There were boxes of old patterns—one, which I’ve giggled over at odd moments since, was a girls’ nightgown pattern, sized "smalls and chubbies"—and old clothes. Boxes of my dad’s things, also, gun powder and empty bullet casings from the days when he liked to reload bullets; a few remnant wooden ducks from the decorative-duck company he started. A handful of watercolor paintings he made.
As we worked we got down to surfaces, the end tables and bookshelves that’ve been in that room since my childhood. We sorted: keep, donate, throw away. We put together two entire boxes of UFOs (unfinished objects, all of the quilting variety). We made fun of clothing and fabric choices. We laughed and sneezed and needed water. We argued gently with each other over the wisdom of keeping certain things. And, when we were nearly done, we found a journal of my dad’s. This empty book was giving to him on Christmas in 1989 by Becky—we know because we read it. In it, he’d written three or four paragraphs about his early life and memories. He managed to move his voice from the air onto the page in those few sentences, and for an instant I was 17 again, sitting by the fire on Christmas night, reading my new book while my dad wrote in his journal next to me.
Reading that one, solitary journal entry, surrounded by the flotsam of my father’s unfinished objects—and my mother’s—was like falling from a scarp into rough waves. Like drowning in irrelevance. We arrive in our lives, we find the things we care about, the things we love to do, and then we leave them behind. All of the time, energy, and money we invest in our hobbies—what do they amount to in the end? What do you want to make? My heart kept asking me. What do you want to leave behind? If I died tomorrow, how many unfinished objects would I leave behind? Three quilts, dozens of scrapbook layouts, hundreds of essays and poems and stories never written. I don’t want to come to the end of my life, whenever that might be, and leave only unfinished things. I want to make things that last.
What do you want to make?
What do you want to make?
I worked for as long as I could, that question in my heart, but I had to leave by 1:00. There was a book signing at our library and I had two books I wanted to have signed as Christmas gifts. I arrived with only ten minutes to spare, still in my dusty clothes, clutching my copies of Crossed and Beyonders, and waited in line to have Ally Condie and Brandon Mull (respectively) sign them. As I waited, I looked at them. Successful writers (along with Dan Wells, Robinson Wells, and Bree Despain). But also simply people. People who were determined and passionate enough to make something lasting. People who tried their craft even if they were scared. (Or maybe they weren’t scared—maybe it’s just me completely bound by fear?) Here is the answer to the question pounding at the door of my heart: what do you want to make? I want to make a life like that. I want to be the person on the other side of the book-signing table. I want to be the one delving into words and story. I want to overcome the fear that is strangling me, and do it anyway.
That is what I want to make.
What do you?