Words on Fire
Only four dry days in June 1977, the year my basement flooded. Elvis hadn’t died yet, but another, more personal loss happened under my feet as I slept. My basement filled halfway up the stairs with water. The chaos involved in that was nothing to a big drama in three small boxes that seemed no big deal to my husband.
I’d been writing diaries and filling notebooks with poems since I was 11 or 12. I saw right away that all three of the boxes were soaked, my stuff ruined. I grabbed the top notebook anyway. It was wet, but the ink had only smeared, not completely disappeared.
“My poems! Mike! What should I do?”
He looked down at me. “Throw them away,” he said. And then he left for work.
Alone with the ruins of a necessary part of me I barely understood, I wondered if I’d come to a sweet resting place where my head no longer filled up with words on fire until I had to write them down or burst into flames.
I kneeled over the boxes, not caring that I was wearing my favorite pair of bells. The jeans would survive; they were made of tough material. My writing, on the other hand, was disintegrating before my eyes. I pulled the top spiral bound books, which seemed semi-okay, out of the boxes. My oldest stuff–the white diary with gold lock and key, a picture of Mickey Dolenz, my favorite Monkee, hundreds of sheets of loose notebook paper—all of that was unsalvageable soup.
I came upstairs, my arms full of notebooks. I set them in the kitchen sink and went back down to clean the mess, a jug of Lysol in one hand, old towels in the other. Hours later, I wrung out the rags and hung them on the laundry line that spanned the basement ceiling.
I looked at my notebooks in the kitchen sink, noticed how the light from outside shone down on them. For the first time in ten days, the sun had made it through the clouds. I opened all the windows before getting into the shower.
“What are these doing in here?” Mike said, coming home from work to a sink full of poems instead of dinner on the table.
“Oh, I, ah, maybe I can save them.” I combed out my long wet hair and avoided his eyes after I noticed that he was looking at me like I was a sad and deluded little girl.
While we waited for the pizza delivery, Mike watched the news and I hung my poems up to dry with the damp rags on the line downstairs.
The next day, I set up a card table in one of the empty bedrooms. Then I called my mother and asked to borrow her typewriter. I went to the mall, but instead of shopping for shoes or another pair of velvet hot pants, I bought typing paper, a new ribbon, and a bottle of White Out.
Fifty-six poems survived the great flood. And surprising stuff happened when I typed them out on fresh paper. Hours flew by like minutes. I discovered the value in revision. And I learned how to woo inspiration. The old seductress had come again, and since that day, she has never left.