—From EF—

Back in 1985 I had a long span of steel-gray depression enclosing my head like a vise. It didn’t make any sense, but then, depression never does. There were so many things to celebrate. Our theatre company had just been chosen (one of only ten in the country) to participate in a massive three-year development grant. Our board of directors had gone into overdrive and raised the down payment for us to buy the theatre building we’d been leasing—the owner had said buy it or get out. We were rehearsing a production of one of my all-time favorite pieces, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, and I was immersed in the lyric poetry with which Conrad had courted me in 1960. Our whole family was going to go to Europe for six weeks of summer camping, and here I was slogging through my days like that guy in Li’l Abner, the one with his own personal rain cloud. It didn’t make sense, but believe me, it was bad.

We had been moved by our Lancaster (PA) landlord from the sweet little bungalow we’d found in 1977 into a larger rental on the outskirts of Millersville. His mother was aging and couldn’t manage stairs—she needed what he was currently renting to us. Even though the Mill House was much larger he said he’d keep the rent low and promised to do a good job of rehabbing the mess left by the former tenant. He kept his promises, and in December of ’82 we moved into our two-story brick country home, complete with front porch and summer kitchen.

The pile of junk and rubble from the rehabbing was behind the summer kitchen, out back and out of sight, nestled up against a little wooded hill. It was two years before we discovered that the junk pile was a condo for rats, and that they were making excursions into our house. There was a new nifty poison for varmints, D-Con. The EPA pulled it in 2013 after its devastating effects on creatures higher up the food chain were revealed, but in 1985 it was hot stuff, and I used it.

We had a little side room at the foot of the stairs, a nook that housed my upright piano and our little TV set. Saturday mornings were the pig-out times for TV cartoons for our kids, and our son began sacking out the night before in a sleeping bag so he could get an early start. One cold rainy Saturday in March, he awoke to find a dead rat beside him.

I completely lost it. The revulsion was overwhelming, and I was frantic to find some way to deal with it. I didn’t have a plan, I was responding to instinct. In the early morning I bundled up, grabbed heavy gloves, and started to work. In my core I knew that fire was my ally. I cleared a circle in front of the summer kitchen and began to haul wood from the trash-pile. I’m a good camper, I know how to build a stable bonfire that will burn for a long time, and that’s what I did.

Conrad came out to look, offered to help, and retreated when I told him this was something I had to do by myself. In spite of the cold drizzle, I got it burning, and kept feeding and building it. At intervals I cried, at intervals I rested, at intervals I raked embers and kept the circle safe, but I worked all morning and all afternoon. The next day was the same. It was a rite of passage, and it was all I thought about that weekend. My family, though stunned, gave me my space, and finally the pile of rubble was gone, the muddy ashes were collected and dumped, and I stood by my empty fire circle, put my icy hands in my armpits, and breathed. I could see the light. I could actually see it. I had burned my way out of my cage.

This time, now, was not so dramatic. When I feel the warning signs, I move sooner. This time I took on the long-neglected job of grubbing out feral bushes that impede our vision of oncoming traffic at our driveway. They’d been given free rein for too long, and had sturdy trunks. But my little folding Corona hand-saw is a mighty partner, and what remains now is little ground-level stumps I need to paint blaze orange so we don’t trip on them.

In 1985, fire was my ally, but my body’s muscles were what did the job. I worked it off, and I’ve done it again.  


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