Iowa Writes

JENNA HAMMERICH
from "A Good Place to Start"


[. . .] Some people think of the attic as the home's unconscious mind, storehouse of memory and need and desire, a still, secret place where time is irrelevant. Jung, though, considered the cellar the unconscious and the attic the rational mind, a daylight place of clear seeing. The attic, he writes in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, rationalizes our unconscious fears: we are like the man who, "hearing a suspicious noise in the cellar, hurries to the attic and, finding no burglars there, decides, consequently, that the noise was pure imagination." For me, the attic is both. It's an ancient grandparent, keeper of history—if I have the courage to sort through its artifacts, they will tell me who I am: daughter, dreamer, collector of words.

Joan Didion's right: "We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not." An unlabeled crate of photographs I find at twenty-five reminds me I'm not the steely woman I've made myself into, living away from my family, but the same little girl who panicked when the others fell asleep before she did, who wrote poems to teachers and fan letters (S.W.A.K.) to a Dear Michael Jackson. But somehow the attic, with all its psychic freight, never smothers. It waits, in patient boxes next to the sky, till you're ready. Technically not "living space" (unless "converted," God forbid), the attic is mind space, self space, and no less necessary.

My childhood attic, the sky-pointing triangle that capped our A-frame house, had a drop-down ladder, my grandmother's wedding gift to my parents. For a long time I wondered at that—happy wedding: please enjoy this ladder—but now I think I see. The house may be newborn, it says—my parents built the house themselves—but the past has a place inside it, and I'm going to see it's accessible. There were (still are) windows on the north and south (which, every Fourth of July, I'd open to watch the fireworks shows, five at a time from that height) and twin rows of skylights running along the sides. Mornings, the sun bounces gold off the insulation paper. Afternoons and early evening, dusty daylight fills the place, and if you climb up on Mom's old steamer trunk—take care on the peeling shag—you can see the tops of willow trees lazing in the wind. My sister's and my childhood line a whole wall, opposite various collections—LPs, porcelain dolls, National Geographics, board games, crime novels. Halloween and Christmas sleep in the corner near the woods, among small hills of grandmother miscellany.

[. . .] Some people think of the attic as the home's unconscious mind, storehouse of memory and need and desire, a still, secret place where time is irrelevant. Jung, though, considered the cellar the unconscious and the attic the rational mind, a daylight place of clear seeing. The attic, he writes in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, rationalizes our unconscious fears: we are like the man who, "hearing a suspicious noise in the cellar, hurries to the attic and, finding no burglars there, decides, consequently, that the noise was pure imagination." For me, the attic is both. It's an ancient grandparent, keeper of history—if I have the courage to sort through its artifacts, they will tell me who I am: daughter, dreamer, collector of words.

Joan Didion's right: "We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not." An unlabeled crate of photographs I find at twenty-five reminds me I'm not the steely woman I've made myself into, living away from my family, but the same little girl who panicked when the others fell asleep before she did, who wrote poems to teachers and fan letters (S.W.A.K.) to a Dear Michael Jackson. But somehow the attic, with all its psychic freight, never smothers. It waits, in patient boxes next to the sky, till you're ready. Technically not "living space" (unless "converted," God forbid), the attic is mind space, self space, and no less necessary.

My childhood attic, the sky-pointing triangle that capped our A-frame house, had a drop-down ladder, my grandmother's wedding gift to my parents. For a long time I wondered at that—happy wedding: please enjoy this ladder—but now I think I see. The house may be newborn, it says—my parents built the house themselves—but the past has a place inside it, and I'm going to see it's accessible. There were (still are) windows on the north and south (which, every Fourth of July, I'd open to watch the fireworks shows, five at a time from that height) and twin rows of skylights running along the sides. Mornings, the sun bounces gold off the insulation paper. Afternoons and early evening, dusty daylight fills the place, and if you climb up on Mom's old steamer trunk—take care on the peeling shag—you can see the tops of willow trees lazing in the wind. My sister's and my childhood line a whole wall, opposite various collections—LPs, porcelain dolls, National Geographics, board games, crime novels. Halloween and Christmas sleep in the corner near the woods, among small hills of grandmother miscellany.

When we first moved in, the attic was half walkable: a plywood floor gave way to eight feet of rafters with nothing between but yellow fuzz. "Don't," Dad warned, "you'll fall right through the ceiling"—and he knew, too, having built the place. In talking to people about remembered attics, which I do compulsively, especially when I hear someone's grown up rural, I've found that most recall being scared of the floor: "It was just rafters up there—I didn't know where to walk," "The plywood was warped," "Dead moths everywhere," "I thought if I slipped I'd drown in the insulation," "I'm allergic to fiberglass." But it never seems to matter. Fill a house with fantastic toys, and still the children find the attic. "Maybe it was my blindness that allowed me to wander the old attic in a storm without any anxiety," writes poet Stephen Kuusisto. "Maybe it had to do with having conquered my fear of the Victrola. Whatever it was, the attic was my favorite place." We all start off loving the attic—if, of course, we're lucky to know one. (Someone should do a study: children with attics vs. those without. What difference in temperament, imagination, conception of self?) Unfamiliar, vaguely dangerous spaces, family attics offer the child both adventure and solitude. The cellar is equally dark and distant, but it's no place for dreaming. Where the basement stairway goes down, down, towards grave mud and cesspool, the attic's go sunward. And children, somehow, know to choose up.

[. . .]

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


JENNA HAMMERICH

Jenna Hammerich, current literary editor of the Daily Palette, is a student in The University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. This is an excerpt of an essay in progress.

This page was first displayed
on May 13, 2009

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