Thursday, December 17, 2015
I have a neighbor who is addicted to renovation. Not a week goes by without the grrrr of a truck, the song of a carpenter, the buzz of a saw in a tree. I'm renovation shy myself. I do what needs to be done only when it must be done. Only when I force myself to see that yes, the roof is leaking again, or the bathtub crack hasn't put its own sutures in, or, unless I take some action now, I won't have a working oven.
There is a lot that I don't see. There's a lot that I forget after I see it. There are details that go to insta-blur. I remember, for example, a pink dress, a long table and its drying watercolors, Jethro Tull playing through a rickety box, and a bottle of linseed oil stashed where most might stash some food, all of which equals the day I fell for certain in love with my husband.
But what else was there? I could search my memory for a very long time, but if I didn't see the greater details first, if I didn't notice then, I've got nothing now.
This week I read Lucia Berlin's extraordinary collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women. The stories are primarily (we're told) autobiographical, except when Berlin felt the need to exaggerate for effect. Many "memoirists" will exaggerate and call the story a memoir. Thankfully Berlin does not. We read her and know a version of her. We sift our way through the authentics. She makes no claims, except on our imagination.
In the final story in the collection, Berlin's narrator—tethered to an oxygen tank, full of Berlinesque thoughts—looks back over the what if's of her life. She seduces us until we're caught in the snare of her possibilities, then snapped back to her quasi-fictional now. The character watches crows crowd a tree and wonders why she never sees them leave at dawn. She wonders what else she hasn't seen, what else she hasn't done.
Here, early, she worries over details missed. I find this passage extraordinary because I'm not sure I've ever read an author of any genre who has read the world as closely as Berlin must have read the world to write her stories.
And yet: What else?
It's a question for all of us.
I don't know why I even brought this up. Magpies flash now blue, green against the snow. They have a similar bossy shriek. Of course I could get a book or call somebody and find out about the nesting habits of crows. But what bothers me is that I only accidentally noticed them. What else have I missed? How many times in my life have I been, so to speak, on the back porch, not the front porch? What would have been said to me that I failed to hear? What love might there have been that I didn't feel?
Lucia Berlin, "Homing," A Manual for Cleaning Women