Skylights feel like a secret, a peering through a keyhole not to someone’s bedroom but out into the vast. The view is not the street, the sidewalk, the garden. The view is not of earth, squirrels and dirt, the finite and gravitybound world we know best. Tilt your head. Roof peaks, treetops, sky. The skylight reminds: there is up and out.
I had brick fragments in my ear, in my hair, in my bra pressed to the skin of my breasts, which I scratched off like little scabs. We spent seven hours taking down a small section of a brick stairway. Chip chip chipping with a hammer and cold chisel, and whoever built the stairs used cement instead of mortar. One thing I learned: bricks are porous and mortar is even more so, which allows the water to leave the bricks. Cement is less porous and traps the water in the bricks and so they drown and die.
The work was hard and the work was boring. Chain gang said M. Prisoners, I said. I tried to imagine that we were archeologists, that maybe we’d uncover dinosaur spines or a marble toe from a statue of Athena, which made it slightly more interesting for a span of about four seconds.
Hard and interesting is good. Easy and boring is okay. Hard and boring is a no-good combination that propels the brain to bad places. I tried to tell myself that maybe it will improve, maybe I’ll get better at chipping and the bricks will pop out no problem. Maybe I’ll find some lesson or value. No. None of it. It sucked and that’s all. And days are like that and they end and the bricks are in a heap on the driveway and when I got home I excavated fragments from my skin and iced my hand, reminded that not all days involve the satisfaction of building.
This morning I finished the third of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels, having read nothing but these books for the past two months. The experience of reading at first was that I was living two lives — my actual life, and the one Ferrante writes of in Naples and Florence. As I got deeper in, that distinction blurred, no longer real life and novel life, but all strangely mingled, which was satisfying, pleasurable, destabilizing, and uncomfortable. So I recommend these books to everyone, as a new and enthusiastic member of the chorus of Ferrante admirers. And I also recommend Molly Fischer’s thoughtful, sensitive look at the three books at the New Yorker site. Read Elena Ferrante and the Force of Female Friendships.
[Photograph by Trent Park, Magnum]
The bricks have failed, I was told. On the outside of the low wall, they looked as they should: darkened and greyed with shocks of mossy green fuzz and blooms of bone colored lichen. Once chipped, the bricks crumbled from the wall. Once broken, the core of them was damp to the touch, saturated with wet. The inner rich red came as a shock against the outer grey, like nothing that had failed, like something molten.
Indoor and outdoor go undivided for a while as we work dis- and remantling a massive window in the kitchen we’re working on in Arlington. The usual fears arrive: what if a bird flies in? What about wolves and bears and storms? Will the people who live here be warm enough with two layers of plastic sails sealing up the hole? (Hole seems not the right word for a space this large; better for buttons and socks. Here, it’s more an opening. A gape.) There are no wolves or bears in Arlington, and the skies have been clear. It’s a good view out the back, and I’ll be glad when there is glass again.
In Union Square in Somerville, across the street from a Dunkin Donuts, cast iron radiators dominate a busy corner. We dropped one off last week, a three-hundred pounder removed from a kitchen we’re renovating in Arlington. It felt like we were returning it to its family, that it would be welcomed into the rusting, paint-chipped crowd. They used to pay ten bucks when you dropped one off. Now it’s nothing except a lighter load in the back of your truck, and a new member of the lot, cold to the touch, still radiating something.
This evening I removed a sliver of cedar that had lived under the skin of my hand, in the meat below my pinky, for about a week and a half. It never hurt. The tiny shard of wood was likely on its way to dissolving, eaten and absorbed by the juices in my skin. It’s not always so painless. M. got a splinter, deep, deep, that had her wincing for days, finger red and swollen and the wood fragment lost by her knuckle. Some people call splinters slivers. And I like that as a name; the hurt is in the word. But the best word I’ve heard for splinter comes from Jonah’s mom. Brickle. Imagine the summer feeling of walking across a deck, bare foot, and a shard of wood sliding in underneath the skin of your heel. Brickle sounds exactly how that feels.
[Photograph by Joke Weier]
The Old Farmer’s Almanac forecasts the first fall frost in Cambridge will be on November 7, with a 50% probability. We’ve got some plants that live outside, and need to make some space for them inside our small apartment. To bring them in would create a jungle on the floor, crowd already crowded space. “Let’s build shelves,” Jonah posed. I had oak floorboards in mind, ones I’d grabbed from a job M. and I had done, pulling up old floors and putting down new ones. Sturdy, thick, strong, dirty on the sides where a century’s worth of dust and dirt and human skin collected between the boards, but easy to clean up. “How about these?” Jonah said, picking up scraps from a big round table I made out of reclaimed chestnut. “Perfect. Perfect.” An inch and a half thick, and curved, so no one will bump their shoulder or their eye on a corner on the way into the bathroom of our small place. I love the way they look, and was pleased with Jonah’s vision for the wood.
At my grandmother’s house, which was sold last fall to the rich man next door, there was a secret path under the shrubs that lead down the hill to a clearing. The tunnel of bushes closed in so you had to duck a bit and mind the blackberry brambles which thorned dress straps and bare arms. Always at the bottom it felt different than the top, as though you’d traveled through the wardrobe, entering some secret realm. Late summer last year, and everything was almost done, a final time at this house before it was sold and gutted beyond recognition, the ghosts displaced, the spirit of the house killed dead. Late summer last year, in the grass in the clearing after the path, bones and fur. There are other paths, yes? There are other paths, I tell myself. “Even good girls die,” I was told late at night, as if this house was one of them, or I was, and as if I didn’t know.
A lot of people, mostly men, when I say I work as a carpenter, ask me about a toolbelt. I never owned one. I’ve envied and admired M’s, which is worn in like a good pair of boots, but it never felt right to buy myself one, all fresh and stiff. After all, I can shove nails in my front pockets, a pencil in the back, clip a tape to my right hip. And maybe more so it was a doubting if I’d earned one yet.
For this deck project we just finished, we worked with M’s old boss. We arrived at work one early morning and he said, “Got a present for you,” and he pulled out this belt that used to be his and I didn’t think it could really be for me, that maybe it was on loan for the day. I put it on, around my hips, and loved the way it felt, soft and strong, well worn, experienced, an experienced belt. “It’s yours to keep if you want it,” he said. It’s an object that feels instilled with something, some power, used and useful, and I couldn’t believe how cool it felt to wear. I said thank you, thank you, which didn’t do justice to how grateful, flattered, and surprised I was by this good gift.