The Commonplace

A train ride from San Francisco to Oakland is more efficient and straightforward than a series of bus rides from the Mission to North Beach, even though the latter distance is a quarter of the former. I make the trans-Bay trip often, and have done so since I first moved to San Francisco. Many important men in my life have stumbled into residences in the Fruitvale neighborhood (or should I say, I have stumbled into many men with residences in the Fruitvale neighborhood, or both), which is strange, because it is a sparsely inhabited, shabby, industrial area, with warehouses and junkyards and detritus on the sidewalks. There are no hot destinations or sleekly designed coffee bars, only an occasional fluorescent-lit taco truck doubling as a landmark. It is not a beautiful neighborhood. But there is space — cheap, inhabitable, open space.

Tonight I ride over with ginger beer, chips, salsa, and several books in tow. At the Fruitvale station, I rouse the man next to me who is slumped over his backpack sleeping, a first nap, I’m guessing, after a few nights on the street, an assumption I derive from the sourness of his body odor. I look for Josh’s car, a faded bronze Camry with the word “DAD” in its license plate. We drive two minutes to a complex of gate-locked warehouses where he and Carlos live.

The night begins with a bag of chips, which we dump onto the table and dip into salsa. For some people, eating is a task necessary for survival, performed only to mitigate the sharpest pangs of hunger. By the rate at which Josh and Carlos are eating, like factory workers on break — silently, intently, quickly — it is clear that they are in survival mode. I know many men like this, who prefer liquids to solids, relying on the former to function and the latter to live.

To prevent wood dust from rising, the boys have just put up a brown burlap curtain, which you have to peel off your face and push to the left when climbing the stairs to the living quarters up above, which is two hammocks slung perpendicular to each other, shelves of neatly stacked pants, suspended racks of shirts and sweaters, a coffee bar, piles of books beside a worn yellow armchair, a kitchen sink without a garbage disposal, and a modest rectangular dining table. Small, delicate plants like succulents and orchids abound amidst congeries of wooden objects and implements, arranged neatly on the surfaces they have created.

I remember when there was nothing there, just bare white walls — a wide, open canvas. That first night, we christened the place with an easy dinner, managed with very little dishware: roasted sweet potatoes, eggs, corn tortillas, sautéed zucchini, spinach, beer — whatever we could find at the bodega nearby. The meal was strangely delicious, all of it. The space was empty, but Josh and Carlos were giddy about the possibilities it held, about building and creating a home for themselves, about an intentional household filled with things they loved and desired, and after they put up the first shelves, we sat around the table and talked until I cried, which was both embarrassing and I’m sure, memorable, and those memories at the very beginning, even when there was nothing there, were the start of something, this growth of people into a space and then the growth of the space itself and then the community coming into it and all the stories pouring out of it.

There were the beginnings of the wood shop, which was the dream all along, down in the dusty dark space below. Machines arrived one by one, saws and lathes and woodcutters that I will not be able to tell you about. Then the work table was built, and the wood glues and the tools were put into their containers and arranged on the shelves, the trash bin filled with wood scraps. Along the wall there are severed tree stumps. The dream was to build and to build with friends, to work, to teach, to commune, to gather.

Tonight we are working on two live edge wood slabs, propped up onto four tree stumps. Ginger beers popped open, Blood Orange on high. I’m wearing black leggings, black boots, and a long black tunic with jagged edges and an asymmetrical hem. “You need woodworking clothes,” Carlos says, pointing to the draping edges of my top. “That’s not going to be safe.”

I change into a long grey t-shirt, and then Carlos hands me a scraper to start smoothing out the edges. To demonstrate, he stands with his body perpendicular to the slab, and runs the scraper lengthwise, where the bark meets the flesh of the wood. He scrapes forcefully, rhythmically, easily.

He hands me the scraper and tells me to start scraping. It’s an easy task that requires no dexterity, but like a gangly foal, I don’t yet know how to arrange my body so that the movement feels natural. The hesitance one feels in her first encounters with the motions of a particular or peculiar activity — driving a stick-shift, vaulting over a twenty-foot pole, handling a blunderbuss — is the same hesitance one feels in the face of a stranger, the same unfamiliarity that demands self-censorship or self-guarding or self-protection against the embarrassment of misstep, a projectile motion that is outside of one’s control. The possibility of havoc is palpable.

When I first start scraping the wood, my movements are awkward, but the rhythmic repetition — a hundred practice rounds of the very same motion — squashes the strangeness quickly; my arm and my body are acclimating to — and then striking — the sweet sound of metal peeling off wood. Josh is sanding the edge of the other slab, directly behind me, and wood dust is permeating the entire room. Behind my face mask — which, because of my race, makes me look like a hypochondriac during a SARS scare — a layer of grime mixes with sweat, which, after ten minutes of scraping, is profuse. After a day of floating through the black hole of cyberspace, the nighttime calisthenics of woodworking is actually a relief.

I am kneeling in piles of wood scrapings, which look like thicker, larger pencil shavings, and they’re sticking to my skin and to my leggings, and they’re entering the crevices between my boot and my sock. I’m dirty and sweaty and I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing, but as I push and pull the scraper against the wood, perfecting the motion and the sound, I sink deeper into a space of freewheeling thoughts, akin only to meditation, or being on drugs, or swimming. It is a rare and overwhelming state of being in which I see beyond the present moment, see the present within a totality of moments, and it is as Aldous Huxley describes in Doors of Perception, a moment in which I am “capable of remembering all that has ever happened to [me] and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe.” This capacity is more a sensation than a fact, an anomaly more than a regularity; it is a capacity for gratitude, for awe of divine orchestration.

I suddenly possess an awareness of what I can only clumsily describe as sacred serendipity, a series of unforeseeable events, a specific, one-in-a-million permutation of encounters that have made this moment, this right-here-right-now, possible. There was the moving to San Francisco, the decision to come home, the breakup, the search for community, the finding a church, the intersection of strangers, the becoming of friends, the apartment, the realization of the wood shop dream, the collaboration, the wood slabs propped up in a dark warehouse in the south of San Francisco, the unknowing decisions, the Monday delivery, the train, the willingness, the togetherness, every small choice, action, happenstance leading up to this moment, right now.

How do you remain indifferent, disenchanted in the face of that? Only the soul-less are blind to the wonder of mysteries.

Jack Gilbert, poet of my soul, wrote a poem called “Highlights and Interstices” in which he mourns the commonplace he can no longer remember, not the major life decisions (the job-quitting, the moving away, the falling in love) but the interstitial moments of the quotidian, whose pathos is derived from their loss. This is nostalgia in the wake of absence, a sorrow evoked by the absorption of one’s own amnesia.

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,
vacations and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
noticing and carries her across Waller Street
while talking with the other woman. What if she
could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about
her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

The uncommon parts, which are the two thousand habitual breakfasts with Michiko, which are the commonplace he and I and you can no longer remember, which are between the memorable, which are the ordinary ephemera we view mostly with indifference and sometimes with weariness — these are the things Emily is saying goodbye to at the end of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, when she comes back to her life a ghost and laments all the things she did not notice when she was still alive.

“Let’s really look at one another!,” she exclaims, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed.” She takes one last glance at the clocks ticking and Mama’s sunflowers and the ironed dresses and the hot baths and says, “Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”

The question is seemingly rhetorical, but the stage manager answers, “No.” He pauses. “The saints and poets, maybe they do some,” he adds.

Woodworking is the totality of a thousand unseen movements. It is the product of a vision that transmogrifies through a thousand repetitions and a thousand more slight adjustments. Inspiration crystallizes in the process of doing, in the exercise of patience and persistence as one works towards the shape of something beyond the present moment. Art requires an awareness of the gravity of every gesture and turn; the art is in the intention as much as in the result. The work of saints and poets is not merely reflection, but repetition, cradled in a constant reverence of the ordinary. When for a single transcendent moment, I can see, like Emily’s ghost, not only what is in front me, but what has passed, and is about to pass, and has culminated as the sum of so many passings, I find meaning; I find faith; I find God.

Had we not been so tired, we would have forgotten to eat, but after a couple hours in the shop, we were tired of dust and sweat and sound. So we stepped out and drove aimlessly in search of food, stopping at a small Burmese restaurant in Alameda where we ate salads, chewy lotus chips, and lettuce cups filled with chicken. We drank cloying ginger honey tea, while chewing, mostly silently, in a booth by the window. The full moon outside was large and weighty and low, as if its place in the night sky was unusually precarious; it looked ready to drop, like the Times Square Ball, into a sea of unknowing bodies.

Outside the train station, we sat in the car in the dark, waiting for the minutes to pass before the train to San Francisco came through the station. Nineteen minutes. Our words suddenly seemed urgent at the imposition of temporal and physical limits upon a night that had seemed endless, infinite just hours before. Six minutes. The poetry of familial chatter, easy and unbroken, effortless and minor. Three minutes. How did we get here? I’m thankful for you all. Two minutes. The train is approaching. This night is almost over. I’m going back to San Francisco. One minute.

Good night.

Natalie So is a writer and photographer in San Francisco. To read more of her writing, visit her blog and website. She tweets at @natalieso.


If you like what you just read, please hit the green ‘Recommend’ button below so that others might stumble upon this essay. For more essays like this, scroll down and follow the Human Parts collection.

Human Parts on Facebook and Twitter