True story: a few weeks ago I was picking up medicine for my cat and on the way back to the car I saw a three-footed squirrel. One of its hind feet had been severed; the wound where it used to be was kind of scabbed over and the squirrel was making do, hobbling along, gathering scraps of food from an overflowing garbage can, watching the world more warily than most squirrels do, but not especially tragic.
I knew I wanted to write about this plucky rodent. I thought of allusions that might tie in: the famous poem about the Scot and the field mouse; a squirrel that was an ironic icon of traffic safety when I was a child living in England. I recalled a crippled beggar I saw in Rome at age seven, how I bawled later, and how my parents yelled at me… one of my most palpable memories, but one I’ve written about futilely so many times it no longer has heat.
I never did write about it because I failed to come up with a narrative frame, something the squirrel would be “about” in the grand scheme of things. I gave fleeting glances in subsequent days as I drove by that building (used to be a grocery store, now vacant and fenced off), but gradually forgot.
Such is the plight of the bush-league memoirist, of which the blogger is a kind. I want to make meaning of my experiences, but fail sometimes to see theme lurking behind a scene.
I thought of that squirrel today because there’s a conversation about what people choose to think and write about. Here is an example of something trivial that I nevertheless cared about, and wanted to write about, no doubt in a week of mudslides and mass shootings that I received with tragedy-saturated numbness. Squirrels are less significant than humans, I know, and not even an endangered species. But God forgive me, I briefly gave a damn about a small thing.