On Keeping A Notebook

From April 14th, 2001: “2 week fight has come to an end. The fight that changed my life forever. The first thing that will happen to come to my mind whenever I think about lower school.”

I vaguely remember scribbling down these words in the fifth grade, huddled under the vast tree at the far end of the playground, the same place where I tumbled into the dirt after getting hit in the face by a kickball, where I was first stung by a bee. But that can’t be; did I ever bring this book to school? I was a nervous and calculating child, always assuming whoever was nearest was about to wrestle my words out of my hands and read my convictions and mournings to the entirety of the school.

But what is this fight? Why do I have absolutely no recollection of it whatsoever? Obviously there were misunderstandings and hurt feelings growing up, but nothing other than a constant and simmering rage toward my childhood best friend comes to mind, a falling out that didn’t happen at least until late in middle school. A line later I find that years of friendships have been torn apart within a simple matter of weeks, something that I’m sure has changed me irrevocably. I read on, craving to know what has wrecked this little girl’s life in such a short time, what could possibly have happened that was so large it permanently marred her soul. Maybe I’m being clever, attempting to hold out the details in a 10-year-old fit of literary awareness? But within the page and a half of looping, forced cursive I never go on to explain what happened, not even mentioning the name of anyone involved. I had a small circle of four or so friends when I was that age, but they are all friendships that followed me through sixth and seventh grade at the very least. Shouldn’t I be in therapy or still having latent nightmares about this trauma I can’t even conjure a cast for?

I cannot remember when I started keeping a notebook, or why, but the first I found the desire to save was a small volume first dated December 11th, 2000, almost halfway through my tenth year. Covered in golden music notes and a blithe angel strumming a harp on a cloudless night, I clung to it tight, alternating between carrying it with me and hiding it in whatever deep recess of my room I thought I had cleverly come up with, inside my pillowcase or underneath a false bottom in an antique drawer. Of course, there were probably others, thrown away by my parents when I was unaware, during a move or a cleaning spree. I have always been what others admonish as a pack rat, but what I tended to call sentimental: a keeper of things. Even now, drawers overflow with torn notes, shoe boxes full of fingerprint stained photographs line my closet, and every concert ticket I’ve ever purchased floats around my room without reason, appearing under my bed or in my laundry hamper. But as a child, I was even worse, throwing fits upon realizing that my family had thrown away the crayon-covered paper menu I’d made such a point to bring home. Maybe notebooks were what I turned to because I knew, I hoped, they were collections that could not be taken from me.

It was always a journal, strictly a journal, attempting to record my day to day but usually giving away to emotional fits and fantasies. Whether mentally dealing with my parents’ divorce or the fact that at the elderly age of 10 I had not yet been kissed, the pages absorbed my woe. These journals probably came out of an instinct to model myself after the Disney Channel teens, the same impulse that spurred me to stay up well past my bedtime reading under the covers with a flashlight no matter how uncomfortable it was, or to lay out the next day’s clothes on my bed every night.

Almost twelve years later, my college roommate and I lie sprawled on my down comforter surrounded by ten notebooks. She opens a composition notebook, collaged with magazine cutouts detailing every mantra a 14-year-old girl should live by: feel the love, the joy of retro, shake things up, step OFF!!! Little pieces of pre-packaged wisdom I was able to cleanly cut from the glossy pages, merging them seamlessly with my own life with a few pieces of tape. It was not until college that I gave into moleskins and yellow legal pads, holding a fervent belief that the cover of what my words lay in matched my inner ramblings or colored what I wrote. Each of the notebooks, all hugely different in size and design, appear to be a physical manifestation of me – or of the “me” I was striving for at that particular time – whether covered in girly doodles or an authorless proverb.

“You write like you’re writing for me to read this, now,” Sarah says, looking at me inquisitively, expecting an answer to a question she hasn’t asked. She reads aloud passages at random intervals, whenever she sees something she deems entertaining, or finds glimpses of the girl she knows in this girl she does not. And as she continues, I begin to realize that I was.

Throughout the journals, there is always a hovering second person, woven throughout my writing. I often ask, “Did I tell you that already?” or “Can’t you just feel the smile on my face?” My earliest entries are all written in letter format, typically beginning with “Dear Journal,” or more cleverly, “Dear J.” Some are inexplicably addressed “Dear Angel” – was I writing to some omnipotent force in the sky or a character of my own creation? And if it was the former, why write at all? Without question, I was always writing to someone, telling my trivialities to some all-caring being, although I’m not sure I ever had a firm grasp on who or what exactly. I imagined great-grandchildren unearthing dust-covered chests from the depths of an attic to find my stacks of journals, asking themselves, “Who was this person?” They would spend days pouring over them, coming to understand this intriguing and complicated narrator.

I would rush home to create a portrait of an evening I had just experienced, much in the same way girls will upload photos to the internet of what they are doing while they are doing it; the events became more real while writing about them than they had felt when I was living them, with whatever details I choose to leave out or exaggerate, framing the perfect 3 x 5 in my mind’s eye. They quickly grew to be more than just words, interspersing personal narratives with visual aids to create a full picture. Each of the seven bedrooms I had during my first 18 years is diagramed and labeled at one point within the hundreds of pages. Grainy pictures printed out from Myspace are taped or glued or sometimes paper clipped in with each of my friends’ names carefully written underneath, turning to prints and Polariods as I grew older. I even kept a friend’s doodles on rigid graphing paper, cut closely around the edges to make it fit into the small rectangular pages. Almost every entry begins with a date, time, place and song to convey the full surroundings I was writing in, along with other helpful reading guides, such as a mood indicator or whether or not I’d been in school that day. Upon reaching the back cover of one of these notebooks, I would meticulously number each page and inscribe the first, the one that had been left purposely blank, with the beginning and end dates with a fat permanent marker, bookending each notebook so I could close it and put it safely away.

I wrote about my grandfather’s death and September 11th in the same entry, two events that happened remarkably close to each other, with what looks like a pencil smudge at the top right corner of the page. Had my hand slipped while writing, causing me to blur the lines? I distinctly remember the guilt that overtook me when I could not cry over either of these instances, forcing a single tear through much squinting and gnawing before attempting to immortalize it on the page so that anyone who might come across it later would assume my crying had stained my writing. If it appeared that way, it must have happened that way.

Over time my notebooks turned from an impulse to a compulsion, opening a fresh notebook to find opportunity, obligation. My friends and family took note of my constant chronicling, and soon notebooks became the obvious gift for an otherwise hard to buy for child; they seemed to see me as a writer, a label I craved and took comfort in. Although I have tried, I have never found another who has journaled in the same way I have. We are a rare and quiet breed, unsure of ourselves, attempting to figure it all out within the confines of the college rule. We unabashedly wish to be somewhere else, finding refuge in whatever we can, constantly pleading escapism. It is no coincidence that writers, real writers, often have troubled and tumultuous minds; there is a distinct comfort in your own words that nothing else can touch, not booze nor companionship nor sleep.

“I had actually tricked myself into believing that I was ready for this. I thought I would be okay with it, that the logic I’ve been coming up with for 4 months would steady the ever-on-edge, emotional part of me.” At the end of August in 2008, I broke up with my long-term high school boyfriend, something that took me by surprise in the ways it twisted and contorted my emotions. In the days that followed, the days directly preceding my departure for college, I wrote more consecutive pages than I ever had before, and ever have since, my excitability and despondency tumbling, my cursive more illegible by the line.

“I’m so afraid of forgetting everything.” I continued on, lamenting a looming future I saw in which a person that I deeply cared about at the time would simply become “just my high school sweetheart, with no more definition to the memories than that.” Something that happened.

It’s painful to read the ramblings of the freshly burned, writing with cringe-worthy zeal. But as I do, aspects of a year and a half that has long become a cliché in my mind come instantly back. I begin to list the things I’m afraid of forgetting, the small details that I’m afraid will slip away, and I’m startled to find that they have. He used to dip me whenever I was having a bad day, move like he was giving me a hug and suddenly swing me down, knowing the vintage act would catch me off guard and put a smile on my face, as it always did. It was a gesture that was continually part of our relationship repertoire for the entire time we were together. But in the four years since we’ve parted ways, him off to Emory, me to Boston, I had completely forgotten such a thing ever used to happen. I had forgotten that I had completely kept myself together on the last night of our relationship, eating dinner with his family and burning the music I wanted off his computer on to CDs; it was only when he walked me to my car and dipped me one last time I lost myself. How could something I made such a point to remember so easily fly out of my memory? It is almost as if I zip-locked it away, all my emotions so fresh they still seem to be searing onto the page, never to be dealt with but instead left to rot in a hot pink room underneath my garage.

I no longer keep notebooks. Or rather I do, but they serve an entirely different purpose, full of jottings rather than entries. A free floating idea, something funny a friend said to me under the loud roar of the bar, a list of everything that must be accomplished before I graduate college, move back to the place where these memories first took place. Many times I have five or six notebooks at a time, writing the name of a song or a far-reaching question on whatever is nearest to me, hoping I’ll find it at some distant point and make good use of it.

The last entry in my journals has no date, evoking what was to come. Simply consisting of a note card tapped in, it shouts to be remembered and dealt with later rather than become a permanent fixture on the page. “Irony of focal points of playgrounds and emotionally poignant moments in pop culture – why both eerie and soothing? Do we simply feel in control there?” It lies 12 pages into the journal I bought to bring with me to college. A fresh and sophisticated start, covered in teal and brown canvas. But after a few scattered entries, each written on my long drive up the east coast or during the first weekend I returned home, I stopped. There was no premeditation, no staged self-discovery, but rather a gradual loosening of my grip on my own life. The few entries read painfully slow, a forced laundry list created out of habit rather than necessity, energies now better invested exploring things other than my own creviced mind. Without the numerous forces that aimed to rip me apart when I was five and afraid of my own shadow; ten and just trying to navigate the narrow halls safely; 17 and declaring, “I’ve really got it figured out this time,” I no longer crave an ink pen and a night of tranquility. But I will always owe something to the page, after everything it has given me. TC mark

image – Shutterstock

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