Small Notebook #117

Small Notebook #117 is an unassuming pocket notebook small enough to be carried everywhere – which I do. It succeeded Small Notebook #116 and a long line of Small Notebooks stretching back across time to Small Notebook #1. When it is retired, it will take its rightful place on top of a distinguished stack of Small Notebooks that has accompanied me most of my adult life and which are piled in a lonely corner of my apartment where the past resides.

Judging by the looks of it, Small Notebook #117 hasn’t had an easy life. It has been crushed, bent, torn. It became discolored when this week’s rains seeped through my parka and mixed with ink along the edges creating Rorschack stains that obscure and replace the original scribblings.

Those Small Notebooks do not lead a glamorous life and it’s not as if their insides make up for the abuse their outsides receive. Their pages are filled with the mundane, the scribblings of getting on with life. They are repositories of things to do; groceries to get; bills to pay; phone numbers, emails and addresses to record or visit; checklists carefully crafted of all the things one intends to do but never gets around to doing. There are brainstorms. Occasionally there is also a synaptic burst in my head and some idea I think a bit brilliant crawls out from the slime and chaos of daily life. It gets jotted down in the margins, trapped in ink before it can scurry away. While this last is my favorite part — the catching of those fantastic creatures – these notebooks trade mostly in the banal.

But my life in notebooks does not end there. There is a class of notebooks I call “Large Notebooks” for the obvious reason that they are large, A4-sized cloth-bound cahiers. (They come from France). These are my honest-to-God journals. They do not leave the house generally as they are awkward to carry and full of treasure. But if I am traveling, I will always put one in my suitcase. This is not to document my life but rather to live it. I really don’t know how to live without something of bound paper beside me.

Every day, the first thing that I do is write. Sometimes it is a single line; other days it’s pages and pages of scrawl, agonized or joyful, depending on my mood and the state of my heart. Either way, my day begins by putting words to paper. I’d rather get up two hours earlier than face reality without having had time to write.

In the beginning was the word and the word was… well… good.

I look at this process as something almost biological, a purging of fluids and emotional detritus accumulated in the night. It is not pretty though occasionally something beautiful floats to the surface of the scum and I underline it and circle it heavily. Lately I have started calling this ritual my morning urine sample: something not beautiful in itself but necessary for staying in good health.

But my obsession with bound paper does not even end there. Squished between the Small Notebooks and the Large ones lies another class of notebooks, a currently dormant class: the J-Notebooks. These contain not my words but those of others. (The “J” is for journalist.) They began as the Reporter’s Notebooks that we were issued at The Daily Californian, a local paper in Berkeley, California and my first newspaper job. The day I was handed one of those long, strangely thin notebooks and was told to go interview the bosses of a local utility company whose employees were on strike was the first time I glimpsed the shimmering possibilities of adult life.

And I was hooked. Humphrey Bogart in “Deadline – USA” or Russell Crowe in “The Insider” were mere cub reporters beside me that afternoon. Nothing could stop me as I scribbled the responses of the press officer to my earnest if naive questions. From that moment on, I resolved to ask questions of life and write my responses in a notebook.

I’ve rarely been without one since. The elongated ones they gave us at the Daily Cal were descendants of those designed for reporters in suits. They fit nicely in the inside pocket along with your smokes and hip flask. Reporters – those that are left – don’t dress like that any more and they are more likely to use their cellphones than scribble notes. Still, for someone who loves words, I was lucky to work in two newsrooms. One in California, one in Buenos Aires. They may have been local papers of dubious prestige but they were guardians of a craft and they shaped my relationship to writing and the tools that I use to do it.

They also formed my view that writing and life are inseparable. In a newsroom, you take the world’s events, sculpt them into words and give them an eternal life of sorts. In a journal you transform your own life into something lasting and tangible and thus give it a meaning it would not otherwise have.

Without that process, everything is just chaos.

Small Notebook #117 may be short on earth-shattering ideas and may have been bruised and tarnished by a too-close association with my daily existence. It isn’t much to look at but that seems fitting: Life itself isn’t always pretty but I know that if I stare long and lovingly enough at it – and transform it into words – I will eventually find what I am looking for.

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