Essay 10: The Kind of Thing I Like
This is the tenth Friday since I started writing these essays. Is it too early to congratulate myself? Probably. Is it much too early to treat this as a small anniversary celebration? Definitely. And yet here I am. Ten weeks is not a significant tract of time, but it is just long enough for this too feel like a significant part of my life. This is what I do every Friday, now.
This, in itself, is a big deal: that I have created a routine for myself, and that I have stuck to it. I am not good at routine. Really, it’s more that I hate it. It has been this way since I was four years old, and I told my mum that I couldn’t stand going to nursery school any more. The same thing every day. The same nice man on the steps sweeping the leaves every day, and you say hello to him, and he says hello back, and it is hello, hello, sweep, sweep, and then you go down the stairs and do morning singing, and then here is your teacher who you love and she is reading you a story, and then it is lunch time and it is a boiled egg where around the yolk is blue, and you feel sick the same way every time, and then everyone is playing on the grass and the same girl is being allergic to grass in the same way and getting these bumps all on her legs, and then it is sleep time, and everyone is lying down in the dark on these small, small vinyl mattresses with animals on them that make a zipping sound if you move your legs even a tiny bit, and then your mum comes to fetch, and then back up the stairs, and the stairs have more leaves on them which will have to be swept up in the morning. I told all of this to my mum. I said, “I can’t take it anymore.”
The most amazing part about this story is not the bit where a four year old is saying “I can’t take it anymore,” like she is Willie Loman. It is the part where my parents sent me to another nursery school. They really did do that. They thought about what I said, decided that I had a point, and then sent me to a different school, where we had to do prayers in the morning, and wear a uniform, and look after the class hamster. I couldn’t get used to any of it, and I loved it to distraction. This is all by way of saying, first, that my parents are the king and queen of this world, and second, that I struggle with routine. So it is a surprise to me that I can do this every week.
The second surprise is more complicated. In On Keeping a Notebook, Joan Didion says “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” She says, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” The gist of this (brilliant, terrifyingly brilliant, she is cleverer than us all) essay is that the way to do this is by keeping a notebook: “It is a good idea … to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about”. I went into a decline the first time I read this. As a person who has always kept a notebook, I should have been gratified. I wasn’t, though, and that is because my notebooks have always been ridiculous.
Didion goes through the motions of mocking the content of her own notebooks. She is lying to us. She knows that they are perfect: glamorous and evocative and dreamy as hell, just like Didion herself. Here, in contrast, is my idea of a really solid notebook entry:
“Top ten early Kate Moss moments
Three out of four Wittgenstein brothers
What is the point of someone with a low EQ?
Swedish Hasbeens. Does she think they are lame.
This is an entry I made last month. It is a list, I believe, of things I was thinking of as I walked down the hill to my car. I have always needed to write this sort of bullshit down. Stuff like: “She gets her ballet shoes, she sells them, she goes to Newark, and she buys amphetamines.” Stuff like: “An unfortunate man of some kind.” If I don’t write it down, my brain will fall out. I have excused myself from dinner in order to dash upstairs and write down the phrase: “I’m keen on selling my car. It’s a very commodious Honda. Are you interested?” A student is answering a question in class, and I am listening with nearly my whole head, but my hand, as if operating on its own, is writing down the phrase “the woolly sweaters of a West Belfast revolutionary.”
Like Didion, I do this because I feel helplessly compelled to. Unlike her, I have never found a way to extract any value out of it. How is the phrase “George Sanders is the voice of Sher Kahn” supposed to keep me on nodding terms with my former self, or even the self I am now? I had resigned myself to a life of writing this stuff down to no purpose at all.
I was wrong. Since I started writing these essays, I look at the notebooks constantly. There is all sorts of stuff in there. As it has turned out, it all matters, every ridiculous word. I have used the notebooks to help me think of what to write, but also, and more reliably, as a means of self-assurance. My notebooks reveal to me that I am nothing if not consistent in my likes and dislikes, in the things I fixate on and worry about. I am writing them down in full sentences now, in these essays, but as it turns out they were always there, in the notebooks. There I am, caring about fictional dogs too much. There I am with an excessive interest in Easter and old cookbooks and snakes. As it turns out, I always cared about traffic jams and the powerful diagnostic tool known as Twenty Questions.
Here is another chilling Didion sentence: “That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.” It was only very recently that I was able to read these words without wanting to pass out or set myself on fire. It was only when I started writing these essays, in fact, that I could read these words without getting a strong dying sensation.
I don’t mean to make this sound more meaningful than it is. It has only, after all, been ten weeks. All I am saying is that I thought it would be hard, and it turned out to be easy. I thought it would teach me something new about myself, and it turned out that I knew it this whole time.
 “There does not seem to be, for example, any point in my knowing for the rest of my life that, during 1964, 720 tons of soot fell on every square mile of New York City, yet there it is in my notebook, labeled “FACT”. Nor do I really need to remember that Ambrose Bierce liked to spell Leland Stanford’s name “£eland $tanford” or that “smart women almost always wear black in Cuba,”… does not the relevance of these notes seem marginal at best?”