For Valentine’s Day last week I received a little red notebook, about the size of a shirt pocket. The sentiment behind the gift wasn’t explained—what was I expected to do with it?—but ever since then I’ve carried it around, debating how best to put it to use.
I opened it and could almost imagine a delightful little poem written on the first page. I’m not a poet, but I do like reading poetry, and sometimes imagine that I could write something beautiful if I just put my mind to it. Last week when I went on my little vacation I brought with me a book of classical Chinese poetry that I’d bought on a lark at a street market in Amsterdam. I chose it because it was physically light, but also because the poems were short and I wasn’t sure how raucous my traveling group would be—I might only have a few minutes’ peace at a time, so a good long novel probably wouldn’t be a good thing to try to sink my teeth into.
The poems were lovely, though, which shouldn’t be surprising considering that the book is hundreds of years old and somehow people still see fit to publish it.
Every plant and tree knows spring will soon be gone
a hundred pinks and purples compete with their bouquets
willow fuzz and elm pods lack such clever means
they only know how to fill the sky with snow
(Han Yu, translated by Red Pine)
A good poet makes it seem so easy. I’ve seen trees and flowers, too! I can do this! (Or, as my half-drunk self slurs, “Masters, shmasters. Watch me: ‘Roses are red, violets are…something. Shouldn’t they be purple? What the hell? I need another drink.’)
I fancied myself a poet in high school, for a few months at least. I carried scraps of paper and a stubby pencil in my pocket to jot down my observations. I also carried a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl in my inside jacket pocket, because it fit neatly and because I wore that jacket every day until one of my teachers asked me if I ever felt dirty wearing literally the same thing every day, rain or shine, without washing it, and I thought that maybe I should retire both the jacket and the book. The jacket subsequently disappeared, probably given to a charity without my knowledge, and my grandmother’s free-range parakeet later tore Howl into little strips to feather his nest or as an act of avian literary criticism. But I digress.
The only line I remember from my foray into writing poetry was, “The flames were doused/with mineral water.” I don’t remember what the poem was about, except that it was unusually long for me, and it had fancy but purposeless spacing, and I was quite proud of it until a friend of mine on the bus took it and read it and then gave it back without saying much. She didn’t make fun of it, but she didn’t bring it up again either, so either she thought it was so awesome that she couldn’t believe a peer had written it, or it was, you know, not good. When I read it to myself later that day, the line about mineral water (does it douse flames better or worse than regular water?) jumped out at me as particularly embarrassing, and all these years later it is all I remember.
So maybe my little red notebook isn’t meant to contain poetry. It could contain little vignettes of my life, like maybe describe the sunrise or how I feel about my backyard chickens (they are hilarious, by the way). How long, though, before such a collection becomes nothing more than a catalogue of meals I’ve eaten or movies I’ve seen?
The diminutive size of this notebook might be better suited to capturing the memories that sometimes surface from the murky recesses of myself, those mysterious surfaces that happen when, for example, I see a kid kicking a ball down the street and a chain reaction of subconscious free-association brings me back to a road trip I took with my mother and sister nearly thirty years ago from Colorado Springs to Augusta, Georgia, on a Greyhound bus. We stopped at a Stuckey’s in Alabama and I remember the tables all had those peg-jumping IQ tests, and my sister and I almost forgot to eat because we were so focused on proving that we were smart.
Not exactly the kind of gem that deserves memorialization, I suppose.
Maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe I should just use it to write my grocery lists. I read once that a Mesopotamian scholar found a cuneiform tablet that had been on display for decades in a museum, and then translated it and found it was a to-do list for a Babylonian homemaker. I wonder if a thousand years from now my little red notebook will be on display under a glass case and someone will ask, “What was ‘Cinnamon Toast Crunch’?”
I keep carrying it around, empty and unused, and a part of me is starting to wonder if maybe the best part of a new notebook is its very emptiness, the way that it waits so calmly but eagerly for my forthcoming profundity in whatever form that may take.
In which case I’d hate to ruin it with some trifle about mineral water.