I don't think, after reading Joan Didion's essay On Keeping a Notebook from her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, that I ever have to read another essay again, so perfect a creation has she made, so resonant a reflection on why we record.
'"That woman Estelle,'" the note reads, "'is partly the reason why George sharp and I are separated today.' Dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper, hotel bar, Wilmington RR, 9:45 a.m. august Monday morning."
Since the note is in my notebook, it presumably has some meaning to me. I study it for a long while. At first I have only the most general notion of what I was doing on an August Monday morning in the bar of the hotel across from the Pennsylvania Railroad station in Wilmington, Delaware (waiting for a train? missing one? 1960? 1961? why Wilmington?), but I do remember being there...
Didion's straightforward flow of language seems to just reveal what is already there. Every word is inevitable - I knew it would be there the second after I read it. Her story reads my own mind.
Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? ... I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether...
Aside from the apparent lightheartedness that cloaks that heavy observation, is the fact that I read Didion's last book A Year of Magical Thinking (a scary, relentless look at herself in the year following the death of her husband), and know of the sickness and subsequent death of this blessed child who was Didion's daughter, adding another layer to the experience of reading this essay.
Didion reflects that, although she is apparently recording the events around her, the entire exercise is one of self observation - "Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point." And that did not change with her last book.
Yet another layer is added because I read this essay following three hours of reading on the architecture of neurons and as another keeper of notebooks I thought: why do I keep one? To make a record. Of what? Those associations I make between things that, having lived, are distinct to me. Only I would have made them. Some of us leave progeny, and we all leave the consequences of our acts - but basically we are the sum of those associations unique to us having occupied this skin, this childhood, this place. The progeny is the product of an association between two people, our acts, we commit because of those connections that brought us to a distinct place at a distinct moment that only we could have occupied having lived all the moments before. Indeed, the brains that keep our heart beating, that keep us energized enough to sit upright and pay attention, that build memories, are composed of billions of neurons (we have more cells in our brains than there are people on earth). When electric current runs through one nerve cell to help regulate breathing, the content of that electrical impulse is not different from the one that creates a memory, what is different is the kind of nerve cell that conducts that "message" and the changes that it leaves behind in the spaces between nerve cells - the synapses. Another change between things as opposed to within them - one that records "what it was to be me" by altering how two elements of our nervous system associate. Our own little notebook.
Having such finished The Echo Maker, your post here speaks to a lot of what I've been thinking about. The brain as notebook - that's a wonderful image.
My favorite writing teacher ever included pieces by Joan Didion in our reading. I really must read something by her again---it's been too long!
The only Didion I've ever read is Year of Magical Thinking, but I have Slouching Toward Bethlehem on my wishlist. This essay is all the more reason to bump it up to the very tippy top of my list.
Verbivore - The Echo Maker weaves some wonderful connections between humanity and science, doesn't it?
Heather - If you've never read her recent memoir, it's a truly fearless piece of writing.
Andi - I've heard about this book for years and I can't wait to read some more of her essays.
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