Notebooks tell their story

by Roxanne Krystalli

I have always been a girl attached to recording. It started with unimaginative to-do lists. On the wall of my childhood bedroom, right over a poster of a Greek pop star whose day has come and gone, you will still find a Post-it note that reads:

  • World Literature Assignment on The Stranger
  • Write debate case
  • Orthodontist – 5 PM, Tuesday

As life progressed and other experiences let the glory of orthodontist appointments fade into oblivion, I started jotting down memories instead of to-do’s. Some people use journals as the receptacles of their memories; others scrapbook. Yet others make digital photo albums. My chosen vehicles of nostalgia are notebooks.

This is how I know that on a November Thursday in 2005 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I had my first Snapple. In the beginning, I rarely used my notebooks to write full stories, or even full sentences. I recorded life in a waterfall of lists: lists of songs that reminded me of a particular period of time, lists of ideas I had in the shower – even a list of “Things I Could Do With My Life.”

In the spring of 2009, I was getting ready to embark on my first field projects as a gender-related development specialist in conflict zones. The notebooks did not know it, but their ivory, unlined pages were about to be read by inquisitive border protection officers in the Middle East – one of whom earnestly inquired “Who is Elijah and why did he get you locked out again?” I would lose some pages to a mugging in South America, likely resulting in a Colombian reading about my attachment to the Tony Dize song emanating from taxis that February. I would almost drown a different notebook during a hurricane in Guatemala.

Both the unlined pages and I have survived. Their story is my story.

Written in a car between Gulu and Entebbe, Uganda

My imagination was entirely wrapped up in food: the ants in it, my craving for pancakes, the granola at Cafe Larem in the North of a country that was just recovering from a 20-year civil war. I was always moved by kindness, but at the same time was displeased by the fact that I, a white foreigner, was invited to skip the line at the doctor when women with more serious conditions and young children had been waiting there ahead of me. And I was missing my loved one, who was still living on the other side of the Nile. The longing and heartache of the geographical separation was at the top of the memory list.

Written at Pottery Cafe, Cairo, Egypt

I flag my favorite passages in what I read and copy them down in the unlined pages of my notebooks, word for word. Here: Kundera, Herman Hesse, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist share space on my pages.

Written in Ciudad Bolivar, Colombia [blow-dried in Antigua, Guatemala]

Lined pages. I initially resented them because I used to be neurotic enough to be pickier about notebooks than I was about mattress firmness. This was the notebook that nearly drowned in Hurricane Agatha in Guatemala. I blow-dried this transcription of a female war survivor’s story. The memory of it is less fuzzy than the writing.

Written on my bed in Bogota, Colombia

Serving suggestion: It is not a good idea to conduct a training on ex-combatants’ memory reconciliation if you have little command of the past tense of the language in question. It is an even worse idea when the language has more than two past tenses.

Written in Beersheba, Israel

And once you have mastered the past tenses in Spanish, why not try to learn the vowels in Hebrew? One of these endeavors was more successful than the other and this page serves to remind me of the languages that might have been.

Written in Jerusalem

The notebooks have not just been a snakes-and-ladders game of nostalgia and anticipation, though they have captured and reflected both. In this page I brainstormed questions for an interview with an American girl who participated in the Egypts protests in January 2011.

Written (started?) in Agra, India

This “I want to photograph…” list has spilled into more than one page and more than one notebook over more than two years.

Written in a car on the way to Haifa, Israel

Another of my favorite ways to measure time, reflect on memories and remember travels: The songs that accompanied me through the wandering.

How do you record your journey, memories and wanderings? Revisit a page from an old notebook, or a song from an old playlist, or a photo album you have not browsed in a while. What memories does it stir?

  • This is just beautiful and I’m so grateful that you shared it. I’m sure I’m not the first person to say that I wish I had such crisp and elegant handwriting–when I journal it’s in big, loopy scrawls. My fingers are not as fast as my thoughts. Do you take them all with you wherever you go? Or do you send some to Greece for safekeeping? And do you ever journal in Greek?

    It’s coincidence but Myron and I were talking about notebooks last night–he is starting a new project and debating whether to use a notebook of a certain quality when the work inside would be very rough. Oh, there’s a post in that, too, Roxanne–you give me excellent ideas. To answer one part of the questions you posed, I’ll say that I have one notebook that Myron gave me. Lovely paper inside. I promised I would not write in it until after the wedding. When I write in it, I use a different pen from a rainbow eight-pack, to keep it beautiful as I flip through it. By visiting it only occasionally I get to write about big changes in that one. It’s a wonderful pleasure.

  • What a lovely post, Roxanne! You have inspired me to try to write down my daily thoughts and impressions on paper, once again. I have my thoughts all over the internet, but there is something about paper that invokes beautiful writing and memories.

  • These are beautiful…such precious snapshots of moments (and places) in time.

    I’ve got a few boxes of journals dating from about seventh grade…they’ve evolved over the years, but I still carry one around and scribble in it compulsively. I like lined pages, colorful soft covers, and a black rollerball pen…but anything will do if I need to jot down some thoughts.

  • LOVE THIS, Roxanne! We really must meet. I have journals just like this… makes me want to dig them out of whatever box they’ve been stored in since my latest move.
    Thank you for sharing. This is gorgeous.

  • How do I record my journey?
    I don’t.
    And after reading your post, I clearly see this is a mistake. :)
    Thank you for enlightening and inspiring!

  • Love this. I am sporadic with my notebooks although Oh how I do love a fresh new notebook to put my thoughts in. Whenever I would go on a trip, I would buy a new notebook to jot thoughts, sketch pictures and keep a memory of the things we did. I still have a few of them but I have never been as dedicated as you. This is a treasure. Thank you for sharing, Roxanne!

  • Thank you all for the kind comments and for the wonderful questions.

    Kim, I’d love to read your own post on notebooks. Even though I embrace minimalism when I move around the world, my notebooks are my “luxury item.” I carry them everywhere because they are my thread — the way that I look back on the world. Sometimes I write in Greek, but I mostly think and reflect in English, so that (perhaps sadly?) comes more naturally to me. I also loved your anecdote about the notebook Myron gave you and how you use it; it is an incredibly affectionate and thoughtful tradition.

    Akhila, I, too, seem to leave my thoughts all over the internet and the notebooks suffer as a result. However, I have taken to writing almost tweet-like thoughts down. 140(ish) characters at a time to record a moment in time or my reflections on an event. It, too, is a form of storytelling.

    Rebecca, please do dig out the journals. It is a wonderful journey of nostalgia and remembrance. And I’d absolutely love to meet.

    Katie, I think that “anything will do if I need to write something down” attitude is important. I recently read an interesting post by @writeplayrepeat on how pretty notebooks inhibit us from writing:

    Melissa Jaine, I am so glad you will start recording your journey. Let me know how the process treats you!

    Tracy, thank you for the kind words. I love having a new notebook for every trip or momentous occasion. Right now, I mostly use notebooks for “eras” – in the same way I make playlists. Every playlist and notebook reflects a season or an arbitrary period of time. You have inspired me to commit to “travel notebooks” more clearly.

    Thank you all for commenting – and keep scribbling!

  • your handwriting is PERFECT
    I must confess I have so many notebooks that I journal and write in and its a sickness almost. I always say Im not buying anymore until I finish writing in all my others but I lied to my self, Im awaiting one to come to me snail mail and I want it NOW!

  • I don’t know why but reading about your notebooks gave me a little lump in my throat. The physical act of writing, not typing, is so nostalgic.

    And I also feel like you showing us your notebooks is something super personal and beautiful, so thank you for that.

  • oh I have many scattered notebooks lying around. I love when I find old writings too! I just wish I were a bit more organized to keep all my notebook/ journals in one place! love this post, Roxanne! xo

  • I am in love with notebooks. I especially love new ones, full of open pages and possibilities. I have to always remind myself to finish one fully before beginning another! thanks for this post!

  • Those notebooks are works of art. They are beautiful. I always struggle, when I get a new journal, to write the first two pages. I always feel that nothing I could ever put down would be important enough, beautiful enough, perfect enough to fill those first pristine pages.

    Then I just force myself to write past those pages, and as the stories and the bits of memories collect, I realize that I have found something sufficiently important to have written in my journal after all.

    And, as an aside, I am in awe of your ability to write that well on unlined pages. I always, *always* end up with lopsided writing :)

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