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.
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?