For as long as I can remember I have kept notebooks. They have come in all shapes and sizes, with plain pages and ruled pages and pages printed with a grid of squares; some have been sketchbooks, some of them journals, some of them organisers full of things like lists of things to do and notes of telephone numbers and addresses and reminders of various kinds. Some are work records, with technical information and research and diagrams and plans and outlines for projects, some of which have even seen the light of day. All of them serve a different purpose and I can’t imagine life without them.
I’ve been looking back through some, a strange exercise a bit like time-travel. One contains notes from when I was learning Spanish, and I came across a list of words that I had trouble believing as they sounded unreasonable to my anglo-saxon ear. Izquierda (left). Cesped (lawn). Croquis (diagram). Sed (thirst). Murciélago (bat). Bat, for heaven’s sake! I had real trouble with that one, and I still have difficulty in using any of these words with conviction, feeling sure that they can’t mean what they do.
Amongst all of these notebooks, one is different – the latest in a long line of little black books that I’ve been keeping for many years – and this one has been going since 2007. It’s a pocket-sized vinyl-covered artist’s notebook with an elastic strap to keep it closed and prevent loose things from falling out, and it’s a mixture of all the other kinds of notebook combined, except that it has also been a collecting-point for my personal thoughts, ideas and even dreams (those that seemed important to me at the time) as well as quotations from all over the place – anything that jumped out at me and seemed somehow to have ambushed me with sudden relevance and summed up all that I was struggling with or celebrating at that particular moment. I keep the little black notebook for things that really matter, however odd they may be (which is why it doesn’t fill up as quickly as other kinds) and so it’s something that means a lot to me. This latest one is a highly condensed, miniaturised record of all the important questions that I’ve asked, ideas I’ve discovered, things that I’ve learnt – and things that I haven’t – over the past five years. It’s full of all kinds of things that I’ve written or drawn in order to untangle them and to understand them better, so it’s also something I return to as a storehouse and as a kind of road-map filled with signposts and suggestions for routes still not explored. It’s more valuable to me than all my other notebooks put together. If a fire broke out in the house I would flee with my husband, the cat, and this notebook, in that order.
It’s not good practice to cling to things. I don’t find it hard to let go of material possessions as a rule, but this is an exception – and I’m afraid it also has to do with hanging on to words. Words can sing to your soul and lift you out of the mud when you most need it, but nevertheless there is a point at which they must be left behind. Words can take you so far, and no further, and after that if you cling to them they’ll hold you back. We need words, but we also need Wordlessness, something Martha Beck talks a lot about in her new book Finding Your Way In A Wild New World. (Thanks to Diane MacKinnon, from a post in her Healing Choices Blog – I’ve only just got my hands on a copy of this book and I’m excited by it already.)
Mentioning Martha Beck brings me full circle because I find that the very first thing I wrote in this particular little black notebook, back in 2007, was a quotation from her book Expecting Adam. ‘….a sweetness that surpasses anything I ever felt…it comes from looking at the heart of things, from stopping to smell not only the roses but the bushes as well. It is a quality of attention to ordinary life that is so loving and intimate it is almost worship.’
Attention to ordinary life. It’s what I’ve been trying to do all these years and still try to do, every day – if I can, every moment. And when I can, wordlessly.