"What kind of a magpie keeps this notebook?"

Just as I reached the last couple of empty pages in one of my notebooks, I came across this article, about a young man who keeps a record of his every action because he has lost the ability to retain short-term memories.

"I use the notebook to remember who I helped today, how much farm work I did, whether there was rain ... the notebook is my memory," said Chen, who lives with his stepmother, Wang Miao-cyong, 65, in a remote village in Hsinchu County, northwestern Taiwan.

Dr Lin Ming-teng, head of the psychiatry department at Taipei Veterans General Hospital, said Chen has made remarkable progress despite his extensive brain damage.

"From the X-ray, we can see a large part of his brain in black - these are the sections that were operated on after the traffic accident," Lin said.

"After losing such a substantial portion of his brain, it is quite amazing for him to achieve what he is doing now," Lin said, adding that Chen could only remember things he had done in the last five to 10 minutes.

 November 28, 2018.  Somewhere along the way, Instagram has become a diary that’s both entirely public and intensely personal. On one hand, there are the photos that are obviously acting as documentation. A friend and I joke about how when we’re on holiday, the Instagram feed becomes like our self-published Lonely Planet. But then there are the stretches when no photo was uploaded, bookended by photos that seem casual but remind me of why I wasn’t uploading anything. The reasons vary — making a white lie credible, wanting to have nothing to do with the world, a leaden sense of boredom, a happy restfulness — but it’s coded in there. Even the photos that have been uploaded and explain themselves with captions often have an added layer of memory to them. Especially since Instagram started its “stories” feature — images that have a 24-hour time limit to them — it’s fascinating to see what I (and others) think is worth keeping on one’s feed and what is made ephemeral just by the fact of being uploaded as a story rather than as an item in one’s feed. This awareness of Instagram becoming a diary of sorts is also making me how the diaries and letters of old may have had similar, invisible layers perceptible only to those who wrote them. Just like that, all of what we considered reality turns out to be a mnemonic for an alternative reality that can only be seen from a particular angle and is all the more real because it isn’t there for all to perceive.

November 28, 2018.

Somewhere along the way, Instagram has become a diary that’s both entirely public and intensely personal. On one hand, there are the photos that are obviously acting as documentation. A friend and I joke about how when we’re on holiday, the Instagram feed becomes like our self-published Lonely Planet. But then there are the stretches when no photo was uploaded, bookended by photos that seem casual but remind me of why I wasn’t uploading anything. The reasons vary — making a white lie credible, wanting to have nothing to do with the world, a leaden sense of boredom, a happy restfulness — but it’s coded in there. Even the photos that have been uploaded and explain themselves with captions often have an added layer of memory to them. Especially since Instagram started its “stories” feature — images that have a 24-hour time limit to them — it’s fascinating to see what I (and others) think is worth keeping on one’s feed and what is made ephemeral just by the fact of being uploaded as a story rather than as an item in one’s feed. This awareness of Instagram becoming a diary of sorts is also making me how the diaries and letters of old may have had similar, invisible layers perceptible only to those who wrote them. Just like that, all of what we considered reality turns out to be a mnemonic for an alternative reality that can only be seen from a particular angle and is all the more real because it isn’t there for all to perceive.

Chen’s reliance upon notebooks and the way he uses them is starkly different what I do with my notebooks. When I was a kid, I’d try to organise my notebooks by topic. So this one’s the journal and this one’s for books I’ve read and this one’s for films I’ve seen and this one’s for newspaper articles… this grand organisation would last about a week.

My notebooks are a mess, crowded with scribbles and doodles, and honestly, some of them are massively entertaining as they go from notes on a free lecture on psychotherapy to perplexed comments on a Bollywood movie.

But more than my own scribblings, Chen’s notebooks reminded me of Joan Didion’s famous essay on her notebooks, which she used as dedicatedly as Chen but for very different reasons.

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? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. ... Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss. ...

So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess. At no point have I ever been able successfully to keep a diary; my approach to daily life ranges from the grossly negligent to the merely absent, and on those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day's events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best. What is this business about "shopping, typing piece, dinner E, depressed"? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this "E" depressed, or was I depressed? Who cares? ...

I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write -- on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there... . 

It is a difficult point to admit. We are brought in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves, taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing. ... But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable "I". We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensees; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind's string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker. 

And sometimes even the maker has difficult with the meaning. 

... What kind of magpie keeps this notebook? ... 

Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one's self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4am of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayas alike, forget what we whispered and what screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat... . The other one, a twenty-three-year-old, bothers me more. She was always a good deal of trouble, and I suspect she will reappear when I least want to see her, skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again, at once saddening me and angering me with her vulnerability and ignorance, an apparition all the more insistent for being so long banished. ... 

(From “On Keeping a Notebook” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion)

I came across a book of poetry by Islamic mystic sometime in August. This is the poem that I chose to jot down.

Desperate Lovers

O Lord

We appear like
Desperate lovers,
And in our hearts
We are sleep-soiled;
Our breasts full of fire;
Our eyes full of water;
Sometimes we burn
In the fire of our hearts;
Sometimes we are drowned in tears.

~ Sheikh Abdullah Ansari of Herat

The person I was in August liked what she read when she encountered that poem. The person I am in December genuinely cannot figure out why I copied this poem out because right now, I confess, I am far from moved by it. “Sleep-soiled” is a lovely phrase, but given this was written by a man, I’m wondering exactly what he’s referring to when he says “soiled”. Insert single raised eyebrow here. “Our breasts are full of fire”… Really? This sounds like a bad case of heartburn. Have an antacid, it’ll keep you from burning in the fire of your heart.