“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Friday, January 27, 2012

Day 51: The World on the Page: On Keeping a Journal, Part Two

My best journals are lived in.  They're stained with coffee and wine, a little greasy from croissant crumbs and cheese.  And they take place in the present tense.  I can open up a page and I'm there again--at the fountain square in Cassis where I drank a cappuccino and indulged in a whole lot of people-watching, the market just behind it with a stall of surprisingly large skirts, the café overlooking the sea where a cherry tomato from my fish platter went flying across the room and the waiter winked at me solemnly and said, "Je l'ai vu," I saw that.  That week I did a lot of people-watching.  I wrote about the middle-aged motorcycle mamas, still hotties, in their way, whose greetings to one another were so boisterous, the cheek-kisses so exuberant I could hear the smack from a few feet away. 

I was so happy that week, even though I was on vacation by myself and was homesick for my husband and my dog.  I knew I would probably be writing about Cassis someday, and I realized that if I wanted to remember that scene again, I would have to look down too, to remember the ground beneath my feet.  I didn't used to do this.  And I saw that the street was pink, all tiled, a fine, glinty pink, and I wanted to take off my sandals and feel the stone against my skin.  I hadn't noticed this when I was walking up the street looking for somewhere to drink coffee and write in my journal. 

I dug through that journal the other day when I wrote about the dog I saw in Cassis waiting for its person to come back from the market.  I would have forgotten the details if I hadn't written it down.

Sometimes, at the end of the day, I can record enough to remember it later.  It's just a skeletal sketch, really.  We went here.  We did this.  But I'm always happier with the result when I just plop myself somewhere and open my journal and try to take what the English art critic, John Ruskin, once called "word-pictures".  I want to feel the world on my skin and to see it again like I'm watching the movie, or better yet, like I've transported myself there again.  I want to inhale it and taste again what was on my plate.

Here are two passages from nonfiction writers I love, Patricia Hampl and Frances Mayes, whom I think would not be able to write the exquisite memoirs they craft unless they kept journals and brought them with them everywhere.

Near the end of Blue Arabesque, Patricia Hampl writes from the balcony of her apartment in Cassis about what she hopes to remember about a season of four months she has spent in France, about what she wants to take with her back to her home in Minnesota.  She writes:
Beyond the flowers and sea-foam, there is always a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee smell coming from the cafés that ring and define the harbor, and brief puffs of gasoline from the delivery vans and Vespas that go by . . .
Sitting here, a person without any employment except to look, I have an uncanny sense that things here in this light, the world itself and all its haphazard parts, have a way of coming together to form something—the sun, the lick of the morning air off the sea, the ruined medieval château on the crown of the bluff across the harbor almost effaced in the light, insubstantial but enduring like the past as it recedes and enriches itself in the mind.  (186-190)
And here is Frances Mayes in Lisbon, from A Year in the World:
We leave and meander until we're lost in the Alfama: the labyrinthine historic Arab quarter.  You'd need to drop stones to find your way back to where you started.  Arm's-width streets twist, climb, double back, drop.  Whitewashed houses with flowering pots and crumbling ruins with gaping courtyards open to small plazas with birds competing in the trees for the best song of the morning--a soulful neighborhood for spending your days.  If I lived in Lisbon, I would choose to live here. . . Open this door and find the memory of a Muslim mathematician consulting his astrolabe, pass this walled garden and imagine the wives of the house gathered around the fountain under the mimosa. . .
Colors: Islamic turquoise, curry, coral, bone white, the blue layers of the sea.  The scents of baking bread, wet stones, and fish frying at outdoor stands.  The aromas of coriander and mint and big stews and roast pork emanating from the small neighborhood restaurants, the tascas.  As we wait, I admire a walnut cake with caramel frosting served to a man across from us.  He sees this and reaches over for my fork, handing me back a large bite of his dessert.  The waiter brings platters of fish fried in a gossamer, crispy batter,  and a spicy eggplant the old Moors would have loved.  We are astonished.  Here's the real local food.  (83-4)
My travel journals are rarely this vivid, but when they are, they remind me anew that rushing through a place, seeing as much as you can and checking things off a list, is not the way to make them live on in your memory forever.
In this picture below, Kerry and Zoe and I were exploring what was left of the village of Montaillou, in the Cathar region of Languedoc we both love so much.  The Cathars were a heretical Christian sect who were killed by the Pope's armies during the Albigensian Crusades beginning in 1209, and were later burned at the stake during the Inquisition.  Among the reasons they were considered heretics was that they didn't believe you needed to go to a church to feel the presence of God.  I'm writing about the Cathars in my novel and in some of my travel memoir.  They fascinate me.

In this one village, the heretics managed to hang onto their faith a century after all the Cathars had supposedly been exterminated.  They kept their secret for a long time, but they were found out at last.

Zoe and Kerry and I looked for ghosts, but we didn't find any.  Instead, we ate a good picnic and watched the grass move in the wind, and took a nap.  It was a day of quiet, stillness, and contemplation, savory tasting and lazing, and when I look at this journal, I'm so happy to remember that we were there.
This is kind of scrapbooky/dorky, but I always stick postcards in my journal of the places I go, which you can see on the left-hand page, so that I have a reference point for what I'm writing.  Maybe it's cheating, but it helps me remember.


  1. I love learning this: "were considered heretics was that they didn't believe you needed to go to a church to feel the presence of God." The poor suffering people, however.
    I think it's not cheating or dorky to make associations to improve memory, it's smart.

  2. Catharisme
    Sans chercher à entrer dans le détail, il convient simplement de dire que, pour les cathares, deux principes sont éternels… le Bien et le Mal ont toujours existé. C'est un principes dualiste issu du manichéisme (culte de Manès)
    Manès né en 216 en Mésopotamie, mort martyrisé à Ctésiphon en 277. Se dit prophète successeur de Bouddha, de Zoroastre et de Jésus. Il fait une synthèse de ces trois religions qui conduits à un système dualiste : Bien et Mal, Lumière et Ténèbres.
    La terre (monde matériel et sensible) ainsi que l'homme, créature de chair, sont créations du Diable y compris l'église romaine. Seule l'âme est d'essence divine et non corruptible.
    Pour les cathares, cette âme selon les principes bouddhistes doit accomplir, ici-bas, une longue épreuve à travers plusieurs vies humaines. La mort n'est que le passage d'une vie à une autre, et la dépouille, corps de boue, oeuvre du Diable, retourne, sans cérémonie, sans cercueil, à la terre. Les âmes peuvent se réincarner dans un corps chaque fois plus propice à leur élévation spirituelle, jusqu'à atteindre à la perfection, retrouver leur corps spirituel et rejoindre leur patrie perdue.
    Si Nathalia, Kerry et Zoé n'ont pas trouvé de fantômes dans ce pays cathare, c'est que leurs âmes ont gardé le souvenir lointain de ces "bons hommes"

    1. Merci bien, Monsieur Propriétaire d'une gîte sublime à Marsa! Vous êtes très gentil. J'aime l'histoire que vous enregistrez ci-dessus, et surtout, j'aime l'idée que vous proposez dans la dernière phrase!