Notebooks in Washington
Yeas ago when I was in graduate school, my friend Jill and I took a break between workshops and took a ferry to Port Townsend to do a little exploring.
On our excursion we found an office supply store and stepped inside. (I know an office supply store does not seem enticing what with Puget Sound just inches away from the street, but for some of us, pens, notebooks, planners, and file folders are just as exciting as being toted along the Whale Trail.) We found red-covered notebooks with thick cream dot-gridded paper and began the important work of deciding if we should purchase them.
I am left-handed, so my notebooks must either be spiral bound or lie flat. Otherwise I lose about an inch of paper on the left side because my hand can’t fit, and my handwriting isn’t neat. I can’t remember what Jill’s requirements were, but what I know of my friend is she isn’t as fussy and particular as I am.
The notebooks passed our inspection, and we both bought one. Then, like the school girls we (literally) were, we excitedly declared we couldn’t wait to use them for our afternoon classes.
That semester, we were studying Kristin Lavransdatter, a book that, to put it mildly, many of us did not appreciate. Jill and I, though — we felt differently. I don’t know if “like” is the right word, but we grappled with the story. We were haunted by it. We were invested in it. And perhaps most revealing, we saw parts of ourselves in the tale.
We told no one. It was a secret, and in fact, besides my friend Megan Willome, nobody knows (and if this gets published, it is only because Jill said it was OK to admit our fascination with Kristin).
We would sit next to each other in seminars and in our new notebooks, jot down notes and as subtly as possible, slide the notebooks toward each other.
“I kinda like Kristin,” Jill wrote.
“I kinda love Kristin,” I wrote back.
The problem was, while the notebook did indeed lie flat, the pages weren’t sealed well into the crease. They’d fall, thus causing what I’m sure was the nerdiest of classroom distractions. But as quick as you could say, “Erlend Nikulaussøn,” Jill and I retrieved our top secret messages and stuffed them into our pockets.
These notebooks could not be trusted to hold all of our questions, all of what haunted and delighted us (sometimes it was hard to tell which was which). I ended up giving the pages in the notebook to Hadley and Harper to color on when we were out at restaurants.
When I graduated, Jill sent me a notebook from the same brand, but this one was bound differently. (It still laid flat.) “I tested this one,” Jill wrote on the first page, “the pages should not fall out.”
I used the book to collect quotes — a hodgepodge of words that tugged or pinched or told me something about the world or myself.
The first one I wrote was from my youngest daughter, Harper. On November 18, 2014, she said, “Mommy, I learned today that I don’t have to be shy when I dance.”
There is one from my oldest daughter, Hadley, who told me, “When I grow up, if I’m friends with the president, I’m going to encourage him to make Leap Year void.”
In December of 2013, I copied down Virginia Woolf’s reflection on herself: “Sometimes I like being Virginia, but only when I’m scattered and various and gregarious.”
In February, I wrote down words from Madeleine L’Engle, days after I shakily and with palpable trepidation began teaching Romeo and Juliet to eighth-graders: “Slowly I have realized that I do not have to be qualified to do what I am asked to do, that I just have to go ahead and do it, even if I can’t do it as well as I think it ought to be done.”
I read these words now with something more than slight regret for not having the wherewithal to stand up for Kristin. I know there were times in her life when the love of something or someone was greater than her learned behavior of silence. I know she believed she had just as much to offer as a politician. I know she loved the wild sides of herself, and I know she didn’t concern herself with whether or not she was qualified to do something, especially if she wanted to do it.
I was scared, though. I didn’t think I knew enough about the story. Worse, I worried I was wrong, and I would be told precisely why I was wrong. So I told Jill. On walks, along the Puget Sound, and over mugs of coffee, she and I talked about Kristin.
On November 18, 2014, I wrote down words of Jill’s: “I look for me between the lines of what I have managed to write down in words and images that, over time, come together in patterns and threads and whispers. And I try to understand what I believe I have been trying to tell myself.”
I could’ve attempted to speak up, sure, but I think Jill’s words tell me another truth: It is in what we write, those words we’ve collected, those we’ve snatched and the ones that snatched us, that we begin to see ourselves. It is in the act of writing that we hear the whispers and feel the threads: the salty air at the helm of the ferry, the warm mugs of coffee we held while we leaned closer to talk about a story, the thick red cardstock that couldn’t bind our words and the one that could. The heft of holding Kristin — all 1,214 pages of her — and carrying her story with us.
This week find an old journal entry and look for “patterns, threads, and whispers.” What have you been trying to tell yourself? Write a poem from there.
Speaking of Kristin Lavransdatter, here’s a sestina from Megan Willome that we loved:
Ode to my Heart Book
Where are you? Norway, always Norway.
No, not now—Norway in the Middle Ages.
1,124 pages and more than forty audio hours of sinners
Flowers fill the mountain pastures—fireweed.
She is in my neurons, my marrow, Kristin.
On my walks, reading before bed: Kristin.
On my bathroom shelf: a tchotchke resembling Norway.
Any unknown weed in my yard? Must be fireweed.
Is this what happens when you reach middle age?
Drained from seeking to be a saint
I snuggle with my favorite sinner.
More passions than outright sins
(Usually). She does have blood on her hands, Kristin.
Should she follow Brother Edvin, monk turned saint?
Should she flee to Sweden, leave her beloved Norway?
Travel took so long in the Middle Ages—
You had to wait till it was warm enough for fireweed.
It blossoms after fire: fireweed,
Covers the cracks and burned spots of sin.
It had healing power in the Middle Ages.
Spread its red tassles and gold seeds, like Kristin.
The invasive weed of Northern Norway,
feeding reindeer. Its appearance almost saintly.
I can no longer find a saint
I wish to emulate. Give me fireweed:
The cuckoo’s arrow. Give me Norway.
Give me a woman grieved by sin
Who never stops sinning. Give me Kristin.
Settle me in her Middle Ages.
I found her story in my own middle age.
I’ve read it six times. Does that make me a saint?
Started my seventh time through. Kristin, Kristin, Kristin.
If my life came down to one night, would I become fireweed?
Would I heed Fru Aashild, that witch, that old sinner?
Would I oppose Hel for the sake of Norway?
In the Middle Ages, elves and trolls hid near fireweed.
The unseen world of sinners and the unseen world of saints
rested side by side for Kristin, for me, so far from Norway
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If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.