I’ve been sorting and tidying again, preparing for another of the bonfires of the vanities. I have a small bag with papers and a desk covered with stuff to be assessed, in the way one does — reading, remembering, wondering what on earth to do with a hardbacked notebook from the time I spent living on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. On the one hand, it’s hard to read endless accounts of weather and washing hair with cold rainwater from the cistern. Of picking nettles for soup. Baking soda bread. The tally of the day’s walks — some driftwood for the fire, a few feathers, the jawbone of a dog revealed in the sand dunes by the cemetery. Yet it’s a record. But for whom? And how?
After my parents died, my brothers and I and our partners cleared out their apartment. Nothing was sorted and it was a strange experience to open a box and find old report cards, recipes, photographs of people I have no knowledge of, receipts for prescriptions from the last century, false teeth, eyeglasses, keys of every description. I returned home determined to organize my own stuff a bit more efficiently so that those having to clear out my study won’t have to struggle with decisions about what to keep and what to burn. Luckily there are no false teeth. Yet.
The notebooks are particularly vexatious. Like Joan Didion in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook” (from Slouching Towards Bethlehem), I am grateful to occasionally meet my younger self.
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 4 a.m. 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 betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.
But do I really want anyone else to meet her? At one point she makes a will. She’s 23. She leaves her manuscripts to someone her older self hasn’t seen in 35 years. (And those manuscripts went up in smoke years ago!) There are too many descriptions of her attempts to keep clean (two basins, one for sea water, one for the more precious fresh, from the rainwater cistern). Delight in a bucket of new potatoes left at the door. A tally of letters brought by boat from the mainland. Songs heard on a RTE radio programme I loved — Sunday Miscellany, in which Pearse Hutchinson played songs (“The Mountain Streams where the Moorcocks Crow” sung by Paddy Tunney, a fine old voice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFzmKvLHQ20). And I don’t need that notebook to recall how it was when Paddy Tunney sang “The Green Fields of Canada” while my little turf fire smouldered and I thought I’d die from the melancholy beauty of the world.
The lint dams are gone and the looms are lying idle
Gone are the winders of baskets and creels
And away o’er the ocean, go journeyman cowboys
And fiddlers who play out the old mountain reels
Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout. (“On Keeping a Notebook”)