There are small moments that must be filled. They open and expand while waiting in doctors’ and dentists’ offices; in long, slow moving grocery check-out lines; or in those few, empty moments before leaving the house or office for another destination. Staring into space is my favorite pastime and generally fills up all the minutes given (and much more), but there are other waiting times when my spirit needs a gentle pick-me-up without doing much conscious work.
That’s when I open the Photo Album on my phone and start scrolling. I discovered this delight quite by accident while lounging in my therapist’s waiting room one afternoon. I was feeling flattened by living with PTSD and other health issues, and I wanted muster up a little hope before I went into my session. So in a despondent, weary way, I opened up the photo album app. To my surprise, I was greeted by pictures of flowers, landscapes and book excerpts that I had busily taken days ago and had already forgotten. I scrolled back farther and it was much the same, mixed with pictures of friends, family, pets, and friendly dogs I had met on my walks.
I discovered my photo diary which had been my pocket all this time. “I never travel without my diary,” Oscar Wilde wrote. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” It still holds true; nothing is so interesting as what we took notice of days ago, weeks and months ago, be it written in a journal or snapped with a viewfinder.
As days spin into weeks, months, and years, it is hard to catch hold of any kind of underlining rhythm or purpose. A photo diary offers a kind of consolation. There’s nothing sublime there, it simply marks changing seasons, interests, travels, and friendship. But perhaps on the difficult days where everything is too much including our own thoughts, a photo diary is a moment of gentle release. The lightness of ephemerality eases the heavy load of living.
“But life itself is short, and so you are terribly agitated by everything that is eternal.”
–Eileen Chang, On Music
A big city not far from mine has a casino. I’ve heard a few stories from friends that have worked there. Most center on being treated badly by a customer and revenging themselves by throwing the customer’s car keys into the Fox River. Karma is enacted on a regular basis at the casino.
There’s something about that river, flowing by, murky green during the day and black at night, a bottomless pit for car keys.
The river divides the city in half, east to west. The Fox flows along the old warehouses, limestone and brick, built back when the city had manufacturing plants and industry. Now the warehouses sit sturdy and silent, crumbling ever so slowly. Their roofs are flat and give the illusion of brick walls running straight into the sky. Some were built like prosaic wedding cakes, higher and higher, until the final topping is small square with tiny windows. Industry has never been about aesthetic needs and wants. And yet by some miracle, these old turn of the century warehouses have achieved it just the same.
I observed the warehouses from the back deck of the riverside café, clutching my cup of earl grey and wishing I had put sunscreen on. It was the first time I had ever been to this café and I came because I needed a new setting for a fiction story I was working on. None of the cafes I remembered from the past were working for me. I needed this kind of café, one that hung out in an old manufacturing city where there wasn’t much industry left. There was, at least, a casino and many local businesses and this café hung on, here at the water’s edge.
A little further up was the casino where my friends had thrown those keys into the water. From my point on the deck, I could see the grimy metallic white heel of the building jutting out. Another friend told me that he goes there regularly to play black jack. It relieves stress and earns a little extra cash for his family.
The wind picks up a little and despite the sun, it’s chilly. Spring plays these tricks on us.
There is no sign of life in the warehouses all around me. We’re all boxed in together and the light plays off their empty windows, open and blank to the sun. I sip some tea and play “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin just to see if this café will work for my story. It only takes a few bars of listening to the song and I know that this place is perfect. This spot on the river is perfect for many stories. It’s been perfect for all the stories I know nothing about and the ones that I’ve caught the smallest glimpses of.
A mallard suns himself in the weeds that line the water’s edge. The river moves fast and sure and I turn off the music. No need to for further noise. The song is already there.
I started a bullet journal last fall. Everything started out well: I had color coded charts, washi tape decorations on the pages, and all sorts of lists (like Emma Woodhouse, my list making game is strong. especially when it comes to books and movies). But then, the newness wore off as did the color coding and keeping track of every little goal I made. And then I started gritted my teeth whenever I opened my bullet journal. And then I started gritting my teeth whenever I thought of my bullet journal. And by then it was over.
I mulled over what went wrong. I knew it had to do with goals, the wretchedness of constantly trying to achieve goals and how the desire to meet goals can lead to hellish micro-management of life. It’s fortunate that life is much more than this. but from my bullet journal? It was hard to tell.
I’ve left a lot of empty journals in my wake but it was hard to abandon a journal with a such cute fox sticker on the cover. So I thought of a new idea and a few weeks ago ago, I gave it a try. I began to keep a list of all the things I enjoyed in a day. I recorded small happenings like the joy of listening to Oscar Peterson play the piano while I drank tea in the morning, eating a pork bánh mì sandwich from the local Vietnamese restaurant (don’t underestimate this sandwich), reading great new manga (check out Moto Hagio), and listening to the rain dance on the roof. I scribbled down the everyday pleasures that my life gave me every single day. And no, nothing life-changing has happened from doing so. But what I do notice is that I’m writing a new way. I’m learning to write about the pleasantries in life instead of the goals and the hindrances in my way. Noticing what gives my body and soul rest and enjoyment takes a new kind of seeing and a new kind of a style. As a human being and a writer, this is exactly the kind of exercise I want to be doing.
I don’t know how long this new kind of list taking will last but for now, my bullet journal is giving me exactly what I need. It is working for me instead of the reverse.
The day in 1st grade that I graduated to writing from a pencil to a pen was a tremendous occasion. I had labored for months on holding the pencil correctly, mastering the art of (somewhat) straight and curved lines, learning to write with a light touch rather than a lead grinding one. I no longer made holes in my pencil from sharpened pencil tips, I could shade in shapes and above all, I was beyond tired of envying my parents for using pens whenever they wanted. The moment had finally arrived: my 1st grade teacher announced I was ready and handed me a blue Bic pen.
My self-satisfaction and smugness soared through the roof. Not only was I using ink but I was among the few who did. Not everyone else had worked as hard. They must continue to labor over alphabet worksheets with infantile pencils that must be sharpened by hand every day. How demeaning.
And so began my love affair with pens.
In many ways, I never moved past my 1st grade achievement. The goal had been to write with ink and when that hurdle was cleared, any pen would do. Ink was the point. It wasn’t until college that I developed any sort of pen preference and that was do more to the fact that I didn’t have a laptop and was handwriting on paper constantly. Pentel RSVP Ballpoint was my first favorite and later on after college, Papermate Flexgrip Elite 1mm black ballpoint was the preference.
And then last fall on a visit to Seattle, WA, dear Amanda escorted me to Kinokunyia’s Bookstore and I was flabbergasted. There were rows upon rows of pens, pencils, highlighters, gelpens, refills, erasers, and sample pens were everywhere. I had heard of such places but I had never been to one.
My head swam and I was shook but I set my teeth. I would try out as many pens as I had time for and take away a few. Amanda was a patient saint while I made my long and vacillating journey. I think I tried every pen they had. I came away clutching a handful.
Autumn and winter have passed since that fateful day. I’ve narrowed them down to one tried and true favorite workhorse, the Zebra Surari .7mm Emulsion Ink Pen.
Zebra is a Japanese pen and writes much smoother than the usual American pen. The writing line is deep and precise, plus the narrow body is a great fit for my hand. There’s a great pleasure to be had from a smooth flowing pen that I hadn’t known before Zebra. My next favorite is the Zebra Surari .5mm ballpoint. It has the same narrow body, smooth flow but with an even finer line. I tend to go for wider lines but sometimes a fine line suits the mood of the day.
A big perk is that refills are available for these pens. No more buying a box of pens and throwing them away as they cease to work, an issue I’ve always hated due to the waste.
The pleasure of a fine pen is a very great thing, indeed. No doubt I’ll learn more as I pop into pen shops and chat with pen connoisseurs. If you’re someone who writes a great deal by hand, I’d encourage you to discover the pleasure of trying out different pens from different countries. It’s an unexpected delight. And please feel free share your favorite pens here. Simple or elaborate, pens are part of everyday pleasures.