I have a friend who kept a notebook just like she kept her car and her closet. It was a spiral bound notebook with a hard cover. She wrote on the pages but also on every loose bit of paper near her hands: napkins, receipts, orange construction paper, the torn piece of a brown paper bag. She stuffed each piece of paper inside the notebook and kept it all bound together with a rubber band. I envied her notebook because the chaos pointed to mystery and genius.
In a cinderblock college dorm room I thumbed through a beautiful new journal. It had creamy handmade paper that was luscious and perfectly tactile. My friend, who had just received the journal as a gift, said; “It’s so hard to write in a new journal for the first time. I worry that I will mess it up.” I nodded my head, knew exactly what she meant. Her roommate, our friend, looked at us with her wide-awake eyes and said she had no idea what we were talking about. She had a strong artistic voice and her hand didn’t shake when she considered what people might think about her pen-marks. Journals, she knew, are for filling.
When I first kept notebooks I bought large black spiral-bound sketchbooks that they sold for $4.99 at Ocean State Job Lot. I probably filled six to ten of these books with spiky handwriting, line-drawn profiles, and collages. Then I moved from New England to North Carolina. I brought the notebooks with me but they didn’t last long. My English friend who studied science told me that it was good to leave the past behind. In the mental space between one home and another I stacked those notebooks in a black trash bag and threw them away. I still think about whether the dump is a good place to look for other people’s journals.
Now I write in small black softcover notebooks that are stupidly expensive. I have stacks of them. When I’m reporting for the newspaper my handwriting expands into huge looping script and I worry about all of the pages I’m using up. I like that each notebook looks the same and I think about cutting pieces of masking tape for the front; that way I could label each one with its contents. It would be hard to label them. Just this one has directions to an orchard, notes from a newspaper article about gleaning, thoughts about wombs and rivers, and doodles for a logo. Unlabeled they’re mysterious. I remember an idea I had once and I flip through each notebook, meandering between the folds of my mind as it once was.
“I am a bicycle messenger,” Gabriel wrote. “The dispatch office is in the Garment District between 7th and 8th Avenues.” I’m fascinated by my brother’s job. In the first week of September he emailed a story to me and our parents. The subject line was “Floor #11.” It was about him making a delivery and getting stuck in an elevator. When I talked to him on the phone last week, I told him I wanted to write something about his work as a bike messenger. “Heidi, it’s really boring and kind of lonely,” he said.
I emailed Gabriel a series of questions about his work and he wrote back in his distinctive style: formal and humorous, detailed and concise. His answers gave me a picture of his nine to five. I imagine that every morning Gabriel wakes up and makes coffee in his Chemex, because he loves that. He’s a person who practices rituals. Because I write to him, I know that he checks his email in the morning while he drinks his coffee. He probably eats a lot for breakfast; Gabriel loves food, and cooking. When he was in high school he used to wake up at 5:30am to run and make eggs and homefries before school.
I wonder about distances. “Another bike messenger at the company for which I work estimated we ride 60 miles a day. If I go to the Financial District at the southernmost end of the island, that is a guaranteed 20.” I read this and wonder what Gabriel looks like now. He’s still tall, six two or something close; he’s definitely thin and definitely blonde; his long legs bow just slightly, less than mine; I bet his thigh muscles are bigger now.st; Gabriel loves food, and cooking. When he was in high school he used to wake up at 5:30am to run and make eggs and homefries before school.
On that day when Gabriel was stuck in an elevator, I imagine his legs hurt, or even started cramping. “The work is exhausting,” he wrote. “If I sit in a chair waiting for someone to sign papers that must be returned to sender, my muscles tighten because they are trained for pedaling now. I am very clumsy as a walker now, too. I feel very heavy when I’m on my feet, and I think I must look fat and frog-like to people when I run to deliver a package.”
For Gabriel, in Manhattan, “everything is an obstacle. Broken glass; veins of uneven cement; cables from Sony Pictures Classic trailers; pedestrians; cars. The kind of sight needed is something more than peripheral vision. I need to watch the ground, what’s in front of me, and what is to my left and right, all while looking back to see if cars are trying to merge ahead of me.”
With a short comment Gabriel reveals his design aesthetic, “Cars were not built to be agile,” he wrote. Gabriel was. He likes efficiency, a small number of well-made things, and writing that gets to the point. I send him my stories and he sends them back asking me why each word isn’t at work.
When I was in school in Maine, writing about workers in a shoe factory, Gabriel was the one who encouraged me to keep going. He believed in the routine that these workers follow, and in the fact that their interior lives were interesting, even if they were thinking about the next stitch. He was right. But when I wanted to learn about his work, he thought it would be boring. It’s not.
On the bike, between deliveries, Gabriel’s thinks. “I think about where I’m supposed to go, how thirsty and hungry I am, and the fact that I have a nice girlfriend who’s reading something for graduate school.” When he gets home he’s tired and hungry and wants to laugh. I asked him if he ever thought about work at home. “Sometimes I think about work,” he wrote. “I think about my dispatchers. They’re very smart people. Anyone who can make impulsive and strategic decisions about geography is equivalent to a king.”
I have to be at the farm at eight in the morning, which leaves plenty of time to swish a series of questions around in my mind: Where do I want to live? What kind of work do I really want to do? Is the way I’m living working? What does it even mean for something to be “working”? Is it okay to have a second cup of coffee? Do I eat too many eggs? When you see a new doctor and they ask for your family’s history of disease there is one influential genetic flaw that they overlook—the ability to spin complex webs of worry from thin air.
The worry is like the sound your mom makes when she chews her food or the incessant barking from the dog next door—it’s there but you just have to keep living your life. So I arrive at the farm on time, worry in tow. We’re harvesting radishes, which I do with supreme slowness. I love to dig my fingers around in the top two inches of soil feeling for the larger of the round tops that bump against my fingertips. Once I pull up a root I can’t help but rub away the dirt. I’m harvesting Cherry Belles, that are perfectly round and red, and a longer variety that is a red-and-white two-tone called French Breakfast.
I work quietly, my feet placed under me and my legs curled into a frog stance, ready to leap. And I think along a labyrinth pathway, circling but heading somewhere. Recently, life feels especially unclear, unplanned, and unpredictable. When faced with the vast unknown, every era and every culture has its own way of dealing, often through myth, superstition, or religion.
In the Middle Ages they thought radishes contained evil spirits and people said radish prayers to consecrate the vegetables before eating them. In my world it seems to work the other way around—as I pull radishes from the soil the routine of touching these plants seems to consecrate my thoughts—soothing them to a low background hum.
So, in honor of the radish and worry, I’m saving the less-than-perfect seconds that I pull from the ground and, in another routine that seems to soothe my mind, chopping the roots into quarters and quick-pickling them in Mason jars where they turn the most unnatural shade of pink. Sour, crunchy, brightly colored, the pickled radishes are a hands-in-the-dirt-afternoon-in-the-kitchen alternative to myth and religion. Or, it’s in the steps from dirt to refrigerator that I see the vastness of the world and the smallness of my worry.