I met Rachel in a Facebook group called MTN Fountain Pens & Ink many years ago. These days, I don’t venture on to Facebook often, and never go to any of the groups, but in preparation for writing this essay, I searched for my name and found our early exchanges. In 2015, we exchanged parcels. I’m pretty sure that is when our long-distance friendship began. We maintained a connection via text and Instagram. Sometimes we go for many months without texting or chatting, but something keeps us connected and keeps her in my heart. She has a special place there.
In 2018, when I got the news that my ex-husband/the boys’ father’s condition was determined to be incompatible with life after he suffered the second of two heart attacks he’d had in the space of a week, I posted this tragic news of his heart attack on Facebook and Rachel reached out with supportive words, and kind, compassionate photos of her blowing kisses from her mountain in Maryland. And then, right before we were leaving for the airport, an envelope arrived from her. The letter is dated May 29, 2018. The envelope is postmarked May 30th, and we arrived in Ireland on the morning of June 2nd, departing from Newark International Airport on the afternoon of June 1st, after spending all day getting expedited renewed passports in New York City and getting on an early evening flight. It was sent via regular mail and made it into my hands the afternoon of our departure. All this to say, that it seemed like a bit of a miracle, a bit of “magic” that it arrived in my mailbox so early, and that, with all that was happening, I was able to retrieve it. I put it in my bag and took it with me.
I opened it once we were seated on the plane to Dublin. The boys were sitting beside me in a state of despair and shock. It was the darkest moment thus far, in my adult life. I opened the velvety soft envelope, which I learned during our interview for this Notebook People essay was Amalfi paper. I took out a beautifully handwritten letter with a beautiful drawing/painting of a wild daisy with the foam of a spittlebug on it on the right side of the letter, and in the lower left corner, held with a piece of washi tape, a feather from her chicken. I probably read that letter and looked at that photo of her blowing a kiss 20 times during that flight. My finger touched the chicken feather over and over again. And though it might sound crazy, it actually brought me some comfort. I didn’t feel quite so alone.
This is my interview with Rachel Mohler.
She doesn’t have cable in the part of Maryland, on the mountain, where she lives, only a hotspot, and because of that, our Zoom video call kept freezing on her laptop. Thankfully, we were able to get a stable connection because part of the joy of interviewing Rachel was getting a tour of her amazing surroundings, both inside and outside.
Rachel Mohler, a Maryland-based artist, has been keeping a notebook for as long as she can remember, a habit she may have gotten from her mother. “My mother was sort of like me,” Rachel explained, “she didn’t really keep planners or journals per se, but she always had a sketchbook with her everywhere she went. Her mother has lupus and so many childhood days included sitting in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices." And there, her mother would sketch while waiting to be seen by the doctor. She also recalled her mother sketching at restaurants, anytime they would go out to dinner. According to Rachel, her mother “has sketchbooks filled with salt and pepper shakers from every restaurant we went to.”
In my favorite essay, “On Keeping a Notebook” by Joan Didion, Didion wrote “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.” And Rachel explains her own notebook keeping in much the same way. “I had this compulsion to have something in my hand. It feels good to have a pen, a pencil….I was doing something. It was a compulsion.” I think the same of my own notebook. It’s simply a compulsion.
While Rachel has several notebooks, she mainly uses a large leather-bound Peg and Awl tome, thick with paper – 300 pages of 80 lb. paper, and it’s in there that she keeps everything. As a visual artist, Rachel draws a lot. She draws and paints in this notebook, but it’s also filled with recipes, pressed leaves, and splashes of wine on its pages. She calls it “a mess,” but it is a beautiful one. She flipped through the pages of a notebook that was filled with pressed leaves, “This one,” she told me, “is a tulip poplar. The leaves look like little owls. And this one here is a fern.” Rachel’s house is filled with things like that – pressed flowers, dried mushrooms, and a pot of things from nature bubbling in water on the stove, making the house smell delightful. And what does any of this have to do with Rachel being a “notebook person?” It’s her attention to every single beautiful detail, the savoring of life, the pauses, and slow living.
When I asked Rachel what she does when she feels uninspired, she noted that that is most likely when she is depressed, or when she has just finished a project, otherwise she is still able to create. But she said when she does find herself in such a place, she “soaks her eyeballs,” a phrase I fell in love with. At times like that she will immerse herself in visual inspiration from anything from artistic magazines to walks in nature. When she does this, she becomes inspired once again. She compared it to being reborn, a new birth. She noted that she’s a visual artist, so she soaks her eyeballs, but a musician would soak his ears, and a writer would have to write and read, read books, read the world, read people to soak her mind.
Rachel doesn’t only write and press leaves in her notebooks, as an artist she, of course, often sketches, but you don’t have to be an accomplished artist to sketch. In our private notebooks we are all writers and we are all artists. Rachel suggests that, “instead of taking pictures on vacation, make tiny, stupid little sketches. You’ll remember that vacation way better than if you took pictures. Pick a leaf. I went to Maine and was in front of Stephen King’s house and picked up leaves and pressed them because it was fall time and I was in front of Stephen King’s house…..it’s something you can touch…It’s how we create memories.”
And, creating memories is very important to Rachel, as Alzheimer’s and dementia run in her family and she feels that it is a very real possibility that she may suffer memory loss later in her own life. It is because of that that she believes you have to find ways to remember your experiences. “You’ve gotta put ‘em in your brain in a different way.” This has inspired me to try to do more than just write in my own notebooks. Often when Rachel is writing in her notebooks, it’s with the walnut ink that she’s made herself. She gathers walnuts outside and boils them down. She does the entire process herself because she finds it to be enjoyable, and when she goes “to write and use it and draw with it, it has a history. It has a smell.
Rachel has a way of bringing you back to what is real, what’s natural, what has meaning, and what inspires. Rachel identifies as Pagan, and she said most people, who are Pagan, consider themselves to be a green witch, a kitchen witch or a hedge witch. But she said if you remove the word “witch,” then it becomes about living with intention and finding what’s right for you. “If you cook to feed people and that’s how you show love, then that is your intention. You are putting “magic” into your chili when you feed someone. That is your intention. Do I believe in magic and spells? No.”Well, I don’t believe in magic or spells either, but I find something magical about Rachel, the inspiration that just radiates from her, and her notebooks.
In addition to her main notebook, Rachel also keeps a Roterfaden, in which she does reflective writing when the mood strikes her. Hers is not a consistent practice, but it holds a loose record of her life and chronicles some important events, both good and bad. She also keeps an early Chic Sparrow traveler’s notebook in which she tracks all of her birthdays and special notable days, plus an insert that holds the addresses of all of her Internet friends – penpals, art people, etc..
Where to find Rachel Mohler
Instagram: @rhmohler and @uptopfarm