I am writing this essay in late August 2023, during the days often known as the dog days of summer, though, in all actuality, it has been quite cool here on the east coast of the United States. Cool here, but it has been a tough summer, a tough and tragic month weatherwise and climate-wise in other places, which have been ravaged by hurricanes, tropical storms, and wildfires. Coming to mind are friends in southern California and Lahaina, Maui. My mind is scattered all over the place, thinking about my Notebook People project, the weather, and everything else. That’s part of the reason why I take so many notes. My notebook inspires me to observe, question, and think, or perhaps it’s the other way around, and I keep a notebook because I am inclined to observe, question, and think. It is either my nature that requires me to jot down notes or the jotting down of notes that informs who and what I am. Or maybe it is a bit of both. It probably doesn’t matter.
It’s rather hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that summer is coming to an end. We are trying to savor our very last moments at my house, as I am spending hours sorting through stuff and helping my oldest son, Aidan, pack to return to college. I cannot believe he will be a junior in college this year. And Cormac, crazily enough, will be in his second year of high school. Where does the time go? Many of you remember them when they were little boys. There’s a part of me that feels badly that we didn’t go on a real vacation this summer. The solo parent thing can be financially challenging at times, and with the cost of everything so high, I thought it best that we budget our money wisely.. Cormac got braces on his teeth, the house needed a new hot water heater and basement sink, and sooner rather than later, I will probably need to replace my car and get a second car for Aidan. And then there’s college tuition. “That ain’t no joke,” as they say.
So, this was a slow summer for us. We didn’t travel anywhere further than a short car or train ride from home, quite a difference from last summer and our journey to Frankfurt, Saarbrücken, and Berlin, Germany. This year, we just took it easy and stayed close to home, just being together – grilling, talking, laughing, drawing, reading, and me, writing, of course, walking around Manhattan or Brooklyn, dining and people watching. Things like that. Maybe we will travel some other time this year, or maybe next, whenever the timing feels right. This summer it felt right and responsible to stay close, to stay grounded. It gave me a lot of time to read and write.
Reading and writing have always gone hand in hand for me. I have long credited the children’s book, Harriet the Spy, for inspiring me to write and keep a notebook. Harriet Welsh’s composition book, in which she often wrote brutally honest and often unflattering observations about the people around her, was the reason I wanted and got my first composition book. My memory of that children’s book, what the actual story was about, and what Harriet, represented as a character, were vague at best and likely lost on a nine-year-old reader, at least the complexities. I mostly remember her composition notebook and not so much the story. Just the notebook. But, over the summer, I have taken the time to read more literary analysis and criticism of Fitzhugh, the creator of Harriet, and gather information about her life and work.
Harriet Welsh, aka Harriet the Spy, was a renegade, much like her creator, Louise Fitzhugh. In an essay that appear in The New Yorker, “The Tragic Misfit Behind ‘Harriett the Spy’,” Rebecca Panovka writes,
“The central question of “Harriet the Spy” is no less ambitious than how to account for human difference: What makes one person dream of becoming a writer and another a physicist, one fall in love and another favor the company of cats? “OLE GOLLY SAYS THERE IS AS MANY WAYS TO LIVE AS THERE ARE PEOPLE ON THE EARTH AND I SHOULDN’T GO ROUND WITH BLINDERS BUT SHOULD SEE EVERY WAY I CAN,” Harriet writes. When she types up a short story, near the end of the novel, the “GOOD MORAL” she selects is “THAT SOME PEOPLE ARE ONE WAY AND SOME PEOPLE ARE ANOTHER AND THAT’S THAT.””
I returned to this article repeatedly over the summer, and it has inspired me to learn more about Louise Fitzhugh and the bold character that she’d created and the ideals that she embodied, and I am actually mesmerized by just how much of this energy I’d internalized without realizing that I’d internalized it. I had actually taken away from the book far more than just my love for notebooks. My central curiosity has always been looking for what accounts for human differences, as well as the threads that tie us together, that connect us. And like Harriet, my desire was never to be like others, but to embrace my own individuality.
This was the very impetus for the Notebook People endeavor in the very first place. Having exhausted the topic of writing about notebooks for the sake of writing about notebooks, I decided to shift my focus to the people behind them, thinking that I’d find something similar about each one of them, some trait that they, we, all carried or possessed. But I also wanted to know what made each of them different from one another, certain that we were all far more complex that the paper on which we liked to write. Where did their stories intersect and where did they depart from one another?
The first year of this journey has been remarkably enlightening for me, and I hope it has been enlightening for you as well. I was about to write that I’d hoped that it had been equally as enlightening for you as it was for me, but I fear that I have been unable to capture everything about everyone in the short space and time that we have for each story, and feel that’s been a bit unfair. The conversations we have twist and turn. Some things are said off the record. And there are often digressions that I simply cannot fit into the essays that you get to read.
But I have the unfair advantage because I get to talk to each of the notebook peeps at length, and it has become more about people and human connection, and how strangers can start off by having a conversation about notebooks and find themselves in unexpected places talking about all kinds of things. These are strangers that I might not otherwise get to talk to, except that they have a notebook of some sort, and I said, “Can I see? “ and we started talking about that and then everything else under the sun.
We have talked about love and loss, trauma, art, poetry, kids, marriage, divorce, death, skydiving, skinnydipping, drugs, and COVID. We laughed and were near tears. Maybe we did cry. I just know we connected, and that is really at the core of what we need to do as people. In communities. In society. Globally. If only it were as easy as asking someone about their notebook. We need to connect and recognize our common humanity.
I hope you’ve had a chance to get to know the notebook peeps from the first year of what I started off calling The Notebook People Project, and which, for year two, I’ll be calling The Notebook People Collective. If not, here are links to all of the past stories.
The Notebook People Project: Year One
- Interview with Michael Downey
- Interview with Annie Simpson
- Interview with Mark Wunderlich
- Interview with Rachel Mohler
- Interview with Karen Walrond
- Interview with Clementine Ford
- Interview with Christian Seno
- Interview with Judi Delgado
- Interview with Susannah Conway
- Interview with Gregory Hazel
- Interview with Caroline Donahue
If you would like to be interviewed for a future story, I would love to talk to you. I can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.