Road to Elsewhere, Excerpt #5: First Person Singular

The holy business of noticing.

On Fridays I run excerpts from The Road to Elsewhere, my coming-of-age-travel-memoir-with-funny-drawings. (You can find the first entry here.) It tells the story of my road through Paris, London, and Zagreb, in search of the ultimate destination: a life worth living.

EARLY ON IN MY PARIS DAYS, I picked up The Waves, Virginia Woolf’s impressionistic history of six friends as they progress from sensitive children to calcified adults. The first time I read it, I was closer to her creation, a toddler named Bernard, who keenly felt the sploosh of his nurse’s washing sponge, than I was to another character named Louis, who, like my own father, was locked in a business career that rewarded and constrained him in equal measure.

Near the end of The Waves, Bernard — a life-long writer of phrases that never quite escaped his notebooks — delivered a monologue that struck horror in my 21-year-old soul. I scratched it into an early page of my journal, as a warning: “Outside the undifferentiated forces roar,” Woolf wrote, “inside we are very private, very explicit, have a sense indeed, that it is here, in this little room, that we make whatever day of the week it may be. Friday or Saturday. A shell forms upon the soft soul, nacreous, shiny, upon which sensations tap their beaks in vain.”

My soul was soft, alright — a privilege granted me by two stable parents, a full belly, a house with a solid foundation, zero college debt, and $6,000 of grandpa’s money. With the necessities accounted for, I was free to notice and to feel everything. My life-long mission would be to resist that nacreous shell. Like Bernard, I became a documentor of sensations.

Near the end of his life, Bernard fumbles his notebook away under a restaurant table, to be swept up and thrown out by a charwoman. I look at my notebooks, stretching along a shelf in my barn in Colorado, and think: What will be lost if I fumble them away at this point in my life — close enough to Bernard’s age to discern decline in my own arc? It’s past time that I noticed the noticing, with passages I’ve written over a lifetime. They’re not the sharpest tools, but they fit my hands.

The posts ahead are based on my daily journals and the recollections and explorations and drawings they provoke. I produce them verbatim where 21-year-old-me was lucid enough to tell the story straight, and include the necessary framing details.

At other times I build out from the journal account to tell the story in more detail than I managed at the time. And, as I would have put it before I knew better, the passive voice has been eliminated. So yes, I’ve lightly edited them, knowing that you, dear reader, might not care to tag along as I beat around the bush. (There are ants there!) But for all my stumbles, all the incompletes registered on my life’s transcript, I managed to live in active verbs — no matter how wrong-headed or terror-driven — in first-person singular.

O.K. so I didn’t fight and win World War Two, like that other noted journal keeper, Winston Churchill. Who among us makes history? My account chronicles the day-to-day, the only arena where most of us battle, largely between ourselves and the nacreous shell; it’s where we triumph rarely and fail often.

But based on the evidence of six million words, I can say: I know I have lived, because I wrote it all down.

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