Saturday, July 24, 2010

Small Loss

blue sky and forgetfulness, Siena
by J J Cohen

I'd like to compose a post about New Chaucer Society and Siena. I have much to report. Yet this morning in a quiet house -- children late asleep, spouse on business in Quebec -- I'm preoccupied with small loss.

The first leg of my return, Pisa to London, had been delayed an hour. The air controllers of France were on strike, constricting the flight of northbound aircraft to crowded channels through Switzerland and Germany. A small fact, almost insignificant, but as I sat in the plane it preoccupied me. An hour on the tarmac would likely stretch to ninety minutues, maybe more. At Heathrow I had been allotted only two hours five minutes between arrival from Pisa and departure for Washington. I know Terminal 5 intimately enough to foresee lethargic security queues, indifferent officials. Ready to return home from what had been a superb Italian sojourn, I realized a good chance now existed that I would miss that last flight of the day to DC, and could well be returning the next morning instead.

In the Cosmic Scales of Divine Merit, the ones that determine (if you have the faith) whether you'll be singing hymns with Dante and Beatrice in Il Paradiso or chomping on your neighbor's head in hell, this event, this delay of less than a single day, means nothing. It's so trivial it cannot even be consigned to Il Limbo, that place where they make you dance with a stick for having been a virtuous pagan. But seated on the plane and anticipating the embraces at journey's end, I was yearning to be home. So when we touched down at LHR I rushed from the plane, sprinted with my suitcase from one end of the long terminal to its other ... and arrived at the next aircraft with perhaps five minutes before the closing of the gate. The tug truck pulled us from the terminal and promptly broke down, still attached to our aircraft, leaving us in what the pilot repeatedly described as a rather absurd position. We could neither return to the gate nor get to the runway. I didn't care; I was happy to catch my breath, and whoever had been assigned the seat next to me hadn't made the flight, so I had some room to stretch. I was happy simply to be on the plane, even if we'd be in a rather absurd position for an hour before we left.

rocky shore with invisible storm, Ogunquit, August 2009
I reached into my laptop bag to remove the little notebook I've carried with me for the past year. This would be a good moment to write some reflections upon NCS Siena, after all. I could read the notes I'd scribbled at each panel I'd attended, ruminate on the conference's Bigger Picture and perhaps create the skeleton of an ITM post. This black notebook is jammed with quotations, observations, jokes, sketches, aphorisms. Its pages contain not just the record of a year of conferencing (Kalamazoo, York, GW MEMSI events), not just the outline of the postmediaval issue on ecomaterialism I'm co-editing, not just the words corresponding to the abecedarium I'm creating, but the sketch I made one October evening of the gabled house across the street from us while we were living in a rental home; the little picture I drew of my daughter's pink Nintendo DS when she urged me to record its glory; phrases, dicta and axioms that had come to me while I showered or during morning runs. Future projects and reflections on work accomplished mingled with notes composed for no one in particular.

You are a savvy reader. You will have guessed from my conditional become past tense that the notebook was no longer in my possession on that Washington bound plane. I'd placed it in the seat pocket before my flight from Pisa to London, anticipating skyborne reflection. The news of the delay into Heathrow had taken my mind elsewhere, though, and I wasn't feeling contemplative. I read and marked up Suzanne Conklin Akbari's Idols in the East. That volume possessed the heft to ensure that I returned it to my bag before landing. The little black notebook, on the other hand, was abandoned in its seat pocket. I sprinted towards my gate, towards my home, and left it.

I am making this little black pad sound like one of DaVinci's notebooks. Nothing of value inhered in its pages. It contained roadmaps for destinations no one but me would ever want to travel. Fragments of an unimportant life, one life among the billions of a crowded world. I'm sure the cleaning crew saw its shabby cover in the seat pocket, looked at the thing briefly, judged it a recyclable, possessing the same merit as an abandoned magazine. They couldn't have known that I bought the notebook in a shop in Ogunquit, Maine, on a rainy afternoon during last year's family vacation. They couldn't have known that its first passages were composed on rocks pummeled by a distant hurricane, a storm so far at sea that only its surge made its power visible. The notebook's pages (cream colored, unlined) contained pieces of what became my New Critical Modes posts here at ITM. The notebook became in time the record of year that matters to no one but me.

I've placed a request with the company that handles lost goods in the aircraft that use Terminal 5 to track my notebook's fate, but they seem indifferent to an item that costs $20 to replace. When I accidentally left the pad on my seat at Kalamazoo in May, Anna Klosowska spotted its battered cover and ensured that it was mine again. I realized then that I should take its pages to a copy machine and create a record against future loss. Like all good and sane ideas involving the archiving of a past to be retained, it remained a good and sane idea rather than an executed action.

I tell myself that a liberation exists in rethinking my abecedarium, in recreating my roadmaps of future work, on exchanging determinations for possibilities. There is freedom in being released from these transfixed desires, from the set ideas of a year or six months or three months ago.

And yet I want my notebook back. I feel like I've lost a small part of myself, of the history that I always try too hard and in vain to hold.


Dr. Virago said...

Oh no, Jeffrey! I know how awful it can feel to lose something so irreplaceable as that notebook. How frustrating!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Dr. V. I just got off the phone, again, with the company that handles found items, and though they've found a red notebook with name Clive inscribed on it, they haven't found mine. I am reminded of the loss of my laptop a while back: this is the low tech version!

The Professor said...

After so many years of traveling and sadly losing three or four notebooks in the way you describe, I have taken to carrying a simple, zippable pencil case (the kind that fits in a 3-ring binder), and putting everything I take out on the plane in that case (IPod, notebook, boarding passes, comb, chapstick). I have a return address sticker stuck inside it, in case of loss. Then there's just one thing to stick back in my backpack or briefcase, not a group of things, and there's ID that lets me claim it...fwiw. Hope you get your notebook back!

Lara Farina said...

I think you should just take Clive's notebook. Then you can randomly insert his notes into your projects.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

What's striking about your post, Jeffrey, is how it strikes a chord in me: I know how what it is to lose something so small and yet so precious -- the loss of a past that haunts, around the edges of one's mind, the value of what might have been, of what is both subjective and conditional.

It is irreplaceable, and in some ways, will always leave an intellectual gap, but the neurons fired by handwriting (if I've memorized paragraphs of books, it's because I once took pen in hand to inscribe them on both paper and mind) -- perhaps those traces are still there, and what you will begin again, in the absence of written record, can be clearer for the loss of the thing itself.

A long winded way of saying what Dr. V said more succinctly. How frustrating.

This old world is a new world said...

Horrible. I've just found something I feared I had left on the plane (after really losing my i-pod and nearly losing some jewelry last on my last trip). So it may be worth searching again in all your travelling compartments. Though it does sound a decisive loss. I'm so sorry.

Mary-Kate may have the clue, though: to start writing - by hand - what you think you may have lost; and seeing what comes forth.

WV: upetyp, which seems encouraging, somehow.

Holly Crocker said...

that's bad, Jeffrey. I'm sorry not to hear more of your reflections, though I'm impressed with the detailed memories you've included in your post-NCS post. I hardly remember anything unless I write it down. As much as you miss your notebook, this mishap does offer an excuse to go shopping. You probably have your favorite notebook, but if you're looking for something *a little different,* I recommend the "collection of forbidden objects" notebooks:

I have the bomb, gun, *and* hammer notebooks, and they're all great. cheers, h

Sulpicia said...

Very sorry to hear it. Mary Kate Hurley's right that what you remake might be clearer because of the loss though - just think of the texts rewritten from scratch after the loss of the manuscript, including Malcolm Lowry's Ultramarine and Carlyle's French Revolution.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, everyone, for your good wishes and good cheer ... and thanks, Holly, for the lead on some stunningly beautiful replacement notebooks. If only I'd picked one up in Florence! But I see there's as store that sells them in Barcelona, where I'll be in nine days ....