Recently, I came across a bookmark from the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing that quotes Thomas Lynch: “Witness and keep track. That’s the basic work of writers.” I’ve kept this bookmark because I think it’s pretty with its dusty blue accents and green and gold curlicues, and because I don’t disagree with what Thomas Lynch says. But when I first picked it up at the Festival, I didn’t find Lynch’s observation all that profound. In fact, I thought he was just stating the obvious. In some ways, I still think he is, but being part of this blog and taking up the role of a writer who will be held accountable each month has made me witness and keep track differently. I go through my day thinking: could I turn this into a blog post?
I go to the nursing home. There, the smell of the lunches makes me want to lose mine. There, the residents stare, slack-jawed, as my mother and I sign in. There, I remember a gaunt, screeching, wheelchair-bound woman when I went to visit my great-grandmother so many years ago. Now, my mother and I go to see Ken and Rosemary, our two childless neighbors. On cooler days, when my mother can run the oven without making the air conditioner run overtime, she brings lemon bars, Rosemary’s former signature treat. I carry the roses or the coneflowers or whatever happens to be blooming in our backyard at the time. Together, we talk loudly and slowly to Ken and Rosemary, telling stories and neighborhood news. On good days, we find Ken crumpled in a wheelchair, visiting Rosemary, who hates to leave her bed. On not-so-good days, Rosemary refuses to wake up, flutters her eyelids when we come in, and tremors that she must sleep. Neither she nor Ken nor any of the other residents have slept this much since they were babies, and as I waver between the macabre and the hopeful, I wonder if it’s this role as a writer that makes me consider the oxygen tubes and catheters as umbilical cords, slowly nursing my neighbors toward new life.
I go to the eye doctor. Although I’ve been there many times before, this is the first time I register how incredibly odd the whole experience actually is. I mean: I can’t believe I obediently follow an older man whom I hardly know into a dark room, describe strange projections to him, and then stare into a green, pin-prick of light and let him shoot a puff of air into my eyeball. Not to mention that I am almost grateful when, to examine my itching eyelids, he flips them inside out, touching me in ways no one has before. The amount of trust I give this stranger is more than I give my friends or even myself—I am quite hesitant to flip my eyelids no matter how red and irritated. No way will I let my friends. On this stranger’s part, the amount of trust he accords me is equally stunning: leading me alone into a small, dark room when, as a young woman, I have the power to cry wolf and cast a mangy shadow over his reputation! And again, I wonder about this role as a writer. Is it because I’m trying to witness and keep track that all of a sudden an ordinary trip to the eye doctor glitters with a strange form of trust?
Not only does this business of witnessing and keeping track color my immediate experiences at the nursing home and the doctor’s office, but it also illuminates my memories of my previous experiences there. It gives even these little happenings significance. Of memory, I’ve recently been mulling over something Philip Roth wrote in American Pastoral: “each of us remembers and forgets in a pattern whose labyrinthine windings are an identification mark no less distinctive than a fingerprint.” I love this image of memory as a fingerprint, which, intimately and inseparably, comes with us wherever we go. Similarly, our memories mark everything we touch because we filter our new experiences through our old. However, unlike a fingerprint, our memories are more easily changed, for unless I severely burn my fingers or become a fictional spy and undergo a special procedure, I can’t change my fingerprints, but as I process and remember my experiences, I can edit and revise my memories of them, especially if my memories and someone else’s memories of the same experience differ or if new experiences prod me to reconsider previous ones. I’m getting the feeling that there’s more to being a part of The Post Calvin than I bargained for because as I witness, keep track, and write, my memories and, thus, part of my identity, changes. As I work on fulfilling this role as a monthly contributor, this role works on me.
I go to Caffe Della Penna (which may be the closest Perugia gets to being hipster) because the cappuccinos are good, the wifi is free, and the barista tries to understand me even when my tongue tangles around the rolled Italian r’s. Here I sip, listen to the locals, and write, knowing that Italy—only two days in—is writing me.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.