The infinite possibilities of a blank notebook

The infinite possibilities of a blank notebook

For Valentine’s Day last week I received a little red notebook, about the size of a shirt pocket. The sentiment behind the gift wasn’t explained—what was I expected to do with it?—but ever since then I’ve carried it around, debating how best to put it to use.

I opened it and could almost imagine a delightful little poem written on the first page. I’m not a poet, but I do like reading poetry, and sometimes imagine that I could write something beautiful if I just put my mind to it. Last week when I went on my little vacation I brought with me a book of classical Chinese poetry that I’d bought on a lark at a street market in Amsterdam. I chose it because it was physically light, but also because the poems were short and I wasn’t sure how raucous my traveling group would be—I might only have a few minutes’ peace at a time, so a good long novel probably wouldn’t be a good thing to try to sink my teeth into.

The poems were lovely, though, which shouldn’t be surprising considering that the book is hundreds of years old and somehow people still see fit to publish it.

Every plant and tree knows spring will soon be gone

a hundred pinks and purples compete with their bouquets

willow fuzz and elm pods lack such clever means

they only know how to fill the sky with snow

(Han Yu, translated by Red Pine)

A good poet makes it seem so easy. I’ve seen trees and flowers, too! I can do this! (Or, as my half-drunk self slurs, “Masters, shmasters. Watch me: ‘Roses are red, violets are…something. Shouldn’t they be purple? What the hell? I need another drink.’)

I fancied myself a poet in high school, for a few months at least. I carried scraps of paper and a stubby pencil in my pocket to jot down my observations. I also carried a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl in my inside jacket pocket, because it fit neatly and because I wore that jacket every day until one of my teachers asked me if I ever felt dirty wearing literally the same thing every day, rain or shine, without washing it, and I thought that maybe I should retire both the jacket and the book. The jacket subsequently disappeared, probably given to a charity without my knowledge, and my grandmother’s free-range parakeet later tore Howl into little strips to feather his nest or as an act of avian literary criticism. But I digress.

The only line I remember from my foray into writing poetry was, “The flames were doused/with mineral water.” I don’t remember what the poem was about, except that it was unusually long for me, and it had fancy but purposeless spacing, and I was quite proud of it until a friend of mine on the bus took it and read it and then gave it back without saying much. She didn’t make fun of it, but she didn’t bring it up again either, so either she thought it was so awesome that she couldn’t believe a peer had written it, or it was, you know, not good. When I read it to myself later that day, the line about mineral water (does it douse flames better or worse than regular water?) jumped out at me as particularly embarrassing, and all these years later it is all I remember.

So maybe my little red notebook isn’t meant to contain poetry. It could contain little vignettes of my life, like maybe describe the sunrise or how I feel about my backyard chickens (they are hilarious, by the way). How long, though, before such a collection becomes nothing more than a catalogue of meals I’ve eaten or movies I’ve seen?

The diminutive size of this notebook might be better suited to capturing the memories that sometimes surface from the murky recesses of myself, those mysterious surfaces that happen when, for example, I see a kid kicking a ball down the street and a chain reaction of subconscious free-association brings me back to a road trip I took with my mother and sister nearly thirty years ago from Colorado Springs to Augusta, Georgia, on a Greyhound bus. We stopped at a Stuckey’s in Alabama and I remember the tables all had those peg-jumping IQ tests, and my sister and I almost forgot to eat because we were so focused on proving that we were smart.

Not exactly the kind of gem that deserves memorialization, I suppose.

Maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe I should just use it to write my grocery lists. I read once that a Mesopotamian scholar found a cuneiform tablet that had been on display for decades in a museum, and then translated it and found it was a to-do list for a Babylonian homemaker. I wonder if a thousand years from now my little red notebook will be on display under a glass case and someone will ask, “What was ‘Cinnamon Toast Crunch’?”

I keep carrying it around, empty and unused, and a part of me is starting to wonder if maybe the best part of a new notebook is its very emptiness, the way that it waits so calmly but eagerly for my forthcoming profundity in whatever form that may take.

In which case I’d hate to ruin it with some trifle about mineral water.



There are cheeky monkeys, and then there are baboons. At the ferry landing, a big male was hanging out by the gift shop of all places, acting like he was waiting for it to open so he could buy a trinket or something. We opened the door to our safari car, and in seconds the baboon shot across the parking lot. We were all sure he was going to steal one of the children in the car (to be fair, the little ones are snack-sized), but instead he reached in a deftly snatched one of the pack lunches. We can marvel for a moment about how aware this baboon was that he could spot a paper bag in a dark car from thirty meters away and know it contained lunch; and admire his ability to go right into the midst of a crowd of people and steal their food and get away with it; but mostly my take-away is that an animal that can do that can really mess me up if it wanted to.

When we returned, the same baboon was leaning against the driver’s-side door of someone else’s car, like a primate gangster demanding protection money.

Continue reading “Baboons”

Nile River cruise

Nile River cruise

The point of the river cruise is to see the actual Murchison Falls, but along the way you get a bonus mini-safari along the river. The river guide tried to his best to explain what we were looking at, but the crowd was a bit noisy, and there were some concerns that if we all stood on the same side the boat might tip over and we’d all get eaten by crocodiles, so I must confess I didn’t learn much. I did, however, see more elephants, which is always fun.

IMG_4241 Continue reading “Nile River cruise”

Murchison Falls game drive

Murchison Falls game drive

It is possible to stay at a resort inside Murchison Falls National Park, but it is cheaper (and, I am told, a bit more fun) to stay at one of the many lovely lodges outside of the park, so that’s what I did. The trade-off, though, is that you have to carefully plan your trip and wake up really early. There are no bridges across the Nile at this point, so to get into the park proper you have to take a ferry. The ferry operates from 7am to 7pm, and it only holds eight cars at a time. And because it is dry season, the animals are going to spend most of their day in the shade and out of sight, so if you want to see one, you really have to be on the 7am ferry. Which means you have to wake up early, have breakfast, and make sure you are there in time to be one of those first eight cars to go across.

Since I am a maniac, I woke up at around 4 and grouched at everyone in my party to get in gear so that we could leave on time. As it turns out, ours was the second car to get to the landing point, and I felt my grumpiness vindicated. Continue reading “Murchison Falls game drive”

Murchison Falls

Murchison Falls

Murchison Falls, just east of where the Nile takes a rest at Lake Albert, bills itself as the “Most Powerful Waterfall in the World.” I have learned not question these kinds of claims, as nothing positive can come out of that sort of conversation. After all, in my hometown the Empire State Building claims to be the world’s most famous building, which can be disputed by a number of other buildings around the world, but who cares, right?

After leaving Jinja I decided I needed to go someplace new, so I am now up at Murchison Falls National Park. I took a riverboat to the falls with the intention of hiking to the top, but then someone told me that you can just drive up, so I stayed in the boat, turned around, and then drove to the summit. Much easier. Here’s what I saw.

Continue reading “Murchison Falls”

Another Nile sunrise

Another Nile sunrise

I spent the weekend at a place called the Hairy Lemon, which is a small island in the Nile about an hour north of Jinja, which has somehow become my go-to weekend destination. The island attracts kayakers, mostly, but I don’t do that, so mostly I sat around drinking, avoiding monkeys, and overhearing people talking about kayaks.

But in the morning, while all of those fit young types were sleeping it off, I had the island entirely to myself, and I spent it trying to capture the sunset. Here are the best of my pictures. Continue reading “Another Nile sunrise”