Life Unfolds in a Spiral-bound Notebook
My first thought was that maybe an absent-minded student from the nearby college had forgotten their red Hilary spiral-bound notebook. Just ignore it, I said to myself as I sat down on the bench in the bus shelter. Somebody will retrace their steps and come right back for it.
But of course, I couldn’t resist.
It was well-worn and a little tattered around the edges, just like the notebooks I had kept for years. The writing was tidy, but the notebook was not. Its pages were a patchwork of lists, reminders, doodles and the occasional phone number—a person's name and number, a company name and number or simply the word bakery and the number. Nah, I concluded, not a student. This was the handiwork of a busy woman.
One page caught my eye. The notebook’s owner had divided it into quadrants, each labelled in bold coloured markers: WORK in red, KIDS in green, GROCERIES in blue, TO-DO in magenta. This system lasted for just two days before she reverted to her stream-of-consciousness list. In the jumble, the plumber’s name and number mingled with work-related tasks: finish report, review quarterly objectives, start employee evaluations, clean desk.
There were a couple of pages that started with quotes at the top. “You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just weather.” — Pema Chodron.
Then she tried affirmations.
“I will approach each task with clarity and determination, knowing each step brings me closer to my goals.”
I laughed out loud. Ah, a kindred spirit, always hoping to get more done, a slave to a half-completed to-do list.
I had never found such a notebook. I would be bereft without mine. They are not usually left behind, as one might casually forget a grocery list at the bottom of the shopping cart. I was imagining the woman and her busy life as the bus pulled up. I placed the notebook back down on the bench, hoping that the woman would come back.
Spiral-bound Hilary notebooks contain the details behind the story of my life. I have kept them for over forty years, from the first job I had that I loved. The one I got right after finishing my master’s degree.
I had spent several months typing my damn thesis, hunting and pecking on a borrowed Brother electric typewriter because I was too poor to pay someone the one dollar a page it would cost to have them type it for me. Whenever I made a mistake that I could not fix invisibly with Wite-Out correction liquid, I cursed my decision not to take typing in high school. It meant I had to start the page over because the university's rules for master's theses allowed no visible typing mistakes.
On Mondays, I would take the Metro to the end of the Green Line and pick up the typewriter that a friend from university had left for me with her mother. On Fridays, I would repeat the same trip, back and forth, to return the typewriter so that my friend could use it for her school work on weekends. Evenings of that spring, I knocked on doors for the Liberal candidate in the federal election of 1980, and on Saturdays, I sold china in the Simpsons store to make a bit of needed cash.
I was hired by the Liberal candidate who won his election and was appointed President of the Treasury Board by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. I moved to Ottawa and bought a couple of good suits and my first Hilary spiral-bound notebook. My job was to work on ministerial correspondence and ensure the minister had his briefing for the daily Question Period in the House of Commons.
After a few months, I was promoted to Chief of Staff. I was twenty-eight and went from typing at the kitchen table to a position with significant responsibilities and a secretary who had a fancy word processor. I succeeded by assembling a solid team of smarter people, being good at asking the right questions, knowing when the answers made sense, and keeping everything straight in my spiral-bound notebook. I’ve relied on a notebook ever since.
These days, whenever I open the cupboard to grab paper to refill the printer tray, I see my lifetime pile of spiral-bound notebooks. They trace my evolution from a single career-focused woman immersed in the details of work, to the whirlwind craziness of running a business, while being a wife and mother, worrying, cooking, walking the dog, and now to retirement and writing.
I love reviewing the notes I scribbled for three years after each visit to my dad in the long-term care home. Random notes I wanted to one day write up for my children about his childhood and war experiences blend with recipes and the phone numbers of some of the men in my life—the carpet cleaner, electrician and handyman.
There are no grocery lists in my spiral-bound notebooks. My mother would peruse the grocery store flyers that arrived every Wednesday with the Sarnia Observer. She examined them carefully to decide whether there were better deals at the A & P or Loblaws or Dominion and made her grocery list accordingly. She shopped at all three stores to maximize the bargains and stretch her modest food budget. I thought that if I ever could, if I ever had the luxury, I would buy what I wanted at the grocery store without price-checking.
Don’t get me wrong. I love sales and thrift and secondhand store finds. But grocery shopping is the one thing in my life that is not dictated by the lists in my spiral-bound notebook.
A photo I took at the Picasso Museum in Paris of the artist’s notebook.
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