I've never read anything by Vita Sackville-West, although I should, if only because I keep one of her more famous quotes on the wall of my classroom. “It is necessary to write,” wrote Vita, “if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment.”
Vita's days were scarcely empty. She won the Hawthornden Prize twice, wrote novels, poems, translations and biographies, and was happily married for some forty years while indulging in affairs with the likes of Virginia Woolf and Hilda Matheson. She witnessed many fascinating moments in her time and wrote about many of them, both in her fiction and in her long correspondence with literary luminaries of her day. Vita let few butterflies fly by unexamined.
My friend and mentor Craig Childs also is a die-hard net clapper. It's rare to see him without a pen, scribbling madly on the backs of his hands or in one of the many little notebooks he carries. This time last year, in part inspired by Craig, I began carrying my own little notebook around. It's part of the famous Moleskine family, one of many fancy notebooks I've purchased over the years with the intention of collecting butterflies. As I look it over now, I am delighted to see more than a few moments captured in its pages. It's not a journal as much as it is an idea catcher. There are probably a dozen story starts in there, notes from lectures and workshops I've attended, midnight epiphanies about my work-in-progress, quotes that I like, drawings and business cards, and, yes, descriptions of moments that I want to remember. It's the best use to which I've put any of my little notebooks. Most are used for a page or two, before being tucked away in some box or other. One has only a single sentence, written by my then –future wife, and I've dared not add another lest I break that one line's spell.
I'm of two minds about moments. I'm not interested in being a constant netter, an observer who filters all he sees through his notebook and camera. I did that for years as a journalist and prefer to participate. However, I do feel I have let too many moments pass by unnoted and watched them blur into the darkness at the back of my head.
There was that time in Niamey when I drank too much beer and went to a nightclub where expatriates danced with their aboriginal girlfriends. I remember watching those women, so pretty and happy and clean, knowing that twenty-five miles away lived other women who would never know this life. They pounded millet for dinner and hauled water from wells miles away while their countrywomen danced to hip-hop in clean white dresses. Then there was the time in a village called Tabla on the night of a full moon. It was the brightest night light the village had seen in a month, and they stayed up late to dance, and play, and sing. Once I caught fire trying to keep a gaggle of youth offenders from blowing up, and my friend Paige sat with me in the emergency room as the doctors took skin off my right hand and leg. She held my left hand and kept talking to me so I wouldn't see what the doctors were doing.
There was the night when I was seventeen and my friend Dirk and I, skipping out on our senior prom, drove to the “big city” of Portland, Maine to find some action. We ended up splitting an ice-cream cake and taking a long walk on the rocks of Pemaquid Point during a blackout. I met children in El Salvador who laughed at my bad Spanish as I interviewed them about hurricane Mitch and how it felt to have their entire village washed away by a flood. I got proposals of marriage then, from pretty teenagers who wanted someone to take them to “El Norte.” “Fifteen will get you 20 in the states,” one U.S. Soldier told me. “Here it will get you a wife who cooks.” One girl had pale blue eyes. A few years later, I'd make my own proposal of marriage, on top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. We rode the elevator down in silence. The pounding of poorly aimed hammers in New Orleans's Ninth Ward made a sound like rebirth, but there are only echoes now.
I remember these moments, but I didn't capture them. What did the nightclub smell like? What beer was I drinking? How did cool moonlight feel on the hot sands of the Sahara? What kind of ice-cream cake did we eat? What did we talk about as we walked the rocks? What did Paige say to me to keep my attention through the Demerol haze? What was that New Orleans barber's name and why did he rebuild his shop where no one lived to grow hair? How did I feel?
I write, sure, but I don't want to live only through my words. I like it out here in the dirt. But I do wish I'd captured a few more of those butterflies.