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Physical Graffiti

The scrap of paper was lying on the carpet, and at first I thought it was trash, something I’d yanked out in a hasty cleaning of my purse. I have all kinds of notes like these, grocery lists and random admonitions to myself (“Be Not Afraid!” “Call USAA”), and eventually I haul the whole sheaf out, rip them up, and toss them all into the garbage can.

This one was like the others, pulled from a narrow, wire-bound reporter’s notebook, its broken, curly paper hinges ruffling the top. I’m not a reporter but have long worked in media, and I’ve found reporters’ notebooks perfect for just the kinds of lists I mentioned. I assumed this page was from the last couple of months, or at least the past year.

It was not what I expected. Scrawled across the top of the page in my nearly-illegible cursive was this quoted statement:

“They’re people who would be serial killers if they had the balls, but instead they become art critics.”

And below that, I had noted the author: S. Flora, 8/7/01, 11:29 a.m.

Reading, I felt a physical wave pass through me, and I had to steady myself, as though there’d suddenly been a stiff wind blowing through. What is Time, that a simple piece of paper could make it actually contract in me? My sense of my own body, my own sense of presence in the world was, for a few unstable seconds, gone.

The paper was what remained. After a quick beat, I recovered myself, and started the work of active memory:

“S” was my work colleague at NPR, which was a much less slick and looser media outlet then than it is now. Exiled to an isolated office on the top floor of its DC headquarters, S. and I logged long, long hours writing funding proposals and reports, but also conducting a random, daylong conversation over the wooly turquoise cubicle dividers.

S. was from somewhere in the Midwest, tall with rangy ringlets of hair. She was a great teller of stories, and she and I both made fun of the “I went to college in Boston” false-modesty classism that was all around us in the early 2000s DC. She once said that her grandfather was a construction site manager, and he said that if you were supposed to be at work on the site at 8:00 a.m., you should be holding your hammer up, poised over a nail and waiting, at exactly 7:59. (You see that this has stayed with me.)

I don’t recall the context of S.’s statement that I was so careful to record—we’d typically range from bands to religion to our parents and feminism, then back again—but it strikes me that I wrote it down so meticulously.

And not only that, but that the note had accomplished its exact purpose: surviving. I’d been moving around some of the many books in my room, and I finally guessed that it must have fluttered out from between the pages, and onto the floor.

It’s not so much the content of the reference that stands out to me now, though: I’m not too interested in whatever it was we were discussing—probably something from, an outlet I started reading when they’d briefly wanted to forge something called a “content partnership” with NPR. Whatever that was.

Instead, it’s that careful placement in the river of existence that hits me now: the name, date, and time stand out with the force of a bullet. Even to read it puts a little jab of fear into me—the same way I felt jolted every time the Los Angeles police badge popped up on that flat red field at the end of the credits of Dragnet reruns on Channel 12.

The ironic thing is, the scrawled quote on that piece of paper, signed and dated, is an actual, tangible thing from August 8, 2001—a kind of proof of existence for the hand that wrote the comment down. Thinking it over, I remember that August 8, 2001, was a Friday, because the ticket stub in the drawer of the plate rack in my dining room tells me that my husband (then of just one year!) and I saw Apocalypse Now Redux that Saturday night, at a movie theatre on Wisconsin Avenue that is now a CVS—check Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review for another instance of how something changing can amplify the way that it stays the same.

In some ways, that scrap of paper is more real than I am: I’m certainly not the person I was those twenty years ago, and that’s not only a statement about maturity, or growing older—by this point, the very cells and the water that binds them have turned over innumerable times now.

Thinking about that had me rooting around in the basement for my old copy of A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia. I couldn’t find it, but it was easy to go find lists of their aphorisms, and I remembered how much I had loved them:

“Everything flows and nothing stays.” — Heraclitus

“The Greeks are wrong to recognize coming into being and perishing; for nothing comes into being nor perishes, but is rather compounded or dissolved from things that are. So they would be right to call coming into being composition and perishing dissolution.” — Anaxagoras

Coming into being and dissolution—I guess that’s the feeling I have, standing in my bedroom, holding on to the piece of paper with S. Flora’s quotation. S. ended up getting another job not too long after August 8, 2001—then became a Buddhist nun and after that, a psychotherapist. I imagine she’d be amused by all of my reflections here—what’s slipped away, and what has remained.

Because, for all the flux, something does remain. Even through mystery:

No man knows, or ever will know, the truth about the gods and about everything I speak of: for even if one chanced to say the complete truth, nevertheless one would not know it.” — Xenophanes

The piece of paper flowers outward, fragrant—into the Infinite.


Caroline Langston was a regular contributor to Image’s Good Letters blog, and is writing a memoir about the U.S. cultural divide. She has contributed to Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog, and aired several commentaries on NPR’s All Things Considered, in addition to writing book reviews for Image, Books and Culture, and other outlets. She is a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, and a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She lives outside Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.