|Essay from May 2010
"The Lost Piece of Paper"
[Harry left his pieces of paper in reasonably good order. Digging a little deeper, I have found a folder labeled: "Essays, Ready,"
so we'll be dipping into these over the next few months. Here's one that continues the theme from past months, On Writing. ZG]|
Other people my age say they have observed this phenomenon, too -- that we spend an annoying quantity of time searching for lost, or mislaid, pieces of paper. That receipt, that essential part of the phone bill, that phone number jotted down on scrap paper. "It was right here! It has to be right here, now, still! Where is it?"
Perhaps old fingers have more difficulty separating two sheets of paper. I don't remember having this problem fifty years ago. Often the piece that is hiding -- it feels like it has a perverse brain in it and is deliberately annoying me, hiding -- it attaches itself to another piece of identical size and shape. I leaf past it time after time.
Static electricity is marvelous, also. I have torn the place apart, looking for something that just came in today's mail -- it has to be RIGHT HERE! But it isn't. I dump the waste basket, pick through every bit of all that junk mail to find the piece that isn't junk after all, because now I think I want it -- but no way.
Then, when I quit looking, I find it clinging to the underside of that spiral appointment book which I carry with me everywhere and refer to as "my brain." "Were you looking for me?" teases my tormentor. "I was right here all the time! Right where you put me before you covered me with that ugly black thing you're so fond of."
I couldn't find a piece of paper I had covered with notes -- ideas for a story I thought I'd write someday. The impulse to really write the story had become strong recently -- it had to do with plutonium and things that were going into motion in our part of the world. The lost notes were delaying me.
A search got under way -- two desks, file folders in drawers and in boxes, piles and piles of papers and folders, heaps of notes, ideas, outlines for unwritten stories and essays. Some clippings, but not so many as formerly; some magazines, too, but they go out the door when they become more than a year old. Where is that lost piece of paper? Where are my precious notes for that story which I now want to write?
The search uncovered a great deal of other stuff, much of which I had forgotten I had. I wondered in what sense I could say I had it, all that while. And now I have to decide, piece by piece, what to do with it. Do I need to keep this note any longer? What in the world is this? Why did I save it? If I decide to keep it, I'II have to decide what it is, and what to call it. I'll have to name it something, label it! And then file it under -- what?
All that time spent going through piles constituted delay, it felt, and the story whose notes were lost began to percolate still more in my brain; it began to fester, without the notes.
I remembered an old professor of mine, who came home from a year of Hebrew studies at seminaries in Germany, doctorate in hand. The steamship company that brought him home had lost his trunk, forever! He was distraught -- all his precious notes! His department head, world-renowned scholar, who knew forty languages, many of them dead, including Akkaddian and Ugaritic, but who could hardly make himself understood in English, having been brought up in a Pennsylvania-Dutch German-speaking village in southeastern Pennsylvania (he pronounced the name "Hammurabi" in one syllable!) told the new young professor, "That'll make a man of you."
So, I wrote the story, without finding the precious notes. Evidently I didn't need them as much as I thought I did. As I added the finishing touches, I assumed that I was about to find a new definition of the phrase, "split-second." The old one was "the interval of time between the instant the traffic light changes and the instant the guy behind me toots his horn." Now it would be, "the interval of time between the moment when I finish this story and the moment when I find the lost notes."
But, no -- I never did find them, not in a split second, and not ever. I did find notes for four other stories, though, that had hidden themselves from my conscious mind and needed attention. They have since been written. So, it was a new example of "serendipity" that came to the surface.