Notes from My Phone
by Michelle Junot
Mason Jar Press, 2016
In the book, 84 Charing Cross Road, co-author and protagonist Helen Hempf documents a 20-year-long relationship through letters between Helen in New York and Marks & Co. in London. Due to their correspondence being business in nature, the element of literature within the collection of epistles is a happy surprise. Both Hempf and the bookseller’s staff, primarily the chief buyer Frank Doel, open up to the other slowly until soon the correspondence evolves into a friendship. And in this book of happenstance, their genuine personalities unveil themselves without the reserve one has when publicly forced into intimacy.
This refers to all honest moments, the candid photo, the telephone doodle, the shower song: we are most ourselves when we are not looking.
Notes from my Phone by Michelle Junot documents these moments. A collection of lists, reminders, ideas, journal entries, all taken down in her phone over the course of five years, the book is part poetry, part memoir. The entries are vulnerable, funny, and present a true to life mindset of a woman in her early twenties: A woman who deals with heartbreak, growing up, death, jobs, and the perils of a mouse-infested house.
Junot opens in an airport with an astute observation after getting an upgrade to first class. “I want to write about the language in first class, but the language isn’t different/ it’s the props that changed.” (18) That line works for growing up as much as it works as a cheeky inverse to the progression of the book: as Junot’s prop list stays the same, her language matures.
Some pages later, she shares a list:
These lists—workout routines, groceries, bills, body measurements, worries, and goals—remind the reader that much of who we are is in our tasks. Minutia persist through major events as well as our dreams and prayers. Junot returns over and over to her God for comfort and her subconscious for ideas—or, as she puts it, for “a platform to experience impossible realities over and over, replaying the outcomes with different variables.” These habits guide her as she matures through the book.
And mature she does. Five years is a long time in one’s early twenties, and throughout the middle of the book, a shift occurs. “How can so much happen between two Sundays?” she asks in the midst of developing an essay idea. “Age old idea of taking things for granted, and yet it hits hard with a force.”(126)
Though she continues with her daily routines, she begins to look outward—planes falling out of the sky, shootings. She demands it from herself: “Hey Michelle,” she asks during a note/ journal entry in which she struggles with a disappointment, “why don’t you just chill… and/ pray for someone besides yourself.” (173)
The tone shifts, sadly, when the blogging begins. (And Junot recognizes this herself, according to her preface.) Her awareness of an audience begins to creep in and the reader begins to feel like they are no longer observing but being spoken to: the inevitable twist of any kind of documentation in a world where letters are posts, pictures are snaps, and our prayers are blogs. Soon after a while the quiet space we create to talk to ourselves and our God becomes a platform. Towards the end of the book, Junot responds to a national tragedy and begins to reprimand the general “you” and asks, “Do a little self discovery without updating your status…” (191)—only drawing attention to the possibility that this intimate format, her quiet thoughts, might have suddenly become another status update.
This is the pitfall of modern writers. This is the refreshing difference with Helen Hempf’s customer inquiries and casual correspondence. Those letters were never considered as blog material and therefore never ran the risk of becoming self-aware; they never considered the possibility of another audience beyond the recipients of her letters.
And this is the pitfall of the modern individual. We relax and let go for a moment and immediately wonder if we should document this reality.
Despite the slips of audience awareness, Junot still keeps a thorough documentation of who she is and who she strives to be (please remind me to write another review of how this book serves as the perfect devotional for the “young professional”). Her lists progress from the simple “to do” to the complicated “goals” and “how I spend my time,” showing that she is no longer thinking only about today, but someone planning ahead for her bigger future.
And the reader—well this reader—believes that all these things she sets out to do will get done.