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Jim McDermottJune 14, 2023
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

In May, people showing the contents of their Apple iPhone Notes app became a trend on TikTok. There was the woman babysitting and bored at midnight who uses her notes to keep track of the things she wants to tell her therapist. And Kenzie Frank, after a series of very practical things—a reminder to return books to a friend; gym routines and tips; a May shopping list—suddenly asks this: “do chickens get their fingernails cut.”

My favorite, though, is “Rylea,” who confides that she has only just realized that not everyone keeps a list of the things that annoy them. “I think about this list every day,” she says, before sharing it. (To each their own, but saying the thing that annoys you most of all the things in the world is “people who pronounce the “g” in words that end in ‘-ing’” is certainly a choice.)

The more I have watched and read, the more fascinated I have become about what we might find here at America if we shared some of the contents of our Notes apps.

In May, people showing the contents of their Apple iPhone Notes app became a trend on TikTok.

So I asked. And my friends, the staff of America does not disappoint.

Our new summer intern Laura Oldfather immediately sent me photos of the outfits she’s worn each day since she and fellow intern Brigid McCabe started at America last week.

This led to an immediate and very important conversation about how exactly she was able to paste portions of photos of herself to Notes. (Something for my Notes: Update your iOS.)

Senior editor Robert David Sullivan keeps back-ups of his Amtrak passes so that if the conductor comes around to check in the first few minutes when there’s no internet service, he can show it. He also discovered a list of birthday gift ideas for our past editor in chief Matt Malone that he had gotten from a local bartender. (Neither Tito’s nor Wild Irish Rose made the list.)

Jill Rice, one of our O’Hare fellows, had what may very well be the oldest note of anyone: her very first note, written in 2012 when Jill was 12 years old. The first chapter of the third book in the Heroes of Olympus series, The Mark of Athena, had just been released, she explained. And before the novel was released in full, Jill used her Notes app to write her own fanfic version of what the second chapter should be.

The more I have watched and read, the more fascinated I have become about what we might find here at America if we shared some of the contents of our Notes apps.

“And when the book came out,” she told me, “my version was better.”

Cynthia Hornblower, the executive office and advancement manager, does not use Notes much herself. But what she does have on her Notes app are things that her daughter wrote long ago—a colorful block of emojis that should hanging in the MOMA and this:

The green fish wore blue shoes
The green fish wore blue shoes
Billy bum bumper
Billy bum bumper
Adam ant ate apples
Adam ant ate apples
Run up run down fast
Run up run down fast
My mother’s pie
My mother’s pie
My hat is brown
My hat is brown
Bread and butter is very dry
Bread and butter is very dry
We jump high often
We jump high often
Even George Bush drives fast
Even George Bush drives fast
Every good bird does fine
Every good bird does fine
You get a token every time you win
You get a token every time you win

Is it a poem? Some sort of typing challenge? The next great Dr. Seuss story? Cynthia cannot remember, and I love it more because she can’t. Sometimes our Notes are like prehistoric cave paintings, a mysterious and yet profound trace of something that we will never know.

I had a similar experience reading the subject lines Ken Arko, our senior director of creative services and business development, sent me from the last seven days of his notes: “Hike,” “R.V.,” “Cilantro,” “Fire dept secretary.” “R.V.,” he tells me later, is for “whenever [he] come[s] across notes or cool stories or people” that feed his dream to own a small R.V. “and travel North America like a whale travels the ocean.” (Note: This is the coolest description of traveling in an R.V. that there ever has been or will be.)

Meanwhile, when he is not producing the great new podcast “Preach,” associate editor Ricardo da Silva, S.J., uses his Notes app to do everything from keeping track of article pitches to remembering his latest weight lifting records.

I especially love his notes from old homilies. “God’s first word is ‘joy,’” he says in a homily on Zechariah and Elizabeth. Really, what more do you need to say than that?

I especially love his notes from old homilies. “God’s first word is ‘joy,’” he says in a homily on Zechariah and Elizabeth. Really, what more do you need to say than that?

A homily on the loaves and the fishes is similar: “Each one would help themselves to less,” he writes on one line. And on the next, “Each one would give a little more.” Somehow it all sounds so much clearer when it’s written in note form like that, like a Zen koan.

I wonder how many other priests and ministers have random kernels of grace like that scattered in sermon notes on their phones.

Probably the most original use of the Notes app I heard from our staff comes from our creative director, Shawn Tripoli. His son wrestles, and during his matches, Shawn sits in the stands typing notes to give him later. Some are comments that sound like what a coach might say: “Go behind. Head to the mat. Hand position.”

And then there’s the cheering, the songs of praise a son might save forever: “Great outside set up. Best ever. You are out the back door. Finished great. Proud of you. Hell yes. You made my night.”

Our notes may be practical or they may be impressionistic. They may be things that we cannot remember or that remain important to us.

My own notes are a hodgepodge of names of people or songs I want to remember; notes I took from different shows I’ve seen, as well as the first draft of a comedic scene I completely forgot I had written in an ice cream shop after seeing “Sweeney Todd,” in which Sweeney’s daughter Johanna, who has just been through an awful lot, breaks up with Anthony, the guy who is kind of partially responsible for her misfortune.

Finally, our human resource consultant Barbara Meehan sent me just this:

Gerry
Dorothy
Daddy
Mama
Lillian
My little boy
Patty
Bobby
Peggy
Betty
Bill
Daisy

When her mother was dying, she explained, there came a point at about 3 a.m. when she started calling out these names. Most of them Barbara and her brother Mike recognized. Gerry is the name of their father; Dorothy their mom’s sister. Lillian was her best friend from high school, Bobby her mom’s brother, who died as a young boy.

Barbara thought “My little boy” might have been their brother Rod, who had died, but it could also be one of the babies her mother had lost to miscarriages. Daisy was actually her 16-year-old cat, who was still alive at the time, but died about a month later. A few names—Bill, Patty—were a mystery.

The only Peggy she had ever heard of was her father’s ex-girlfriend. Barbara confided, “If Peggy’s up in Heaven trying to be with my dad right now, I am going to be so mad.” But apparently her mom kept saying, “It’s O.K., Peggy. It’s O.K.”

Our notes may be practical or they may be impressionistic. They may be things that we cannot remember or that remain important to us. But is it going too far to say there is something holy in the hearing of them, some glimpse not just into their own minds and lives but into something deeper, something fundamental?

I feel confident I will be thinking for a long time about Barbara Meehan’s mom reaching out to the beloved dead that surrounded her as she died; imagining the incredible children’s book Cynthia Hornblower’s daughter could some day write; thinking of Shawn Tripoli in the stands somewhere, furiously typing words of encouragement to his son; and picturing Ken Arko finally making his dream R.V. trip, heading west on I-90 like a whale in the ocean.

Thinking of it all I know I’ll remember: God’s first word is joy.

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