The journal opens, the pen barely touches the paper—and words, like loose pebbles, form themselves into shapes. The writer describes, often in excruciating pain, the sensation of anxiety, of worry. The events, named and accused by the tribunal of language, don't wither, but scrounged under the torrent of words they are tamed. The catharsis of writing engages the angst and holds it at bay.
This is a pivotal instigator. We stand mute in front of loss. Often it is inexplicable, other times expected. Writing immediately after a loss— a montage of a person emerges—before time softens the edges of grief.
When my mother died I wrote pages about her kid gloves. I recalled her washing the gloves and reshaping each hand before placing it on a terry towel. I wrote about going with her to buy sequins. She made vests that shimmered with luminescent colors. I wrote about how she taught me to love coffee houses where we shared sandwiches. I wrote about how she used paper bags to draw dress patterns and how she loved hand sewing although she did own a sewing machine—one with a treadle. My writing became a litany—from her leopard bathrobe to the teacups she collected. Later on I wrote about how she didn't care for cooking and cycled through similar menus, never veering from iceberg lettuce even after I suggested healthier choices.
There's place loss. A friend of mine came from Chicago and moved when he went to college and then moved to a small rural community after years of working on a mid-sized city newspaper. When the chance to run a rural newspaper was offered to him, he jumped at the opportunity. Years later, still ensconced in a small community and loving what he did, he told me,"Every once in awhile I miss the smell of concrete and take a trip back to Chicago."
I've written poems and essays about my neighborhood in the Bronx. The sounds of skates on concrete, the alleys, the empty lot where we played King of the Hill and Kick the Can.
Spend too much time recalling the past and you lose the present. Nostalgia differs from the events we chronicle in a memoir. In one we reflect on the past while in the other the past draws us in and there's the risk of being subsumed by the cloying lavender of nostalgia.
Yet, the journal may offer a place to indulge in a longing for the past.
Once after a disappointing visit to a store that sold candy, I found myself longing for the corner candy store of my childhood. My journal provided a place for my yearning and nostalgia. Whatever happened to those wax lips, or wax bottles filled with sugar tainted water, or small cups of peanut butter confection that came with doll-sized spoons? I pined for long strips of taffy and Double Bubble gum. I visualized myself eating Yellow Bananas and candy dots. Nothing, I thought, compared to sucking a red hot Atomic Fireball that turned my mouth a deep crimson color and left my tongue numb.
Perhaps the strongest impetus is love—be it another person or an animal. Who has not devoted pages to describing the new passion in their life? A friend of mine once asked me if I wanted to read several pages she intended to submit to a new anthology . A call for submissions about your pet
prodded her to write about Sol—her bird. She wrote pages of purple passioned prose about Sol's daily activities and her love for the bird. Sol, I learned, was able to understand two dozen commands and he cocked his head to one side whenever she entered the room.
My love writings were more prosaic. I wrote poems. Poems about dinners where I lovingly described every vegetable in couscous with seven vegetables. I often started with the pate and ended with dessert. In between I wrote of fingers across the table.
Once, with reckless abandon I wrote a risqué love poem and sent it in to an anthology where it was accepted.
Aside from the sidewalk or a speaker's stump or a a meeting hall where else can you pontificate and not deal with hecklers or questions or the other side?
I wrote six pages in longhand, a tiny tight script, all about my anger at people who don't follow the rules, or people who feel that they are above the rules. The rule in particular—cleaning up your dog's mess on the sidewalk. I see dog walkers carrying a plastic bag and discreetly bending down and with their hand in the bag expertly pick up their dog's droppings. I don't ask where they deposit these leavings or what happens to the bag. It is enough to know that they are doing their civic duty.
The day I stepped in the mess left by a dog walker who eschewed their civic responsibility set me off. I was wearing sneakers with a heavily ridged bottom and despite my rubbing my shoe on the grass, across the sidewalk and over a pebbled spot— the smell permeated the area around me. It was only after I found a place to sit and a stick and spent time laborious cleaning out the ridges did my sole return to its prior state.
After my ink tirade I felt better.
We're such a polarized nation that sharing one's political convictions is easiest with those who agree with you. Who has not used their journal to question the sanity of "the other side"? Why don't they see my viewpoint? Why can't they come to the table and listen—or compromise.
Last year I attended a dinner party and without thinking expressed some moderate statement,'. "What are you a Republican?" "No," I immediately responded, "but I don't think we can paint everyone with the same brush." Everything escalated after that—with a truce called before dessert. An uncomfortable white flag truce.
My journal became the repository of the responses I swallowed.
The doubts, the assurances, the questions, the mediations, the prayers, the paths all are fodder for the journal. A journal doesn't require obedience or deference or a singular path. It's a place that provides a clean page and a place to explore.
How many people have penned prayers in the margins of the journal? Or how many people have been angry with God? or rejected God in their journals?
I have a friend who spends time every year writing down her goals for the following year and then revisits those goals during the year to assess her progress. I've tried that, but it doesn't seem to work.
Yet at least once a year I take out my journal and attempt to list those things I'd like to accomplish in the coming year. I'm always sincere and think that my list is attainable. I stopped writing down "Complete a Novel" and then in 2010 I took part in the Write a Novel in a Month competition and actually finished a novel. To say that it was raw is probably an understatement.
Complaints that wear thin when shared with others find a place in a journal. You can write a litany of all your failings, close your computer and move on.
Dreams aren't the same as goals. Goals are rooted in listed objectives. Dreams are entwined with desires and fantasies—woolgathering. Writing about quixotic daydreams, romantic wild-eyed possibilities lures the writer into mythic territory. Perhaps this is where the threads of some novels begin.
How many words are written about peak experiences or experiences of survival in the wilderness? How many words are written about the natural world—from a hike up a mountain to a walk around the local pond? Who hasn't poured out words about the loss of pristine areas?
After climbing Old Rag Mountain, my first significant hike, and after I soaked my blistered feet I wrote pages about scrambling up and over rocks—of hand over hand climbs, and of finally reaching the top. I couldn't stop writing about how I had been smitten with hiking—up.
Forgiveness and Redemption
What writer hasn't written about the thorny issue of forgiveness? How many stories are about liberation, deliverance, atonement? XII
The river is moving
The blackbird must be flyingThirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens ******************************