Retreat journal - March 1994

I recently discovered a journal I kept when I was on a week-long retreat in Rhode Island in 1994, when my then-husband and I lived in Boston. I don’t remember journaling during that retreat; as far as I remember, we were told not to write, just as we were discouraged from reading. So when and how did I scribble a substantial number of pages in looping longhand?

Dharma room Buddha

This morning I started reading Hourglass, a thin memoir of “time, memory, [and] marriage” by Dani Shapiro. In the opening pages of the book, Shapiro discovers a journal she kept on her honeymoon some eighteen years earlier. Like me, Shapiro doesn’t remember keeping this journal; even more oddly, it is a journal where she refers to herself in the third person, as “D.”

Shapiro is a memoirist; I am not. I continue to keep a journal all these years later; Shapiro’s honeymoon notebook, on the other hand, is significant in large part because it is one of the last she kept.

Diamond Hill Zen Monastery

Because of this, Shapiro and I have different approaches to memory and journaling. When she did keep a journal, Shapiro did so as an orderly act of closure. By laying down the details of her life in writing, Shapiro suggests they could be filed away and forgotten:

Keeping journals was a practice for me, way of ordering my life. It was an attempt to separate the interior from the exterior. To keep all my trash–this is the way I thought of it–in one place.

I, on the other hand, lack a memoirist’s memory: I rarely write about my childhood, for example, because I remember so little of it. For me, journaling is a necessary act of remembrance. Knowing I won’t remember anything I haven’t written down, I trust my days to the page so that it, my journal, will remember my life for me.

Retreat (not) in progress

Shapiro and I have different perspectives on memory and journaling, but we share one thing: we each have earned the wisdom of hindsight. Shapiro reads her honeymoon journal after being married for eighteen years, and I am re-reading my retreat musings more than two decades after I wrote them. Both Shapiro and I peek into the lives of our younger selves with a knowledge of how things turn and are turning out.

People sometimes talk about the advice they’d give their younger selves: what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? This is an interesting if useless exercise: useless because our younger selves would never listen to the advice of us oldsters, and interesting because it forces us to take stock of the wisdom we’ve acquired the hard and messy way.

I’m not sure whether Shapiro offers any advice to her younger self: I haven’t read far enough into her memoir to know. But all I’d say to my younger, greener self is this: Keep writing, and keep everything you write. One day, you’ll marvel to think you ever were so young and so green.

I shot the photo of my 1994 journal this afternoon and the photos of the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery in Cumberland, Rhode Island some ten years ago.

Face to face

There is only the solitary self facing the page.
–Dani Shapiro, Still Writing

I’m reading a ragtag assortment of books at the moment: this seems to be how my brain works. If I were a naturally disciplined, focused person, I’d read one book at a time, and those books would be on the same or at least similar topics, one logically following the next.

How are you?

But instead, I’m an omnivorous reader set loose in a banquet world. I read books I’ve browsed on library shelves, books I’ve heard reviewed (or even briefly mentioned) on the radio, or books quoted in other books. If in passing conversation I hear someone mention a book that might be interesting, I’ll add it to my to-read list and request it from the library. Some people have an in-depth knowledge of a particular topic, but for better or worse I’m a dabbler who is easily distracted in diverse directions.

One of the books I’m currently reading is Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, a book that one of my colleagues mentioned in the context of a yoga retreat she had gone on. The book is a ragtag assortment of short musing on writing: the kind of inspirational stuff writers always have (and presumably always will) publish because it’s easier for aspiring writers to read about writing than it is to face (and fill) the blank page.

In progress

The blank page is a mirror that reflects your insecurities, doubts, and fears. Writing is a form of meditation because it requires a quiet, unheralded kind of courage. The world is quick to praise (and rightfully so) the obvious courage of heroes running into burning buildings, leaping in front of oncoming trains, or standing up to bullies to save another. But it takes its own kind of quiet, inconspicuous courage to face the blank page with nothing more than an embryonic hope that something you say could be of use–inspiring or encouraging or even just entertaining–to someone else.


Last week I heard a radio interview with Sherman Alexie, who was discussing a children’s book he’s written about a young Native American boy who shares his father’s name. In the interview, Alexie mentioned reading Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day as a boy. Alexie said it was the first time he’d encountered a brown-skinned boy–someone like him–in a book, and the moment was life-changing. It was a moment of realizing he wasn’t alone in the world: there were other little brown-skinned boys who looked at the world the way he did.

I grew up as a little white girl in a world full of books about little white girls. But because I grew up as an introvert in a family of extroverts, I grew up befriending people in books more deeply than I did people in the real world.

BBQ dad's unite!

I remember wanting to be Anne Labastille when I was a girl reading about her work in Guatemala to study and save endangered grebes, and I remember feeling like I’d met not just a friend but a version of my own true self when I first read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. These were books I felt I could have written because they were inspired by eyes that viewed the world how I did.

Surveying his work

It takes courage for a solitary self to face the empty page: there seems to be so many more important things to do. But writers face the page with a deep-seated faith that somebody, someday, might find in their words an idea or insight they’ve waited their entire life to hear.