Oonas

Today I’m finally getting around to the mundane task of shelving the past few years’ worth of Moleskine notebooks. Every time I fill a notebook with journal entries, I add it to a pile in my closet, and when that pile starts to loom too ominously, I take each notebook, use a silver Sharpie to write the relevant dates on the spine, and then shelve it alongside its fellows.

Worth a shot

Today’s closet pile contains the ten notebooks I’ve filled since July, 2015. When I shelve my journals, I occasionally dip into a random entry or two to see what I was doing or thinking at any given point in my past. (Spoiler alert: the things I was doing on any random day in 2015, the year after, or the year after that are largely the same as what I did yesterday or today. The more the dates on the calendar change, the more human nature and a thing called karma stay the same.)

And so on Saturday, November 21, 2015, I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which I had mixed feelings about:

Art, etc.

I don’t buy Gilbert’s glowing talk of magic, but I agree with what she says about permission. It is too easy to fall into the trap of seeking either permission or legitimacy rather than simply doing what you do because you enjoy doing it.

The only thing keeping me blogging all these years is the fact I enjoy it, and the only thing that’s kept me teaching all these years (even in the face of perpetual disappointment) is the fact I can’t picture myself doing anything else. In some cases, it pays to be stubborn, just keeping one’s head down doing one’s thing because that’s how you work–slowly and gradually, like water wearing away stone.

My life’s work of blog and journal entries has grown like a stalagmite, each drop gradually growing the thing incrementally. You can’t see the progress–it’s too slow for that–but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Enter only

Three years and a couple months after writing those works, they still ring true. I’m still stubbornly journaling, blogging, and teaching even though none of those activities have led to consistently full-time employment: I just journal, blog, and teach because these are the things I do. The motivation is both internal and intrinsic: if I weren’t writing and teaching, I don’t know what else I’d do with myself. So page by page, day by day, I build up a stack of notebooks that gather dust on my shelves: a life in handwritten lines.

Meow

I’m slowly re-reading my hand-written journals, starting with one I began in August, 2002: nearly ten years ago, when I began journaling in large, lined Moleskine notebooks that now fill a shelf of their own.

Blue

It’s strange and surreal to have a day-to-day chronicle of one’s own life, an account that’s infinitely more raw and personal than anything I’d share on my blog. I’ve always enjoyed reading writers’ journals: my fondness for May Sarton, for instance, comes from her prose journals, not her poetry, and I love reading the mundane thoughts of essayists such as Virginia Woolf and Henry David Thoreau. I’ve intermittently kept a journal since high school, but I destroyed most of my scattered and self-absorbed notebooks from high school, college, and even the early days of graduate school. Only in 2002 did I start keeping the journals I kept.

Little rebel

It’s interesting to eavesdrop on another’s mind; it’s interesting to see how the rhythms of thought get patterned into prose. When you read the journal of a writer you’re familiar with, you can recognize in embryonic form the ideas and images that appear in later published pieces. One fascinating aspect of reading excerpts from Thoreau’s 1851 journal with my former writing students, for instance, is the way bits of Thoreau’s later essays appear there: for instance, scattered passages that ultimately appeared in the essay “Walking,” which was published in its present form only after Thoreau’s death.

Pastel

When you read your own journal, you can trace the foreshadowing of a story whose outcome you know, having lived it. In 2002, my father was diagnosed with a cancer I now know he survived; in 2002, I applied and began training for an online teaching job I still have. In 2002, I knew my first marriage was doomed but didn’t have the courage to end it: that wouldn’t happen until two years later. In 2002, I lived with, tended, and had as my constant companion a dog in the prime of life who I couldn’t envision ever growing old, much less dying.

Orange

When literary scholars read the journals, letters, and other ephemera of published authors, they are looking for the seeds of greatness: how did this artist take the thoughts in her or his head and commit them to paper? When I read my own journals, I’m similarly looking for suggestive patterns, but only as they provide insight into personality: who was I then, and what happened in the interim to make me who I am now?

Buddha with spray cans

I think it’s significant, somehow, that it took me ten years to complete my PhD; I taught for just over ten years at Keene State; and now I’m revisiting nearly ten years of journal entries that offer their own partial slice of both experiences. Now that Reggie’s dead and I’ve left Keene State, it feels like it’s time to move onto something new–something Next. When I finished my dissertation, colleagues warned me of the let-down graduates often feel in the absence of a Big Project…but when I finished my dissertation, I quickly moved onto the big transitions of divorce, life as a single woman, marriage to J, and ultimately moving from Keene. Only now do I feel like the emotional aftermath–Buddhists would say the karma–of so many changes is starting to clear, providing an opportunity for me to discern my next step. What better way to figure out what to do with the next ten years of my life than by re-visiting my journals with their day-to-day account of the past ten years?

Reaching

In the Importance of Being Earnest, one of Oscar Wilde’s characters famously quipped, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” And so this weekend, apropos of nothing, I took from my bookshelf the very first Moleskine notebook I ever filled and began reading a random slice of something sensational.

Clinging

Reading one of your own journals is bizarrely fascinating, like window-peeping on an exhibitionist neighbor. Here is this seemingly familiar character viewed in an unaccustomed guise: should I watch with voyeuristic interest or should I politely avert my eyes?

The journal I pulled from the shelf dates from August, 2002, when I was working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way with a friend and subsequently trying diligently (and with mixed success) to keep regular morning pages. What I ended up writing was a day-by-day account of my first marriage at one of its critical junctures: the last autumn my then-husband and I lived in our old house in Hillsboro, NH. Within a year, we’d sold that house and moved into the rented apartment in Keene where I still stay during the week; within two years, we’d separated before our eventual divorce.

Climbing

Re-reading one of your own journals is like re-reading a murder mystery: now that you know how the story is going to end, you can pay attention to the clues you previously missed. In retrospect, I see all the signs pointing to my first marriage’s demise, and this makes these particular journal entries especially painful to read. I cringe, for instance, at the number of times I mention sleeping in the living room in a favorite chair where Reggie would curl beside me before taking his accustomed spot sprawled on the couch. In retrospect, I clearly see how my then-husband and I used our house (and even our dog) as a buffer between us, the simple avoidance of going to bed conveniently shielding us from the awkwardness of intimacy. Had I known then that there is life after divorce–had I known then that I’d thrive on my own, and that I’d eventually (unimaginably!) re-marry–would have I have lingered so long in a marriage that was so clearly not working?

It’s all there on the pages: the bone loneliness, the oft-repeated and pointless arguments, the frustrations over housework, finances, and work. In the fall of 2002, I was teaching at two different colleges, working part-time as a freelance technical writer, doing occasional word-processing work for a lawyer in Boston, and plodding away at a dissertation I thought I’d never finish. I was doing everything in my power to pay the mortgage on a house I couldn’t afford while my then-husband was at home not walking the dog, not doing the dishes, not doing the laundry, and not cooking and cleaning. In one exasperated journal entry, I silently wondered why anyone imagined that Atlas, the mythical character who holds the world, was male when it was so obvious to me that it was women like me who shouldered the world’s burdens. In the fall of 2002–one year after 9/11, and two years before my divorce would be finalized–I silently wondered how much more I could stand.

Cornered

Whenever I consider the “Me” I was when I was unhappily married, I want to reach out to her: I want somehow to send my voice across time to tell myself how things turn out. Reading these old journal entries, I want to reach across the years to hug that tired, lonely, frustrated woman I was; I want to send her to bed for the rest she so clearly deserved, and I want to reassure her that she really doesn’t have to carry the weight of the world. I want to tell her that everything works out fine in the end: the dissertation gets done, the divorce isn’t the disaster she might have predicted it to be, and it doesn’t really matter, ultimately, whether she finished the dishes, the laundry, and the cooking and cleaning on any given day.

If the woman I am today could talk with the woman I was then, I’d tell her something sensational: that in a world of second chances, I came home from walking the dog this morning to find my very own Atlas had done the dishes while I was gone.

No parking

There’s always a Christmas-morning kind of thrill when I start a new Moleskine, the page under my pen feeling crisp and fresh. What pleasant excitement there is in the expansive possibilities of a fresh new notebook waiting to be filled! It’s like starting a new semester, where you have the possibility of doing good on past promises: a fresh chance, the opportunity of a do-over. Maybe this time won’t be a re-hash of past missteps: maybe this time you’ll get things right.

National Registry of Historic Places

I have a ritual for the start of a new Moleskine. I open and discard the cellophane wrap and take off the paper band, pressing sharp creases to preserve the folds left by the notebook’s edges. I put this paper band and the “history” pamphlet that comes with every new Moleskine into the back pocket. Then I sort through the stuff from the previous notebook’s pocket, taking out duplicate ticket stubs and the envelope of perpetual carry-overs I faithfully transfer from one notebook to the next: a calendar, leftover money from past trips to Canada and Ireland, and a handful of pictures of J and Reggie. I put these into the new notebook’s pocket, thereby initiating it. This is a kind of continuity, assuring that even a new notebook has some history behind it, like starting a new fire from embers of the previous.

Because I use my Moleskine pocket to store ticket stubs, I end up with a kind of scrapbook or time capsule of good times. When I sort through the old notebook’s pocket, I’m revisiting recent adventures: museum visits, sporting events, films. It’s a reminder of things I’ve done and places I’ve been, an implicit promise that these good times will continue in this new notebook’s “next chapter.”

Stop

If I didn’t have this way of keeping track of days–of literally keeping time–I’d have to invent one, but this method works (for me) as good as any. Now that I keep my daily to-do lists in my notebook, I have that additional kind of daily record–an account of how I spent my time. Although I hardly ever go back to revisit a truly old notebook, they’re all there on the shelf I want to dip into my own history: a silent record of days past.

I like keeping notebooks for their own sake, even if I don’t go back to “use” them. Like a time capsule, my notebooks exist as artifacts in the layered archaeology of my own life, each day piling atop its predecessor. Someday, perhaps, I’ll go back and be amazed at how I used to live my life; someday when I’m older, I think, even this record of mundane to-do’s and their accompanying dramas–these daily obsessions–will fascinate like windows into an age then forgotten. What was it like, I’ll wonder, to be a month over 40, in mid-winter, writing and alive? My notebooks (if nothing else) will remember and be able to tell.

I wrote these paragraphs in my journal this past Saturday on the occasion of filling my latest Moleskine. I always feel a surge of satisfaction when I’m able to turn the page from one notebook to another, and this particular page-turning marked a noteworthy milestone: the 20th Moleskine I’ve filled since I started using them in August, 2002.