a habit of personal accounting

“Why do women keep diaries? (Or journals or notebooks.) Dissatisfaction with the ways love and work have been defined for the female is the unconscious impulse that prompts many to pour out their feelings on paper and to acquire the habit of personal accounting on some more or less regular basis. The form has been an important outlet for women partly because it is an analogue to their lives: emotional, fragmentary, interrupted, modest, not to be taken seriously, private, restricted, daily, trivial, formless, concerned with self, as endless as their tasks. Confusion about the conflicting demands of love and work in relationship to the authentic self leads to loneliness, by far the most common emotion expressed in diaries; loneliness stemming from either physical isolation from normal outlets for discourse, or from psychological alienation from one’s milieu….”

– Mary Jane Moffat, from the Foreword to Revelations: Diaries of Women (1974) 

fossilized in rock

In a collection of excerpts from writers’ journals, I stumble upon Gretel Ehrlich – travel writer, poet – and I am moved by her explorations of love, loss, struggle, and the way she expresses the fullness of her life. In the spring of 1985 (her 39th year), she writes this:

 All these pent up lusts, passions, sorrows, rages at political corruption, corrosion of the spirit, unnecessary deaths, discriminations, impossible loves…what are these? Why do I collapse across my writing table, the sun full on me, the day spectacular, and cry? Why do I feel, not bored, but unused (in the best sense) by a society enslaved? Against mediocrity, against a society that refuses to find solutions to real problems, but only tinkers, whose ingenuity is restricted to the perpetuation of the frivolous…against this and against the living dead, the brain-dead, the dead-beats, the heartbeats that make no noise – what sharpness and number of swords could prick holes into the dogma of greed?

This – my journal, this project – has been, I have come to understand, a record of the struggle of my own 39th year. A year when the inward struggles come up squarely against the outward self. A kind of mid-point. Looking to the past, looking to the alternate possible present, to the future and its myriad unknowable manifestations – all the while, moving inexorably forward in the present moment.

And when the present moment is as luminous as it is (my own ample life, in all its richness, and here again, Ehrlich: “I don’t cry about my life, but cry because of its fullness.”) it is difficult not to want to dismiss the struggle.

But it is very much present.

I woke this morning early, so early, before even the suggestion of light, with the single thought: where does all the past love go?

And by love, I don’t mean romantic love, although certainly that is a part – but all the love – all the passions and rages and longings and imaginings – all the wishes and the worries that we have had for ourselves and for the people whose lives touched our own. All the energies we put into this person or that, or this cause or that. All the life force we have poured out of ourselves, into the lives of others – beautiful testaments as they are to our human capacity to feel deeply, to live fully – where does all that go?

Rick Bass, from his journal, “An Oilman’s Notebook: Oil Notes:”

Nothing can truly disappear. It can only be rearranged, so that it gives that appearance.

The hydrogen and carbon atoms are not smashed; they are not destroyed. Their form is merely altered.

It has something to do with fear, I think.

Fear that there will be a time when I will not remember what it was like to live with such intensity.

“I was once your age, I had those feelings too,” my mother used to say, as a way to preface some admonition, some prohibition that made me think quite the opposite: If you ever, ever felt this way, you would understand. And rather than admonish, you would give me comfort. And rather than forbid, you would coax my own wisdom from me. It cannot be possible: You were never, never my age.

Talking about one’s children makes it simple, wraps it all up in platitudes: “I don’t know where the time went.” “It all has gone by so quickly.” “Wasn’t it only yesterday,” and etc., etc., ad nauseum. In this way, we can talk with other people in acceptable ways. Not drive ourselves mad with probing, without trying to plumb our own depths, all while standing around with our salon manicures, dressed in corporate casual.

We don’t have to say, coffee in hand at the open house, picking at the cheese cubes with plastic tongs: This daughter of mine, in all her radiant beauty, as she opens up to the world, reminds me – in ways that I cannot fully articulate – that I am moving closer, each day, to my own death.

(Please don’t misunderstand: I am thankful for blessings such as these.)

I will admit it: I am nostalgic for those years when I walked around like an open wound. There was the feeling that something essential about who I was, who I was trying to learn how to become was right there – throbbing at the surface, waiting to be discovered.

And as the years went on, I learned to manage (with varying degrees of success, as anyone who has ever been close to me can attest) that level of vulnerability. As we all do. We learn to modulate our passions. To become in control. And of course, this is a necessary social imperative, to control one’s passions. But where, I can’t help but wonder, does that life force – that passion, that flame – go?

There is much more to say, but time, relentless, moves forward, and so I again turn to Gretel Ehrlich:

At every moment, we’re fractured this way, going toward death, then life, so there is, everywhere, a constant movement, a swelling and deflating, an urge to accommodate opposites. Life magnetizes death and death magnetizes life; we grapple at the edge of things, save ourselves though we don’t know it, thrash in the current, hold out compasses that do not give us true north, and leave behind only the beautiful, dunelike, evanescent ripples of each foray, fossilized in rock.

May these ripples, these bits of energy and pixels of light, leave a record of my journeys out. May they point me where I need to go. 

where it was, there you must begin to be

I meet a friend for a glass of wine after work and we talk about the sadness that creeps in around the edges of an afternoon, this particular afternoon.

Well-schooled in therapeutic language, we ask each other: What are the triggers? What are the strategies to manage the sadness?

We sip our wine. We cannot remember triggers or strategies. We’ve forgotten our tools – the lists we make of ways to keep the sadness at bay. In any case, on this particular afternoon, the familiar tools are inadequate:

Take a warm bath

Take a walk with a friend

Read a magazine or a book that you enjoy

Go shopping!

Where are the lists that say:

Sit at your desk and hold your head in your hands. Weep until you cannot hold your head up any longer. When you hear someone walking down the hall, toward you, mash tissues into your eye sockets. Then stand. Smile. Say: Yes?

It is not as bad as all this. We laugh at our own melodrama. We are offered more wine, but we hold our hands up and shake our heads. I tell her about someone I used to know who – for weeks at a time – could not get out of bed. Could not drag herself out of bed to stand at the counter, make herself tea. 

I have been reading excerpts from the journals and notebooks of writers. I take some comfort in recognizing familiar preoccupations, anxieties.

Where it was, there you must begin to be. There are no depths, only distances. Memory shuffles, scans, forages. Freud’s geological model implies that last year is deeper in memory than last week, which we all know to be untrue. The memories we value are those we have given the qualities of dream and narrative, and which we may have invented. – Guy Davenport 

My friend suggests that it is some sort of planetary alignment. Some planet returns into its orbit, another leaves. I remember hearing this explanation for the strange madness of my early thirties. Every thirty years or so, I was told, Saturn returns. It fucks you up. Great shifts in your life can happen. You can go a little crazy. Again, like the fortune teller’s promise (“a brilliant match”) this idea lodges in my head and becomes its own truth, its own seed of false hope. I want to believe: There are explanations, there are forces larger than us that move us on this path or another. What a relief it would be to know that not everything is our responsibility to determine.

Another friend of mine writes to me about her spiritual practice. About the discipline of wanting less. Craving is a source of suffering, she says. Want less and you will not be unhappy.

I admire this. Yes, I think I really do admire it. But I do not understand it, in a useful, real way.

Dream: Sticking safety pins in my stomach, and then closing them as if it were natural. In China. Everybody leaves houses because there will be an earthquake. Thunderbolts come but fall from the sea. City is saved. Someone tells me Henry is dead. Tremendous grief. I look for him everywhere. – Anais Nin

In the evening, when we talk about our days, I tell M. that I am feeling a bit low, but that I know: not every day can be a day we buy tickets to Paris.

I am embarrassed, baffled by the fullness of our lives. There is something unsettling about having the things that you want, and still wanting. I have already said too much.

Last night, I dream that I am having a dinner party. It begins as a small one, and then suddenly, it becomes larger – thirty, forty people now are coming to my home. We look for chairs – old lawn chairs come up moldy from the basement. The office chair on wheels. Shards of glass are floating in the soup. A man I used to love is wandering through the hallways, looking at the photographs of my family. I am running toward the kitchen, but as I run toward it, it recedes like an ocean wave pulled back to the sea.

Morning. I walk, I don’t cry about my life, but cry because of its fullness. The road is dry, kiln-dried with the glaze cracked or is it porcelain without a sheen? The birds’ flight grows effortless as the drought continues, pulls the drawstring of moisture. In the colorless sky – what is there? – the geologists visit again and I turn groundward from shifting shadows and heats, changing breezes, wafting sounds of another drainage; choke cherries ripening and the grass dying and the squash growing obscenely large in soil that cradles shallow seas and submitted to the ash that fell continuously for ten thousand years…  – Gretel Ehrlich