“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Day 50: Being Alive Twice: On Keeping a Journal, Part One

When our mother was dying, my sister and I found the key to the self-storage place out near Kamms Corner in Cleveland and we found our childhoods and hers stashed in there, in piles and drawers, boxes and under sheets.  It was like she'd been keeping a hope chest, nurturing the hope that one day her girls would come home.  Old report cards.  Toys.  Photo albums.  Letters.  Books.

(I just want to inject here the fantastic news that my sister, Mira Bartok, is up for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Libraries' Association Award for her beautiful memoir, The Memory Palace, in which this storage locker plays a very large part, as does our mother's diaries.)

Among those sweet and heartbreaking items was my diary from age 13 to 17.  It was one of those small, red ones girls used to have: the kind you close up with a little lock you can wear on a chain around your neck like a locket with a heart.  Our mother had picked it open long ago, trying to get clues, I suppose, as to who I was as a teenager and who I was consorting with long after the fact.  I don't envy her trying to figure it out.  The story keeps changing.  Now and then--well, every other page--a new boy's name comes up.  I don't have the book in front of me, but trust me, it's all along the lines of, Bob is so cute!  Dave is a hunk!  Gary gave me a ride on his motorcycle!  And then the one that made me smile when I read it again: I like meeting people from out of state!  I'd been working the counter at McDonald's and a bus-load of athletes from maybe Michigan came in, and I'd enjoyed chatting with them about their lives in that exotic, distant world.

I like meeting people from out of state.  Probably I meant boys from out of state.  Probably I just meant that I liked meeting boys.  But to say--"out of state"--that meant other places, other lands.  That was the closest I could get at that age to voicing this wish: I want to see the world.  That was what I really meant.  And even though my journal was tiny, and even though, in five years, I never filled it, I was asking for something that seemed at the time an improbable wish.  I wanted to get out there and see what there was to see.

Before I started writing this post a few minutes ago, I did an inventory of my journals.  I counted 66, but I'm sure some of them are stashed somewhere.  I don't look through them that much, and when I do it's because I'm writing a memoir piece or a travel essay and I want to check the facts.  Where did my husband eat goat?  What year was it, again?  But sometimes I can open a page and the world comes back.  That's when I know I wasn't as lazy and artless as I usually am in those pages.  I was being nice to my future self in the journal and helping ensure that reading it, to quote the poet Linda Gregg, who was quoting her former lover, the poet, Jack Gilbert: "was like being alive twice."

"More world, just when you think you've seen what there is to see."  Mark Doty writes in Still Life with Oysters and Lemons when he's discussing both a painting he loves, and about "coming back to life after a period of grief."  I'm not currently in a period of mourning, but I know I will be.  And I imagine there's a time when you see the world in black and white and gray, and then one day color returns.  And it comes with the desire to see what there is to see just around you.  He writes:
Desire brings us back.  My exuberant, golden new dog, racing down the sand slopes of Beech Forest toward me, sheer embodiment of eagerness, given over entirely to running, wind streaming his long ears back, his eyes filling with me.  The roses, in June, which deck the front of this house in a flaring pink crescendo of bloom, old roses, dense flowerheads packed with petals, with handsome and evocative names: Eden, Constance Spry, Madame Grégoire Staechelin.  The startling quality of presence in Paul's eyes, when they are suddenly direct, warm blue-brown, catching lamplight.  The particular whole-body enthusiasm with which he gives himself over to something he loves, outcries of delight that know no reservations--for Joni Mitchell singing a moody ballad, for the sight of our old retriever, Arden, sitting poised in the falling snow, completely happy, his dense black curls gone arctic.
The world on the page.  To be able to bring that back.  To see and smell those roses years later, and to trace the patterns of white snow on the dog's black head after she has been rolling in it.  Or to capture Zoe's stillness--how she stares at the river for hours and hours.

It's like walking through the world living it twice already--in your body and your senses, fully, completely--and on your stenographer's pad.  Hello world, you say.  I'm taking dictation.

I've been trying to figure out how to do this, while not excusing myself and excluding myself from that life itself, the life I want to be awake for--in the iced-over garden, in the snow with the dog staring at the river.

And I still like meeting people from out of state.


  1. I don't know if my message took- Google whisked me away midstream. Here it is again just in case. Talk about living twice!

    witnessing our own experiences, to remember: a kind of pictographic brain etching activity.
    I saw this bumper sticker today:
    Lord, please help me be the kind of person my dog thinks I am!

  2. I love it that your mother kept her daughters' private, special things. I love it more that they found them.