20 August 2002

The end of all scribblement is to entertain."
   - Jonathan Swift

I had a sobering moment at the local bookseller's today. Let me give a little background information here. I write a regular newspaper column about journalers, focusing on topics and issues, rather than on the mechanics and how-to-do-its. Week after week, I slog through published journals, some dating back several hundred years, searching for common themes. I excerpt small bits, and then weave them together into a brief rumination on said themes. Normally, I stay away from offering advice about keeping a journal -- the market's saturated with articles, columns, and advice on that matter by plenty of people with considerably more qualifications than I possess. Instead, I offer up tidbits of commentary on the lives writers have led, and I try to frame the writing in some context that makes sense to local readers. I've been told my column is serving its purpose, and that readers are enjoying it, even as they learn something.

I'd recently read one of Virginia Woolf's diaries (the collection is one of my all-time favorites). In it, she made some off-hand remarks about how it was time to have the loose sheets packaged up and sent to the printers for binding. She was in the habit of writing on single sheets, piling them up, and then creating the "journal" after the fact. This is a similar thing to what Julia Cameron suggests journalers do with "morning pages" in her wonderful book, "The Artist's Way." I've been writing morning pages for several years, but I've always had pre-fabricated journals for them, rather than the loose pages. My latest contrivance has been to make my own blank books: I buy stationery I love, then take it to a printing press, where they obligingly cut, shape, cover, and bind the sheets into blank books made to my precise, demanding specifications. I've always thought the blank books and sketch books you can buy in stores were somewhat expensive, particularly since I'm in the habit of filling up seven to ten pages every day (only the first three are morning pages, mind you). Over time, it adds up.

So, today I decided to see what was available in the bookstore by way of blank books. I didn't have anything specific in mind -- I even considered that if warranted, I might include some information in my next column about the sizes, costs, and options (ruled, unruled, gridded, weights, covers). After all, I've been writing the column for nearly a full year -- surely by this time, a few people might want to know how and where to acquire the materials for journaling. Did I ever get a surprise.

Instead of blank books, what I found on the shelves were mostly "tutorials" for journaling, covering a variety of topics and themes. Gardening, gratitude, grandmothering, spirituality, weight control, book/movie/music reviewing, feminism, teaching, travel, illness, writing, and a host of others, all designed to step the neophyte journaler through from the first page to the last. I was flabbergasted. 

All I could think was, these aren't journals, these are specialized self-help books masquerading as journals. Some even had full pages of photographs and paragraphs and inspirational quotes designed to lead the writer through the thought process which might result in a paragraph or two about him or herself. Sort of a "paint-by-numbers," using words.

Most significantly, the only words in my journals are mine, unless I consciously choose to quote somebody else. All the pages in my journal are unmarked until I put my pen and thoughts to them. 

Nobody else's ideas invade my privacy as I write. All I can say is thank heaven for web logs, where anarchy and freedom of thought still have a toe-hold. I'm hoping the "tutorial" journals are a passing fad, and will soon end.

Excuse me. I have to find my pen. Blank pages are beckoning me.


19 August 2002

"Go, and catch a falling star,
   Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me, where all past years are,
   Or who cleft the Devil's foot."
     - J. Donne

I was at a birthday party last weekend. Since it was such a lovely night, we decided to move ourselves outdoors, where we could enjoy the perfect summer night and the stars. We had a wonderful time, with good food, good drink, light-hearted conversation, gifts, candles, and cake -- all the magical things that make cherished memories between old friends. This was a special gathering, for several reasons. It was the first time we'd gotten together as a group since I returned from my trip overseas, and everyone wanted to hear all about the journey. It was the first time we impulsively decided to abandon the comfort of the beautifully appointed table for the rustic pleasure of dining outdoors. It was the anniversary of our twentieth year of having such get-togethers. It marked the event of our entry into the third age -- the birthday we celebrated was the seventieth for our friend. It was the first night of the annual celestial fireworks known as the Perseids.

As our evening wore on, I happened to look up at the stars through the thick canopy of trees surrounding the lawn. To my great amazement, within a ten-second span, I saw three enormous trails of light as stars fell across the inky sky. At first, I didn't realize what I was seeing, and remarked, "Oh, look! Fireworks!" Our host remarked that fireworks were illegal in this town, and then his wife said it was probably just the meteor shower. For the next hour, we sat together in the middle of the lawn, gazing intently at the sky, our conversation pleasant and desultory as we waited for the next trail of glory to light the firmament. Ever since people have been watching the stars, this show has gone on. I've read that the shower rate for the Perseids has been measured as high as 200 per hour, but is more common in recent years at 40 to 60 per hour. We probably saw 10 in the hour we sat watching, but that was undoubtedly due to our location, and the nearby presence of neighboring ground lights. Still, it was a wonderful show.

At the end of the hour, it was late. We gathered up our things, made our goodbyes with embraces and kisses, and drove off to the various towns where we each now live. As I drove, I decided I wanted to find a really dark, open space in which to watch the meteor shower. I wasn't at all sleepy, and according to the astronomers, the Perseids weren't going to peak until well after midnight. I wasn't tired, so I began my search for a viewing field.

I drove nearly 75 miles before I gave up and headed home. I zigzagged through the small towns and country roads, scouted out football fields, parks, and commons. What I discovered is that darkness and open space are a rare combination in this day and age. Every place I went had either one, or the other, but none had both. Most, in fact, had neither. Even at the late hour, electric lights blazed their halogen, neon, fluorescent, incandescent glows upon the roads, the trees, the houses, the buildings. The lights obscured the stars, taking the places of the stars themselves.

This struck me as odd. When I was in Indonesia, not a night passed when I did not stand outside my bungalow for a few minutes at least, staring up at the star clusters and galaxies of unfamiliar constellations. There, I'd felt close to the universe, and the gods. Here, I felt earthbound and constrained.

I went into my house, wondering who decided it was necessary to blot out the darkness, to never give the stars a chance to entertain us.

Excuse me. I need to publish this page, before there's a power outage and the lights go out, leaving me in the dark.


08 August 2002

"Pay as much attention to the things that are
working positively in your life as you do to those that
are giving you trouble."
   - Life's Little Instruction Book

A friend and I were having conversation over dinner the other night. The last time we were together, she was edgy and anxious. She was doing a great deal of soul searching, and in the course of her investigation, she experienced no small amount of existential angst, which she oozed from every pore of her body. She told me that she felt like she'd been turning over rocks, hoping to find jewels, but instead there were only scorpions, serpents, and other nasty things waiting for her. She told me her biological clock was ticking loud, and she felt it was impossible to ignore. She agonized over everything, and it seemed to me she was digging herself a pretty deep hole into which she planned to throw herself. I did what I could to calm her, reason with her, and offer her options I thought might be reasonable, given how she saw her own situation. You're smart, I said. You're able to travel, I said. You have friends, I said. You're a survivor, I said. Give yourself a little freedom and leeway, I said. Shift your focus. Try to look at the things you think are problems from a completely different perspective. See what you come up with. She was reluctant, but agreed to try.

That was before.

The woman who sat across from me at the dinner table was vibrant, confident, secure, laughing, and obviously happy. I didn't think it could be solely the result of me being back in the States, so after telling her how glad I was to see her in this state, I asked, "What was the miracle that brought about all this wonderful change in you?"

She answered, "No miracle. I did what you said. I started looking at what was going on in my life, but not just at the stuff that bothered me. I looked at the good stuff, too." She went on, "I have a great job. I work with wonderful people, doing something that is fun, and they pay well. I'm not in debt. I'm having a good time in my classes, and I'm learning a lot. It's a beautiful summer. I'm getting along with my family. I'm healthy." She ran a hand through her hair, then sighed, "I guess I just decided it was time to stop with all the whining. I was getting tired -- it takes a lot of energy to be miserable, you know."

Yes, I do know. And I also know that plenty of people continuously throw away opportunity after opportunity, day after day, year after year, because they are utterly exhausted from the energy it takes to be miserable. Nothing materially had changed in my friend's life; what changed was her perception. She moved to a spot inside herself and decided to take a look from the inside out, rather than the other, more usual way. What she discovered was that she really didn't have a reason to be unhappy. Her attitude toward herself shifted, and her life improved, almost immediately.

I'm no Pollyanna, but I am a firm believer in the powers of prayer, meditation, and positive thoughts. 

The salutory effects of giving yourself the gift of any one of the three cannot possibly be overstated. 

I'm glad my friend listened to me, and better still, I'm glad she listened to herself. She's better off for it.

Excuse me. I think I want to find a mirror, and give it a smile.


02 August 2002

"From error to error one discovers the entire truth."
  - S. Freud"

Bias and prejudice creep up on us in the most insidious ways. We calmly go about our business, wending our way through the myriad contortions our lives afford us, and the whole while, we are being conditioned. That's a passive sentence, and it's a passive act I'm describing. I've come to the conclusion that it's impossible to be so vigilant at all times I can completely escape unscathed. Try as I might, I simply can't seem to avoid it.

What's brought on this observation, you ask? Why, my most recent discovery about the biases and prejudices I have held unknowingly all these years about what it means to be famous. I also had a dash of rich thrown in for good measure, but that's a different story. Now that I have had my fifteen minutes, I can't imagine how I could have been more wrong. It wasn't the thrilling romp I expected -- and I was completely unprepared for the reactions of my family. The people who hold me dearest in their hearts -- my mother, my sister, my husband, my kids, my friends -- have treated me as if my celebrity was something for which I ought to seek out medical treatment, rather than something to, well, celebrate.

My husband, in particular, who weathered this particular high sea in the marital ocean has been relatively subdued, and on occasion, sour about what came to pass. This, even though he gladly partook in every sybaritic, heady pleasure that was aimed my way over the past month as a result of my achievements. When once our photographs appeared in a newspaper heralding my little triumph, he remarked, "Hah... that's funny. They didn't even write my name in the story." By the end of the month, he was roundly tired of being identified everywhere we went as "Mr. Bilateral," and made a point of correcting people who made that mistake.

But back to my own mistake. I discovered that my accomplishment overshadowed me completely, and engulfed all possibility that anyone might want to discover the truth of who I am, irrespective of the thing I did. I was pampered, petted, indulged, and glorified. A lesser person might have succumbed to the unthinking praises and believed herself actually deserving of extra or special treatment, when in reality, what I did was no more wonderful than what hundreds of thousands of people bring about every day of their lives. The only difference between me and those people was that some deus ex machina known as a judging panel singled me out as the recipient of a significant prize. Granted, I did create the thing for which the prize was awarded, but frankly, the seeds for the thing were already germinating within me, regardless of any awards or riches. The competition only accelerated something that might have happened without any encouragement from anyone.

I now understand why actors, rock stars, and the nouveau riche all present the odd mix of entitlement and embarrassment they frequently do. It's because deep down, they don't understand what they've done to deserve all the attention and rewards, and they feel fraudulent, accepting love they're not certain they've earned. I gained some insight into this through my own experience. After the 50th person asked to touch my left hand "for luck, please," I felt separated from the rest of the world. I'd become a popular icon. I realized that this phenomenon would last only as long as the media made much of me. The realization frightened me, as it must frighten every rational human being to whom it happens.

I don't envy the famous, having had my small share of it. It was more than enough for me.

Excuse me. I have to go pay some bills. I wonder if the creditors will want to save my autograph?