Tag Archives: Writing

Dear Diary

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Flannery O’Connor

I was nine years old when I started keeping a journal, the first of many I received as a birthday gift. It was pink with some sort of design, possibly ballet slippers. It came in a little pink box with a clear plastic lid and keys that I kept conveniently tied around the lock.

I don’t remember why I started to write, but I remember sitting at the kitchen table one morning, looking over at my baby brother who was watching a children’s television show that I did not like. “Can I write that he’s watching a dumb show?” I asked my mum. “It’s your diary,” she said. “You can write whatever you want.”

That’s what I remember when people ask how long I’ve kept a journal. A long time.

I’ve recently spoken with a couple of people who look back on old writing. They write so they can reread later, verify their memories, reflect on situations and decisions, and understand who they are now. I’ve always just thought I’d burn everything one day.

When I think about reading old journals, my insides turn cold. My writing tells stories and relays events that I do not like to think about. I’ve been places I don’t want to revisit, and certainly not alone. My younger self needed to be held, needed to be shaken awake, needed to connect the dots in the writing on the wall, needed to learn, to grow, to love. The person I am now, as is the case with all of us, is a product experiences, responses to challenges, choices made. My writing on this blog tells me that I’m very consistent in many ways, but my personal writing is not nearly so tidy. Our public and private lives are often very different in that way. Is it enough to understand what is now without looking back to see how I arrived here?

And yet, there is a box of two decades of journals in my parents’ basement. Why did I once take the time to sort them, a harder task than it sounds because I didn’t always write the date when I was young? Why have I packed them into suitcases over summer holidays to place in that box? What am I saving them for? I’ve asked myself that question many times and I don’t know the answer. I’m saving them. The end.

I think better on paper. I understood what that meant to me long before I knew anything about cognitive processing, neural pathways, or emotional reactivity. I need to write like some people need a cigarette, and I get fidgety when I feel this way. I carry my journal around during difficult times and sometimes it’s enough to jot a note about what I want to chronicle (that’s usually the word I use) later on. It literally takes the edge off.

Sometimes I write with the intention of remembering, of preserving for as long as I can. But sometimes writing gives me permission to let go, to free up space in working memory so I can focus on something else. If it’s written down, I needn’t actively remember.

Writing is the only pursuit that I do not compromise, no matter how exhausting the day. At the minimum, it’s three things I’m grateful for. And I am grateful, every day, for knowing that there are things to be grateful for.

My journals: 6 June 2019 – Present

If They Saw: A Story

She’s not one to drink straight liquor during the day, and certainly not when she’s alone. She’s been a lot of places and that’s a place she doesn’t like. But late in the afternoon, sipping rum, putting black silky pen to the creamy paper of an artist’s sketchbook . . . well. Sometimes we get here, don’t we.

If they could see what I see. This is where we begin.

If they could see what I see, they’d see the child playing behind your eyes. They’d see the sand, the beach. Grasses. They’d listen when you wax poetic about scent, about fragrances we all know and about the raw living in a world that forces one to look and call it by name.

We are crumpled behind walls, preserving the vestiges of who we think we are, torn out and disentangled from who we thought we ought to be, folding into ourselves to protect . . . what?

Sometimes it’s hard to keep track.

If they could see what I see there’d be no end to the hands running across your face, your hair, along your back. No end to skin on skin.

Electricity.

There’s no waking from this dream but she doesn’t know she’s in one. Sometimes it happens like that. She’s lived a long time.

I can still see the hardness that shows itself around your jaw when you’re upset, a tightness that silently screams out to be heard. My stomach drops, just as it always did. And there’s the relief of a laughter that’s real, that comes from deep down where children chase fireflies. I could cry if I did that sort of thing.

The child behind your eyes looks uncertain, afraid. Disappears, runs back. A game of hide-and-seek but we don’t know who’s playing. Sometimes I can reach out and catch you but sometimes you’re gone to places I can’t follow. And so I wait, exhausted with tension, darkness closing in, for you to decide it’s time to return, sometimes with a vengeance and sometimes keening. I flip a coin.

I know when you’re hiding from me. I know when I’d like to do the same, and I know why I won’t. Why I never will. But there are days when you’ve already decided: There will be no smiling today.

When we float through the cobalt sky there’s magic and I have no doubt. But it’s never been about doubt.

A lifetime it has taken me to know you. A lifetime in a few short months, unnoticed. And in just as much time, you’ve pleaded, cajoled, and gone. There’s no place for me out there and I do not look for one.

She looks at the empty glass. The papers crumpled on the floor. The time. Her eyes widen. Memories of moments have taken hours. Too late for dinner and now the internal prohibition against liquor before sundown has no place. Glass is refilled.

If they saw what I saw they’d ask all the questions that were never mine to ask. They’d travel with you the world over and they’d hold your hand without letting go, the hand that was never mine to hold. If they saw what I saw they’d join you when you sang, they’d drink in the timbre of a voice that glides. I am reminded of skis over fresh powder. Do you know that sound? You, who speaks of the sea, do you know the sound of an open mountain with no marked trails? If they saw what I saw, they’d take you there.

But I swear I can hear you. I don’t always know where you’ve gone, in fact I only know the pictures I’ve painted on my heart, but I can hear you. Sometimes I busy myself to shut you out, to remember who it is that I am now that you’re a memory.

You’d vanish, wouldn’t you, if they saw what I saw. You’d breathe, settle, find the light that you used to tell me about, late, when you were supposed to be sleeping. You’d float gently away, so softly that I wouldn’t notice until you were gone. Or at least that’s what you say about me.

She doesn’t remember tearing the sketches but she has. At least they don’t bleed.

But can I blame them? Can I blame them for failing to see when seeing would require that of which we are most afraid? For if we see, we are responsible for the soul that has mirrored ours. I know what the ancients say about this. So can I blame them?

Rather than blame, and I think you’d like this, I’d like to teach them. To hold them while they cried and to encourage their tightly closed eyes to let in some of the colours we read about in stories. To hold them when it became too bright and take one step, together, one step at a time. I’d like to guide them to see through the tears and to hear, to hear that child singing. I’d be there the whole time, you know I would.

If they saw what I saw I never would have known you. You would have been beyond my reach before I even knew you existed. It is because, and it is always this way with me, it is because they did not see that I found in you something you’d forgotten.

Do you remember when I first made you laugh?

In the morning, she is surprised at the mess on the desk. She has fallen asleep fully dressed, a first since . . . a first. There are blank pages shredded all over the floor, faint markings erased. Drawings. Of what? She reads the neat words on creamy paper. These are not her words and not from her hand. But these are words she knows. These are words she believed a long time ago. These are words she fought until they disappeared.

These words are mine and I hear you laughing.

You Can’t Erase the Internet

Something we talk about at school is being aware of our digital footprint. Young people today have an enormous digital footprint, which means the choices they make now may have consequences far beyond what they can reasonably be expected to imagine. (We know that much about frontal lobe development, after all.) We talk about this with students in the context of university and job applications. If the people reading your applications do their homework, we say, you need to be prepared for what they’ll find.

Fairly recently, I started looking around to see if I could remove items with my name attached from the Internet. (The book A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki has been floating around my mind.) Altering posts on my blog, for example, is easy because all I have to do is edit, unpublish, or delete to my heart’s content. There’s nothing I can do about content that others have previously copied, saved, or disseminated, but removing information from my blog is very easy. However, editing is much more challenging in parts of the Internet where I am not the sole owner of a document, or when other parties share document permissions.

This is interesting to consider when written evidence exists to suggest that my ideas have changed. As authors, journalists, and publishers have known for as long as publishing has been around, it’s nigh impossible to take back something in print. What is written is written and people have seen it. Changes may occur but the record itself remains. People who speak in public know this, too. In fact, we all know this. Inconsistency and evolution are easily visible to anyone who bothers to look.

In a situation when change is discovered and pointed out, there are largely two choices. We can condemn one another on the basis of what was once said and shut out difficult conversations and opportunities to learn, or we can consider that evolution of ideas is part of being human. Rather than hoping our old words will vanish into the ether of cyberspace or memory, we can make the choice to stand up and say, “I’ve changed. Here’s how.”

This is a big deal. Psychology tells us that it will likely be uncomfortable to recognise and admit to inconsistency. To protect our self-esteem and make it easier to cope with the every day, the human brain rationalises cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately this ultimately prevents us from actually looking at the very things that need examining. We don’t always like the past because it might not reflect who we are now, or perhaps it highlights aspects of ourselves that we wish weren’t there. When the brain senses this conflict in us, it helps us rationalise our behaviour so that we can save face and feel good. This is a protective measure, but not a particularly helpful one for those who want to live honestly, openly, and with integrity.

Just like we cannot erase the Internet, we also cannot erase the past. We cannot pretend to be faultless because we aren’t. We have all made mistakes or behaved in ways that we may not be proud of, or that may not reflect how we would behave today. If we really have grown and if we really want to be better people, we cannot deny what has been. If we really have changed, the past will not define us. Who we have become should be obvious from our current actions. If you see such a change in me, your role is to judge the present on the basis of itself rather than holding the past over my head like a sword. No one can heal if old wounds continue to reopen.

At the same time, however, actions speak louder than words. I may claim to have changed but it is my actions that matter.

It can be confronting to ask challenging questions and then act in accordance with what we have found. But actions ripple outward and if we can learn from the past, if we can see inconsistency and evolution in ourselves, we can lay the foundation for a life lived honestly and with integrity.

This is the kind of life that makes a difference.