Janet and the Still Face: attachment theory

Janet was my mother-in-law. I knew her for 26 years from my 16th year to my 42nd. She passed on the same year that my marriage to her son ended. By then, she was 73 and suffering from advanced dementia. The Durant family reconstituted itself for a brief graveside ceremony in a Scarborough cemetery, 41 years ago, on a cold autumn day.

The central mystery of Janet was not why she had to rein in her dislike of me. Blake was her only child. I was beneath him. The central mystery was how could she send that child, age 5, across the Atlantic Ocean through the German u-boat fleet, for what turned out to be 5 years with a foster family in Canada.

Yes, the Nazis had bombed Middlesbrough. Yes, little Blake had watched an airman crash to his doom. Yes, she expected Hitler to land any minute and turn Blake into a junior brown shirt and steal his soul. Yes, it could be seen as an act of self-sacrifice. But I was never convinced. Or to put it another way, I could not imagine doing that even when I was 16. I had a 5-year-old brother. Once I had my own children, I was even more baffled.

Yet I admired the Jewish parents who put their children on a Kinder Train to the British Isles. And I reminded myself that I had not felt the terror of the English people in those early, unprepared days.

Then I fell heir to Janet’s diaries.

They were tiny little books, often labelled “gentleman’s diary”. They stretched from the 1920s to the early 70s, I think. I’m not sure because I threw them all away. Why did I perform such an act of desecration. It wasn’t because they were mostly a record of the weather on any given day or brief notes of meeting so and so for a film. It was because I looked up what she wrote on the day my daughter, her first grandchild, was born. Sandwiched between the weather and a note that she met Mable for lunch was a line that Blake had phoned to say that Joyce had had a girl. After she finished the entry, she went back and penciled in “proud grandparents” between the lines. The birth of my son, a year later, the only person who still carries on the family name, was even more innocuous.

The next thing I knew the tiny books, along with most of Blake’s photos, had vanished down the garbage chute.

I am already custodian of 146 large, thick, extremely detailed journals of my life and the Durant family’s. They may look as if they are written in ink, but they feel as if they were written in blood and tears. So sorry, Janet, no shelf space.

“Avoidant attachment” said my daughter, Janet’s first grandchild.

We had both, along with other family members been studying NICABM’s (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine) Treating Trauma Series. Watching the video sessions and reading the transcripts, I began to see that today’s psychiatric theory sees personality development as inter-personal rather than individualistic and based on needs and drives as Freud and his heirs did. The key to mental health, this theory postulates, depends on secure attachment. An infant finds that her needs are answered by a responsive caretaker, who picks her up, attends to her needs and soothes her upset. In this way, the child learns how to self regulate and withstand stress.

Alternately, the caretaker, like my own mother, could respond with ‘What do you want now?’ I had colic. My tummy hurt. I cried. All the time. My father, who gets no other accolades for parenting, was the one who soothed me down, sleeping with his foot out of bed to rock my cradle whenever I started stirring awake. He also beamed at me like a lunatic, talked baby talk and generally didn’t take my hysteria seriously. That is how I came to experience ambivalent attachment.

There were other mothers in our small northern Appalachian community. Some, like my Aunt Mae were champions at secure attachment. My mother’s cousin Maude was another. Either one could take me off my mother’s hands and calm me down.

Experiments show that a mother with avoidant attachment may actually pick her baby up as often as a mother with secure attachment, but not in the same way. Instead of smiling and speaking in a reassuring way, the mother may have a still face. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0  This short video shows how the baby deregulates quickly in the face of that stony response. And quickly compensates when mom comes back to life.

No doubt my mother eventually moved on to ambivalent attachment once my colic improved as colic usually does as the baby matures. Sometimes she would engage and show warmth, but then again, she would be absent and distant. She had her own issues, even excluding the fact she was married to a psychopath, a baby-loving psychopath, but a scary dude nonetheless. (I can clearly remember being in her arms and hearing him threaten to murder her pa and her ma if she carried out her threat to go back to live with them.)

An upset baby for whatever reason – wet, hungry, in pain, scared, lonely – who is picked up and comforted, learns to regulate herself, to soothe herself and move back to equilibrium.

A young child with secure attachment can tolerate her mother’s absence, even though she will still react on her mom’s return in a way that indicates she was upset.

A baby with an attachment avoidant mother will eventually give up seeking consolation and will become a child who avoids attachment. No point crying. No point acting cute. Don’t need anyone anyway.

How surprised I was to discover I had married such a person! Here I thought we had a firmly bonded marriage and family. We shared a profession and even a workplace. We went on long car trips together, four people in a tiny car all over Europe. We sailed a 29-foot sailboat through hell and high water. Then suddenly, he was spending nights in someone else’s bed. He had cared enough to act as though he was attached to his two children, until he couldn’t. That fall, his mother – the founder of the feast – passed on.

I found a few pictures of her mother as I went through her son’s collection, a grim-faced English woman and no doubt there was another earlier grim-faced grandma. My own mother had a mother who hadn’t had great mothering even before her mother died young.

I had motherhood thrust upon me at an early age, by which I mean seven or eight. My first sibling needed a friendly face when I was that age. By the time, the second and third siblings arrived, I was getting the hang of it. Smile, sing, talk silly, get them the heck out of the kitchen when hell broke loose and it wasn’t clear which parent would survive. I had had that hill community and attached mothering from other mothers to draw on, but we had moved to town by the time the other three arrived. All they had was me. Oddly, they turned out well and one of them stayed married.

Blake was an only child in an industrial city with one grim grandma and another poverty-stricken grandmother with seven sons. Then he saw an airman crash to his death and got sent through Nazi u-boats to live with strangers.

Just before he died, he told me he was lucky to have had the love of good women. I did not say that there were certainly a lot of them. His choices went downhill as he aged and his last lady struck me as problematic for many reasons, not least of which was that she  slept on the couch for five years. Avoidant attachment.

We keep repeating those old patterns.




Grieving for Blake: a ghostly affair

Persistent readers know that I have been documenting the demise of my ex-husband Blake here at 115journals. I’ve told of his remarkable 8-year survival with stage 4 prostate cancer, and lately his decline as he began to lose his grip on his perch. He passed away last Monday.

We have been divorced for forty years. We were married for only nineteen. We had two children, who are themselves middle-aged now. To protect their interests, I agreed to act as his executor. I knew it was a bad idea, but I wasn’t aware that I would be chief mourner and ghost-whisperer as well.

When it comes to Kubler-Ross’s  seven stages of grief, I’m a rapid cycler.

Saturday, I set up a little altar in the loving spirit of letting him go, or to be precise, getting him to go. He had turned up in Georgia’s bedroom at 5:20 a.m. in his hospital gown, trailing his blue hospital blanket, confused but vividly Blake. A few days later, Georgia’s daughter jumped off the floor and screamed as something brushed past her in a doorway. Admonitions to go to the light, to go find Leyla, his second wife, fell on deaf protoplasm, as did a final plea to go find his pet Sheba Inu.

In my place, his presence was more diffuse and business-like. He has left me to file several years of income tax, as well as deal with Alice, his resident gold-digger. On Saturday, that seemed charmingly chivalrous, so I set up an auxiliary shrine on the dining room table. As a Taoist, I keep a family shrine with pictures of my people, past and present, Kwan Yin, the Mother, Buddha and candles. I put a picture of 23-year-old Blake in his graduation gown, his obit, a book of Rumi poetry, a dozen tea-coloured roses, incense, Kwan Yin, Buddha and lit bees wax candles. It was the Saturday after his passing, the day we would have had his funeral if he hadn’t opted out of such ritual. I read him Tennyson:

Sunset and evening star
and one clear call for me
May there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea.

Then I got on with my own taxes.

In the evening, I sat down to finish watching The Girl on the Train on Netflix. I had read the book some time ago, and, although I had forgotten it mostly, I knew I hated all three neurotic women and especially the drunken protagonist, who just wouldn’t let up on her ex’s new wife and may have killed her neighbour. About an hour later, my mood had swung from loving a farewell to dear Blake, to get back here: I’ll kill you myself. For my lovely Blake was every bit as good at gas-lighting as Tom, the husband in the story. We – ex-wife, daughter and step-daughter – had compared notes at dinner one February night when the family had travelled from near and far to say goodbye to papa. And he wasn’t beyond blackening each of our names to the others. Then, of course, there was the question of Alice, his latest triumph, 45-years younger, who wouldn’t let us in to see him without a hissy fit, and who had been helping him work his way through the home equity line of credit at a good fast clip.

I repurposed the altar in the name of love and told Blake to get lost.

So here I am, middle of the night, suddenly awake and sobbing with grief. I knew him longer than anyone still extant. I may have loved him best. I certainly hated him best.

He’s gone. I can’t call him up to lament about one ‘child’ or the other. I can’t depend on his caring as much as me. And no, I can’t tell Blake – whatever – anymore.

He believed death was the absolute end. There was nothing after.

In that case, settle down, Boy.


Loose Lips: contradiction to despair #5

Despair like the mafia, my father and bullies in general demand silence. “You can’t do anything to stop me and if you do, I’ll kill you. Anyway, it’s your fault.” (See Never Tell, my memoir of childhood joycehowe.com) Convinced of the hopelessness of speaking, we fall silent.

Quite the opposite is true. Loose lips, where depression is concerned, sinks the ship of despair.

Talking is just a riff on union with the divine or connection, assuming a more earthly contact. A phone is a useful tool.

The listener needs no training, except in the art of silence and the odd encouraging remark – how do you feel about that. While it’s hard listening to an hour of weeping and absolute despair, -wine helps, or half an Atavan – it is rewarding because the speaker eventually runs down and may even say she feels better.

The depressed person is only required to voice her conviction that life is totally meaningless, unfair, unbearable and not to be endured, with specific examples drawn from the present at first and then from the dismal past.

There is one essential question: are you suicidal?, followed by what plan have you made? Once this is on the table, strategies can be developed. Such strategies do not involve, “You can’t do that!” They need to be practical and effective. Once a Salvation Army officer sat with me far into the night until I was too tired for self-harm.

In those days, I was too far gone for my immediate family, but suicide hotlines were there 24/7.

In less exigent circumstances, your best friend is your journal. “Dear Constance”, one of my creative writing students began each of her mandatory journal entries. I didn’t actually read these entries, although, as I recorded journal completed, I noted the salutation. I have a 6-ft-high bookcase filled with 159 journals, written between phone calls. After many years, I write less, call less and listen more.

Life’s a bitch. But hang on. Lean on me. Lean on you. Let’s make it through.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

whole foodsIt started with tow trucks. We could see their lights flashing sideways above the cabs as we drove north towards Queen’s Park on University Ave.

“It’s somebody important,” said Rob, who is used to Obama shutting down Brussels.

“Funny vehicles,” I observed, but no, it was about a hundred tow trucks protesting, by driving very slowly around Queen’s Park Circle. Protesting what, I wondered, too few accidents?

We inched along. Even my loquacious brother fell silent. I named the buildings on our right. The one on the left, pinkly Victorian, was the provincial legislature. Oddly, the members were not outside being impressed by the tow truck parade.

Finally, I was able to get into the right lane and speed by the circling trucks. (Why do they have tinted windows, anyway?)

I parked in the Whole Foods underground parking at Hazelton Lanes. All the stores except it were under construction, indeed half of Hazelton Lanes. The city is getting ready for the Pan Am games next summer. It is unlivable now and will be unlivable then.

We decided to eat at the Whole Foods deli, choosing food from the steam tables. Rob joked his way through the line for the cash register, managing to choose the only clerk with a sense of humour, Chun. We found a table and Rob wolfed down his “Layered” meal – salad on top, hot food on the bottom. I was much slower.

I was in the restroom when the fire bell started ringing. We all ignored it and went on with what we were doing. Then the alarm got hysterical and there were shouts of “Evacuate.” As I returned to our table, I saw Rob dump my half finished lunch in a trash bin.

We walked in single file through a corridor under construction for a long time. Then we walked up stopped escalators and emerged into cold air.

“We’ll just walk to the theatre,” I said to Rob.

“What about your car?” Rob asked.

“You think it’s going to burn?” I saw Chun and went over to ask him if he knew anything.

“Probably false alarm,” he shrugged. “Don’t know.”

As we headed for the street, the alarm stopped ringing and people began streaming back inside.

I was a bit turned around when I found we were spewed out up a north/south street instead of on east/west Yorkville, but I got us turned south and then east past the park with the enormous dome of rock from the Canadian Shield, carefully cut up like jigsaw pieces and reassembled a hundred miles south in the city’s centre for our viewing pleasure.

It was only a few blocks to the Varsity Theatre in the Manulife Centre, but I had forgotten about Rob’s knees, well about his right one anyway. His left knee joint was plastic, worked well and didn’t pain him. The right one was still bone on bone. He limped on that side and it hurt so much that it encompassed both legs in his mind. At Bay St. we caught the diagonal walk signal. That felt too exposed to him and my worldly European brother protested. Eager cars confronted us on four sides as we two lone figures crossed to the diagonally opposite corner.

Rob rested his knees at a coffee shop while I hurried through Indigo book store buying calenders for Christmas. I was carrying my fur hat in my hand, it being too hot to wear.

Inside the movie theatre I waited at the bar while he bought popcorn, resting my things on it.

We were on time, which meant we watched  half an hour of commercials before we even got to the previews. Finally, Interstellar started at ear numbing volume. Immediately I saw that it seems to have been filmed near Bakersfield, CA, my summer stomping ground. Where else would they have found vast corn fields, dust and mountains?

We were there because a guy who worked for Rob as an electrician had done the lighting. I decided privately than despite Matthew McConaughey, it was a dog of a movie. About 1 1/4 hours in, McConaughey and two other members of his space crew were trying to decide whether to go down to Miller, a planet that might save the human race by providing a home now that earth was done for. It was about then that I missed my fur hat.

“Let’s go find it,” Rob whispered.

“It’s okay. I’ll wait,” I whispered back.

Various terrible things happened on Miller in the 3 1/2 hours they spent there. When they arrived back at their space ship, the guy they had left in charge was 23 years older. Rob and I turned and looked at each other, picked up our things and rose as one to leave.

It reminded me of a news item I had heard about Japan sending a space ship zooming toward an asteroid six years away. My immediate response was, “How could they have so little respect for human life?” Then of course I realized the ship was unmanned. The old Kamikazi prejudice had reared its head.

In this case, I couldn’t stay and contemplate the poor guy’s wasted life, waiting 23 years for his ship-mates to return.

I was sure I had left my hat at the book store check-out, but I stopped at the bar to ask if it was there. One young woman disappeared behind the bar, while three others stood looking after her. About five minutes later, the watching tableau unchanged, the first one emerged with my hat.

We hobbled back to Whole Foods, which was back in business. I bought a few things, which came to $68, thus reinforcing the Whole Paycheck idea. But, hey, I got $2.50 off my parking bill.

At the  machine, Rob started pouring coins into the slot. I tried to stop him because I was pretty sure he didn’t have $22.50 in coin, despite Canada’s strange coin system. I had to get cross, inviting him to stop by using an emphatic short word followed by a preposition. I put in a $20 and invited him to top it up.

Since we had forgotten our cloth bags, we loaded the items into a bag in the car and got the cart out of the way of traffic, more or less. I went to start the car. Where was that expensive paid parking stub. I searched my purse, my pockets, the car floor.

Oh, God, another $25 or more,” I moaned

“Get out of the car,” Rob ordered. And I did.

I stood beside the door. There lying at my feet was the parking stub.

Now I could blame Rob’s hyperactive, discombobulating energy, but a few days before when he wasn’t around, I had gone through the car wash at my local gas station. I pulled over into a bay to wipe the car, creating a bigger and bigger pile of wet paper towel. I opened the trunk, got out the windshield washer and topped it up. I carried the towels to the garbage can, got into the car and found I did not have the car keys. What to do? I searched my purse, my pockets, the car floor, the trunk, under the hood, under the car. I dumped all the nice garbage out and pawed through every last bit. No keys. I did it all again. I was the only one on the lot. It had been half an hour. Finally I walked over to the shop.

“I’ve lost my car keys,” I said.

The clerk raised his hand. From his index finger hung the keys.

When I left for California in early June, I was a well organized person. I always read several reviews before I wasted money on a movie. I always knew when some moron or other had organized a slowdown protest. I always put my keys in the same pocket of my purse. The parking stub went beside the credit card until it was paid and then it joined the keys. Both got taken out once I was at the car. If I took my hat off, I always stuffed it in the sleeve of my coat. Now after 5 months high on a mountain, I can’t organize myself out a door.

No point in talking to Rob about it. That was a normal way of life for him. I decided to tell Blake, my ex-husband, as we drove back from his 80th birthday party. Too late I realized how wrong that was. Blake has spent a small fortune on taxis after shutting his keys in his car, yet again.

“People says it’s age,” he said, “but I’ve always been like that. Well you know.”

Ah yes, the time he packed our passports in a suitcase and had to climb on top of a Moroccan bus to get them, the time he ran the family car out of gas miles from nowhere on a throughway…..

I’ve always been like that too, I guess, but I wound myself so tight it didn’t show. Darn those relaxing mountains!

Sage Baby: Bad Titles follow-up

A couple of posts ago, I ruminated about titles that get outdated by time, including George Orwell’s 1984 and my blog 115journals. I imagined that the three journals I have written since are seriously put out and I rashly promised journal 118 that I would mollify it by posting its highlights. Today I reached page 215, the last page. Journal 118 started on July 8th is now retired from active duty.

Let’s see what’s there.

Oh. My. Goodness. Anais Nin would have relegated its first part to her diary of pain. When she was mortally ill in Big Sur, as I remember, she divided her journal in two and kept the unpleasant stuff separate. I haste to add that my “pain” was more mundane and much alleviated by simple means such as a new regimen of supplements to replace the minerals I was short of.

Then I come to a dream I had in which I was a young doctor just beginning my residency when I learned that I was pregnant. The dream was suffused with love, warm, nourishing love for and from my husband, and a quickening sexual desire. I went out for a walk by myself on a rainy Sunday evening to relish this feeling. Oddly, I came upon my actual/ non-dream-life son in the course of this walk. He was working as a blacksmith -not of course in real life -outside his forge and raised his head only briefly to ask if I had written another book.

I seemed to be living an alternative past and seeing an alternative future.

When I looked at what the dream meant, I saw that I was dreaming of healing myself. The Sunday night walk could be seen as a sign I was now complete enough in myself to do so. Someone I told the dream to said I was dreaming about my “sage baby”, that gestation is a symbol of spiritual cultivation.

So I looked on the internet for “sage baby’ and found it was the name of a company that produces baby blankets, a name given to both boy and girl babies and the name of a musician. Not helpful. I imagined people sitting in a shamanic circle fashioning tiny doll babies out of sage leaves. Then I finally realized she meant “wise” baby.

Ah, a familiar idea. One of western civilizations most important festivals centres on the wise or sage baby, born in a manger. But it has seemed to me for some time that this is better understood as the birth of the Christ in the cave of the heart, in other words, our own soul discovering itself and knowing it is one with the divine creative spirit.

A book is another kind of sage baby and my real son was/is fashioning his own sage baby, in iron with fire.

So there you go, Journal 118. That is surely your highlight, an actual insight.

Isn’t it curious that in our dreams, we can be any age, possibly because we are not actually age-specific.

How’s your sage baby coming on?

Bad Titles: journal 118 protests

Like George Orwell, I have chosen a title that has overtaken itself. He thought 1984 was sufficiently removed from 1948 that it represented a future where Big Brother watching your every move seemed believable. But, oh George, try teaching that book in 1984 or 1993 or 2012. It is about the past now, in more ways than one. (Thank you closed circuit TV, Google, Facebook and internet surveillance.)

I knew that lesson and yet I went ahead and called my blog, 115journals.com. Journal 118 wants to act as spokesperson for itself and 116 and 117. Journal 118 is a mature and confident speaker, about to retire from active duty and hand the daily grind over to 119.

Still a bit of a whiner: “Look at all I did for you, getting you through a July of heath issues and an August of intense family vacation. And who gets the glory, 115? What did she ever do for you?

It’s just a matter of chance, I counter. Orwell reversed the digits of the year he wrote the book. I was writing in journal 115 when I started the blog.

But 118 is seriously miffed, although partly mollified by the fact I reread its whole heartfelt tale. True I found there the essence of the summer, we are fast losing here in our northern city. It caught the swallows hunting at dusk, the crickets at dark and the glory of the Farmer’s Market at Wychwood Barns.

Please accept my appreciation, 118. I hope you will be mollified by my promise to issue a “Best of 118” in the near future.

Where’d Y’ Go?

I know Journal # 118 wonders too. Far from the nearest WiFi connection is the short answer. The library in that little rail town had one, but its hours were so weird I never caught up to it.
As for #118, I’ll get back to you. Living with an ever changing family of up to 17 left no time for reflection.
Coming soon: Septuagenarians in the Wilderness.

The Voice in the Mirror

“I liked the voice,” she said. “I’ve never heard that voice before.”

She had read the manuscript of my memoir, which eventually became an ebook, Never Tell: recovered memories of a daughter of the Temple Mater and she meant the narrator’s voice.

Since it was my daughter speaking, it seemed likely that she had heard all my voices, so I kept my protest to myself. I did, however, ask myself how it was different and I came to an interesting conclusion.

It was a survivor’s voice, certainly, but not a grim survivor, nor even an exhausted one, more like a bouyant survivor bobbing to the surface.  When I thought of the events of my childhood, I might feel grim and exhausted as well self-pitying, sad and angry, but when I wrote, I spoke in a different voice. “Upbeat” doesn’t describe it, nor even “darkly humorous”. It was the voice of the child I was, striding forth, sailing through, undeterred. It wouldn’t even be right to say “determined”. There was more ease to it than that. It was more like a fixed assurance that in spite of everything, all would be well. In fact, it owed a great deal to my Aunt Mae, whose joyful optimism shaped it.

I was surprised to discover that it was not just the recitation of  past events, but finding that voice that had made writing the story such a healing experience.

I speak with many voices in the 115 journals I have written so far, some familiar and some distinctly foreign. Who was the person? How could I have written that? On the other hand, where did this admirable, independent, confident self go to? That’s the great thing about writing consistently in a journal. You see yourself whole, developing and changing, in all your complexity and subtlety. You experiment with tone and attitude. One day’s entry is cutting wit, another a scathing rant and yet another a melancholy dirge.

A part of myself I discovered while writing the memoir was one that felt deep compassion for my little self. I wrote, “Ah, young Joyce, here we are again. Why have I ever feared you or sought to silence you? Let us sit together this night and tomorrow and as long as it takes, listening. When there are no words, we will listen to the feeling. Feelings are no less real because they are not named. We will be together. Steadily, steadily we will listen and gaze upon this pain and the sound of our listening and the light of our looking will mend us.”

Who are you ignoring? In that pantheon of personas (personae?) that make up you, which silenced voice, seeking expression, could help you hear yourself?

Free and frequent writing can discover such voices and they can lead us to self-discovery. A journal is a mirror that lets us see and hear what we are.

Why Keep a Journal #2: Journal as Mirror

King Lear retired from his job and came undone. “Who is it,” he cried in his anguish, “can tell me who I am?”

Good question and one we all come to eventually. The child starts school, the kid leaves for college, our lifelong love is gone, our home is lost, our career is over, the ground we stood on so solidly gives way like quicksand and we are left like Lear asking who am I?

Or it could just be a birthday with a number that boggles the mind. Having survived some of the former, I was ambushed by the latter a year ago. As I passed the hall mirror, it caught me unaware.  Whoa! Is that me? Not possible. I felt as if the last time I looked, I was about 35 years old,clear skinned, unlined, bright eyed. Who was this looking back at me? This was a woman with a high number of birthdays.

Ordinarily, I don’t put much stock in mirrors, using them mainly for check for tidiness and signs of dishevelment. A few years ago I fell out with them to the extent that I hung scarves over the few I had. There was such a disconnect between how I felt I looked and what they reported that I preferred to rely on my inner vision.

Now this hall mirror, had shaken my idea of what I was. Then photographs sitting here and there began to catch my eye: a kodachrome summer girl of eighteen, a black and white 22 year old in a scholar’s robe, a New Year’s mother with children, a fujicolored grandmother. I didn’t feel as if I were the woman in the mirror, but I was clearly none of these people either.  Who was I then?

In my pursuit of an answer, I avoided the mirror, put away the pictures and bought a new pair of jeans, before finally taking up a pen to explore the question. What I wrote turned itself into a poem, which ended with this stanza:

There is no pleasing mirror now

except this looking glass of words.

Here I may catch a fleeting glimpse

of clear bright core

of inner being.

Ah, so that’s why my perception of myself has not diminished with age. What I am seeing is the undying beauty of the real Self.

The answer to the question “who am I” is never a simple one: mother, wife, husband, father, teacher, tinker, tailor, spy, not even philanthropist or humanitarian. A human being is not one-dimensional. We are not just whatever role we are currently playing or find ourselves trapped in at the moment. Lear discovered that when he gave away his kingdom and lost his status. We are creations in progress, an epic novel we are still in the process of writing. Who can say what the theme of that novel is in a few words?

One of the ways to explore this complex question is to write, the more often the better. By writing we discover not only what we know but what we think and ultimately, what we are. Any creative process will give us insight, but if your inner artist, performer or composer isn’t ready to debut, write a journal as a beginning.

Why Keep a Journal

My creative writing students used to spend the first twenty minutes of class warming up by writing in their journals.  One of them attacked her journal angrily every morning, addressing her entry, “Dear Constance”. I didn’t actually read what they wrote, but I noticed the daily salutation when she presented her journal for page count. The implication I took was that I was a constant pain in the neck, but still I found it touching. Constance sounded like an ideal reader, patient, loyal and non-judgmental. If I envisaged a reader for my 115 journals, it would be Constance.

I don’t actually. I don’t expect they will ever be read except by me. I can imagine my survivors wondering what in the world to do with them, but I do not see them sitting down to read.

So why do I do it? What motivates me to spend the first half hour of every day writing to myself?

Possibly it’s pathological, a case of hypergraphia, in which case I am in the excellent company of van Gogh, Dostoevsky and Lewis Carroll. I don’t seem to suffer from damage to the cerebral cortex, but then neither did they. Let’s assume that the cause is more benign on the grounds that I could quit if I wanted to. (Honest.)

Like many people, I live alone. Statistics show that many more people do today; as many as 40% of American households are made up of one person and that rises to 50% for women over 75. Like many of these people, I’m used to it and I don’t feel lonely, but I miss having someone to talk to about my daily life. Talking helps me put things in perspective,  clarify my thoughts, make decisions, and enjoy myself. Talking was how I came to understand my life when I was living with others. Now I talk to my journal.

When I was 12, I was given a little diary with a padded faux leather cover and a metal clasp that I could lock against intruding eyes -siblings, mother- in which I recorded the weather for two weeks and not much else. I begin the same way now, checking the present and predicted temperature. (Is this just another obsession or the rational result of living in Toronto?) I review the day before and look over my plans for the day to come. I record my dreams if I remember them, but I don’t pretend to be as good at that as my sister who says she does that every day. (Yes, she also keeps a daily journal. Is it genetic?) I note my response to the day’s stresses, my physical and mental health, the causes thereof and strategies for coping. I examine relationships when necessary. Then to exercise my short term memory, which has never been very good, I record what I have read or watched on television.

There are practical results to having such a record.  What was that particular mystery by Lee Child about? When did I have a bone density test? How exactly did that diagnosis proceed? What was the date of that short-lived, registry office wedding? Apparently, the long delayed divorce cannot proceed until the date of the marriage is established.  Ah, yes, journal #18, August 1986. I am the family archive keeper.

But it didn’t begin that way. It began with a hard covered “Dominion blue line” record book which I bought for 2.75, the same day that I bought “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”. It contains sporadic entries, centered mostly on the angst of seeking job promotion, but there are lovely details of my children’s reading -Tales of Mother West Wind, riding home in the MG with the top down in the rain, the orange lilies in the rock garden, the mountain ash berries, until that dire event, when life in the house under the hill came to an end. I began the second journal 8 years after the first and it is entirely in poetry, yet a daily record of what I felt following my separation. By journal #5, I am back to prose, “a record, a scientific basis for discovery and judgment”. What can I say? I don’t actually recognize the person who wrote those early journals.  That is one of the miracles of journal writing.  I see how much I’ve changed. Of course, I’m way better now or at least my prose is not as wordy.

So the books began to accrue, small, brightly colored, easily carried into coffee shops at first, then at journal #33, black, 8 by 11, sketch books of acid free paper. Last Christmas my sister gave me a light blue sketch book (#114) and a lime green one (#115) saying it was time I swore off black. Now they make an untidy, hard to access pile, demanding their own bookcase.

I did use a computer for a number of years, although I prefer the tactile experience of an actual book. At the time, I printed entries as well and I’m glad I did because when my computer died without warning, I  lost several years of entries.

So here’s what I think: you should start a journal if you don’t already keep one.  (If you do, you should keep on.) You’ll get a confidante who can keep a secret, improve your memory and gain clarity. “The unexamined life,” Socrates said, “is not worth living.”