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A couple of posts ago, I ruminated about titles that get outdated by time, including George Orwell’s 1984 and my blog 115journals.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?

Journaling as Zazen

Zazen just means sitting, but we usually think of it as sitting in meditation. The idea is to quiet the mind in order to be with a deeper part of self, to gain a measure of peace.

Eckhart Tolle in his book The Power of Now describes it as being in the now, not anticipating the future or regretting the past, not planning, worrying, or processing, just being. Here we contact eternity, which is not, after all, in the future. Here we can find ourselves in heaven, which is not, after all, in the sky.

No doubt it is possible and in the forty years I have been at it, I may have actually got there a few times. Nowadays, there’s stuff in the way – wasn’t there always? – obsessive thoughts, runaway feelings, aches and pains. So I begin with the journal to give the mind a free rein, let it think all it wants and report back. It does run on, usually for half an hour and 4 or 5 handwritten pages. Then it’s the body’s turn to do the jongs or exercises associated with tai chi. This takes 15 minutes or so and leaves me limber enough to sit, but not, alas, to sit in full lotus position. Only now do I find it possible to let go of the racing mind. For whole seconds at a time!

Spiritual practice is always an individual choice, don’t you think? Whatever we do on a regular basis with concentrated focus can lead to self cultivation.

In his book of daily meditations, 365 Tao, Deng Ming-Dao says “Followers of Tao frequently use writing, art and even poetry as tools for self-discovery By articulating their experiences, it helps them to understand the stages they are going through. Once they can do this, it satisfies and neutralizes their rational minds.” (p. 63)

Journaling can be a meditation.

Reading and Empathy

The other night on television I saw a horse whisperer train a wild Dartmoor pony to reins in less than three hours. In actual fact, he didn’t whisper or talk at all. He just used body language, standing sideways near the pony’s head at first so as not to frighten the animal with his full on frontal energy. He didn’t use fear or domination at all, yet he was able to put  a rope over the pony’s head within an hour of first approaching him. (The program was an episode of Edwardian Farm, the one set in March, a British production.) It was a far cry from the bucking bronco method that tames a horse by breaking it. It seemed like evidence that as a civilization, we are learning kindness and becoming more empathetic.

Not that many of us are developing Star Trek’s Deanna Troi’s ability to feel other people’s emotions, but that we are more willing now than we once were to convince rather than control, to understand members of our own species and others and to relate to them less cruelly.

A few months ago,this idea led me to Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization in which the author explores the idea that we are not by nature aggressive, materialistic and self-interested, but rather fundamentally empathic. We “seek companionship and use empathic extension to transcend ourselves and find meaning in relationship to others”. (p. 21).

Whenever I talk about this idea, someone objects that there is still a great deal of cruelty in the world and there is never a scarcity of recent examples in the news to prove that. Too true and Rifken discusses that paradox. But that is not my point.

In general, society as I experience, it is growing  kinder. Certainly it seems to be as far as parenting is concerned. My own grandchildren attended an alternative school where the child’s needs came first to the extent that they planned their own lessons and misbehavior was subject to discussion and negotiation rather than discipline. This was in sharp contrast to the way I was taught and parented.

(Is it possible that that great cataclysm World War I and II grew out of the hands-off-unless- disciplining approach to childcare that characterized the time?)

Children learn to be empathic by having kindness and understanding modeled for them. Thank goodness there is more of that happening. But there is another route to empathy and that is narrative.

I realized this when I was teaching English, especially once we began asking students to write response journals about what they were reading. I observed their growing understanding, for example, of the children in John Wyndham’s The Chyrsalids or Harper Lee’s Scout and Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird. Because these children were learning empathy for the other, the students learned it as well.

I taught Shakespeare from that point of view. Teenagers identified readily enough with Romeo and Juliet and suffered their tragedy. Hamlet was more of a stretch, but they could be hooked by his grief and his sarcastic cynicism.  Lear was a big stretch because he was so old, not to mention arrogant at first, but by the time he carried his dead daughter on stage, he too had won their sympathy. I could see their feeling for others expanding as they read.

My grandson, Leo, convinced me all over again. He started out with a core group of four: parents, half brother and family friend/care-giver.  Then his half-brother chose to go far away to live with his own father, the family friend moved back to Ireland and his parents separated. By the age of three, Leo was an angry, “difficult” child. He did play therapy. He attended a school that addressed these issues.  Both helped, but it was being read to that seemed to help most.

His mother started with Captain Underpants, no doubt, as she had with her older son and moved on to Wind in the Willows and other childhood classics. She read the entire series of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit and then began The Lord of the Rings. Once when she was on holiday, when he was seven, I was reading The Return of the King to him and he said, “Wait, wait, who said that?” How he usually kept all the characters straight in his seven-year old head is beyond me, but he did and he grieved when Boromir died.

In short, hours of being read to, night after night, not only established a steady bond, it also lead him out of his angry isolation into an understanding of others.

As a society, we are emersed in narrative more than we have ever been. We still dream stories at night, tell each other stories and read them as we have for centuries, but we also listen to stories on the radio and on ipods and watch them in our living rooms and movie theaters. Each of these stories invites us to expand our self-centeredness and embrace others.

This enriched narrative may well be producing a more empathic civilization.

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.”