“Taking notes as my life unfolds keeps me from feeling interchangeable with others. In the act of preserving the details of my experience, I define myself.”
The wind will pick up the leaves and swirl them.
Then it will drop them, and they will form a pile.
I have kept a diary since I was seventeen. I got the idea from my sister Eve. I was nine, she thirteen, when I first noticed the row of small hardcovers on the shelf in her attic room of our gabled house in Vancouver. We lived in Kerrisdale, near the university, where our dad taught English.
“What is that?” She had covered each little book in paper. Geometric shapes and a date were written on each spine.
I was impressed, both at her level of mistrust—and at her cleverness. Imagine designing a whole alphabet and writing in it! She did it for years. I like to think I would never have read so much as a sentence, but I was an awfully curious younger sister. Still, I don’t think I would have.
I write in spiral notebooks, the plain, drugstore kind. They don’t lock, of course, and I’ve lived with my mother and with various men, but to my knowledge, no one’s ever read one. I think it helps not buying highly colored models with My Journal emblazoned on the cover. My favorite is the brown cardboard cover, so unobtrusive as to appear actually organic, like a fallen maple leaf slowly turning into earth.
I live in my journal steadily, daily, sometimes visiting it several times a day. I write till I feel satisfied, recounting a dream, a sense of multilayered anxiety, or simply the details of my days. There is a lot of food in my diaries; e.g.,
Farmer’s market this a.m. End of season, so mostly squashes, pumpkins and apples. I bought coffee from the Jamaican stand. Could see my breath, blowing at the steam. (What’s that word for `two streams mingling’?) Flower stall ablaze with sunflowers. How do they get the red ones red? Finally made off with some asters, unable to resist their crisp colors: white, purple, deep pink, dark purple. Came home and made ‘Earth Soup,’ using burdock root and Jerusalem artichokes from the market, also cabbage, barley, and miso. Threw in some dried shiitakes. Result restful, mellow, autumnal. How the asters cheer me! So old-fashioned-looking, in the plump white mug that’s making do for a vase. In these strange, uncertain times, I sit down to write … and find I feel I don’t know anything, anymore … the ground has shifted, like waking from a dream—into a different dream. A neighboring, adjacent one. Reality still somewhere down the hall, the door closed, unearthly music drifting from underneath it.
The asters, now. Those sweet, button-box colors, set off by dark green, finely cut leaves, their late fall beauty. Ah! That’s why I like them! While all the daisies and roses of summer are showing off, the asters have yet to bloom. Then, long after the foxgloves have withered and the last crabapple has rolled from the tree and been carted off by a brown squirrel, the asters bloom, the last flower before snow.
Taking notes as my life unfolds keeps me from feeling interchangeable with others. In the act of preserving the details of my experience, I define myself.
I don’t understand how non-diary-writers can bear life, the steady accretion of event, from subtle observation to outrageous what next? How can they hear themselves think? And, how do they keep straight their own versions of events? (When a lover revises our history, I can dig out the notebook dating from that period.) And what about conversations? Polaroids don’t capture dialogue.
As I go further into my meditation practice, become regular in it, I begin to wonder. Is my need to write a neurosis, something I should be trying to transcend? Why is it so important to me to leave a trail of my perceptions, an account of who I am and how I see?
In Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, Stephen Batchelor doesn’t answer all my questions, but he does explain, in his spare, elegant prose, why my need to write is so strong. Writing through turmoil and confusion brings me back to the physical world, enabling me to better feel a part of it:
As soon as the imagination is activated in the process of awakening, we recover the aesthetic dimension of dharma practice.… As the turmoil of consciousness subsides and we come to rest in a heightened clarity of attention, the natural beauty of the world is vividly enhanced. We marvel at the exquisite tracery of a leaf, the play of light against the bark of a tree, the reflections and ripples in a puddle of water, the deliquescent radiance of a human eye. Our appreciation of the arts is also enriched: a phrase of music, a line of poetry, a dancing figure, a penciled sketch, a clay vase may speak to us with unprecedented poignancy and depth.
Eve and I are in a coffee house with cinnamon-colored walls, and lamps made to look like coffee cups, with vinyl records for saucers and fine wire mesh for steam. My beloved sister, almost forty, is thoughtfully scribbling across from me as she downs Booth’s Ovaltine. (We quote British novelist Barbara Pym to one another: “Life’s problems are often eased by hot, milky drinks.”) We each have our trusty notebooks. I hope I have captured this moment, pinned it squarely like one of Nabokov’s butterflies. Who knows? One day when we are old, we may brew a pot of tea, read each other bits from our journals. Cackle, reminisce. Revive this afternoon, golden as a fallen leaf, gradually become buried in the strata of our shared history.
Then there’s writer’s block. Though I speak here of my need to write, and I do write, daily, in my “barefoot voice”—in my diary—there recurs in my diary a single, anguished line. “Why can’t I write?!!”
Some years ago, I was helped by an excellent book that I think ranks up there as a kind of dharma, right beside Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. (Goldberg: “Write from your obsessions. They’re going to run your life anyway, so why not harness them?” I wrote my novel with this advice taped to my computer screen. It worked, and I agree with E.L. Doctorow, who said, “Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights will let you, but you can make the whole trip that way.”) In On Writer’s Block, Victoria Nelson says, “If you beat yourself because you procrastinate, your problem is not that you procrastinate. Your problem is you beat yourself.” I feel Nelson’s book counts as dharma, because I feel her words in my body as a return home. It’s the same way I feel when I take to heart Pema Chödrön’s thesis that “The root of Buddhism is compassion, and the root of compassion is compassion for oneself.”
I think this phrase, “barefoot voice,” is key to my sense of being blocked. How can I be blocked if I’ve written six pages in my journal and eight pages to my sister? Well, you see, those were fluid, flowed out of me. They were downhill. I slid. I was in my barefoot voice. This is what I do to myself, and lately I’m noticing that it’s mean, because it distinguishes “real” writing from private writing, as though writing is only real if it’s toward publication.
At fifteen, I took a contemporary dance class in downtown Vancouver. Before she started the music, the teacher said to us, ” I believe that everyone has a natural way of moving. It’s yours alone, like your handwriting. You don’t think about your handwriting, do you? We dance in our bare feet here, and we dance the way it comes to us. This isn’t ballet. Dance is for the people. If you can’t do a given movement in your bare feet, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
You know how you can have a hell of a time getting around to working on your dissertation, but still happily email friends for hours? I’ve come to think of academic performance, or any writing performance in which I set out with the idea that I’m going to somehow show others what I know, as “uphill.” Whereas my barefoot voice is the equivalent of dancing alone in my apartment, late at night, to my favorite music. My barefoot voice is my voice in a letter to a friend, written for solace while hiding in a café on a rainy day. Tender, interested, commiserating, outpouring, describing, punctuated with small drawings and recipes. It’s the writing that pours out of the centers of my bones. It’s as natural to me as my breath. This, these words that you’re reading now, this is my barefoot voice.
I didn’t start having a problem with writer’s block until after my novel, Highways and Dancehalls, came out. Writing it had been a private, subversive activity. I was living in backwoods western Canada when I wrote it, and I wrote from my guts. In Hemingway’s phrase, I wrote hard about what hurts. I wrote about stripping in bars. I wrote from my lifelong sense of shock and bafflement, beginning with growing up in Vancouver General Hospital shitting blood. I wrote in secret, on lined yellow pads, in pencil, in a Laundromat, where I felt no one was watching. I was on an odyssey. Having come to a dead stop in my life, I was desperate to connect the different people who lived inside me. And I was desperate to connect with others.
When the book came out, I was in Montreal, at Concordia University, trying to finish my B.A., having finally decided to knuckle under to my mother’s repeated assurances that I couldn’t hope to “get anywhere” without one. I applied for a writing grant, and was given one, but this time I froze. I wrote copiously in private—page after tortured page, in which I felt I failed daily to justify my existence, or at least the grant. I managed essays, but little else, even as my novel was being published in successive foreign languages. I dreaded picking up the phone.
“So. Are you writing?” friends, editors inquired. “How’s the writing going?” family probed. Victoria Nelson damned near saved my life with compassion for me at a time I was having a hard time finding it for myself. Eventually, weary of spending long days paralyzed and staring out at the snow, I wrote my final school essay and fled the arena entirely. I moved to Austin, Texas, and became a massage therapist.
At massage school, I met a woman who was terribly hard on herself. You could see it on her face. She looked stern, as if driven by a hard taskmaster. (“It’s my Dad,” she told me. “I hear his voice in my head.”) I was massaging her temples in little circles; she had a headache. As she began to sigh and her shoulders to let go, she said, “I just need to get a grip, that’s all.” I heard myself say, “No, Laura. You need to loosen your grip.”
A sanctuary of blank paper, a diary is a safe place in which to be, with all the frustration, self-confrontation, and increasing acceptance that simply being entails. Over time, these encounters accrue value in unexpected ways. A woman in her seventies writes, “As I look back, I understand that actions I once thought praiseworthy actually caused harm, and things I judged harshly simply indicated an innocent narrow-mindedness at the time. In short, as I grow older and perhaps wiser, the meaning of life rests more on my willingness to see that outside goals were not as important as I thought them to be.”
Sometimes I doubt the quality of my process, just as in my most desolate moments I question the value of my life. Get to know myself better? Maybe Gloria Steinem was right when she joked that “the examined life is not worth living.” And I hate to admit how often I’ve quoted Dorothy Parker about “needing just enough money to keep body and soul apart.” Year in, year out, the same old obsessions leave their bloody scufflemarks across the pages of my notebooks. (If I’m honest, this may be the real reason I don’t buy pretty journal notebooks: my thoughts aren’t that pretty.) Blue drugstore spiral gives way to red, followed by workaday, Crayola green. At one point I received a fancy blank book as a gift. Wine-colored morocco. Intimidated, I put it aside.
Colette wrote about her father maintaining the performance of retiring to his study to work on his very important writing. A row of handsome volumes testified to his completed works. After his death, she writes, the family reached them down, reverently opened one. Their eyes met not the familiar, expected script—but page after page, blank. I write, but sometimes the stuckness of my obsessions makes me feel the pages might as well be blank. I keep waiting for the plot to change. For example, up till now (and you cannot know with what hyacinth-bulb hope I type that fragrant phrase, up till now) year after year I have longed after a man who loved me and left. I have insight enough to observe, “I’m yearning after a vanished shadow because my father left when I was twelve.” But this insight does not restore my loss, and though meditation—and massage, for that matter—loosens my cramped hand from trying to grasp moonbeams, still I have a tendency to yearn. I wander the streets of one city or another with my notebook under my arm, pondering the idea that we create our own reality. “Ponder.” Who am I kidding? I wrestle it. Or is it fate itself I fight? My father decomposes in his grave in Tel Aviv.
And so the shadowboxing continues, page after page. It forms a pale ink wash beneath: the first tender, furled shoot of asparagus in spring; the way my sister gazes off in the distance when her pen pauses; my mother laying aside a library book and looking out at the trees. The small, horse chestnuts that fall from them—small spiky planets plunged to earth—and split open in the gutter. The memory of my father strolling with me, gathering the shiny, brown cobs, murmuring, “This is my favorite time of year because it’s when you were born.”
Amid the whispered conversations on a transatlantic jet at night, journal on lap, I mentally photograph my sleeping fellow passengers with my pencil as they snuggle down under yellow knit blankets (like the ones in Vancouver General Hospital, echoes ago) in this pointed-nosed metal cylinder hurtling through the heavens—oops, make that stratosphere. I like the close-ups—the tiny, dark-haired woman nestled on the chest of her enormous boyfriend, like a kitten on a St. Bernard. And I like the long shots—airplane: What a strange development from the first caveman spying a vein of metal in a rock! It’s a lens I’ve become better at refocusing, though I still sometimes wish I could replace the camera. But the way the light falls across my paper, just slightly clearer, is different than the way it fell five years ago. Could it be my filter?
I live in Boulder, Colorado now, driftpile of writers, meditators, massage therapists. Inspired transients gravitate here. It’s a good place to be a dharma student. I have questions, like, am I working toward the moment when I “let go” enough to burn my diaries? Actually, I’d like to let go of my embarrassment at what they contain enough to let them be read, after my death, by anyone who cares to. This is me in my naked voice. Stuckness, despair. A pervasively baffled tone, like a person standing in an airport, looking at the monitors and scratching his head. What flight am I getting on? Or, maybe I came here to meet someone?
This morning my friend Charlie picked me up in his eighteen-wheeler rig and drove me to Dot’s Diner for breakfast. He’s fifty-five, runs a toxic waste disposal company, lives in a basement suite, studies dharma. Lately he’s been teaching me to play Go. We sit in the Trident coffee house on Pearl Street and he shows me formations in black and white stones: a net, a tiger’s mouth, a bamboo joint. He tells me Go is a metaphor for life. “It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, like chess. You may ultimately win but you’re going to take some hits getting there. You’re going to lose some marbles—I mean, stones.”
I’m pouring maple syrup, murmuring, “French toast, bacon and coffee. Now here’s something to believe in,” when he laughs, pours ketchup on his omelet and says, “Isn’t this great? I mean, isn’t it great?” Suddenly, I know just what he means. Anthrax has been making the news lately, and I’m just as lost as I’ve been. He points past me. I turn and look through the plate glass with Dot’s slogan (“Where the folks get their yolks”) painted on it backwards. Outside, leaves drift down and swirl, yellow, against the gray asphalt, dancing the wind.