Honestly, I don’t know how they do it. And by “they” I mean people who don’t keep notebooks. People who don’t write down their thoughts at all. How do they organize their thoughts? How do they get to know themselves? I cannot figure it out. If I don’t write, I am not sure I could discern my today-self from my three-year-younger-self. And yet, looking back at my younger self isn’t always easy.
Somewhere along the way, I once heard someone say that writing is organized thinking. I immediately agreed and started sharing this with my college students. But I’ve had to rethink this over the years, after rereading some things that I’ve written, realizing that my thoughts were not organized at all. My ideas were certainly organized into sentences and paragraphs, but my thoughts themselves were not. In fact, sometimes, upon rereading them, I realize they are utter nonsense. They make no sense at all. And yet, the process of putting them on paper affords me some greater wisdom. Somehow, understanding or greater understanding comes through the chaos.
Time and time again, I find myself returning to my favorite essay of all time, “On Keeping a Notebook” by Joan Didion. I mention this essay so often, people are sure to think it’s the only thing I ever read, but it’s not. It is one of the most resonant, though. I imagine we’d be quick friends, Aunt Joanie and I.
She writes “Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise, they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
I love this excerpt. I nod all the while I’m reading it. It gives a justification to the hours a week I spend putting pen to paper, recording observations and trying to make some sense of the world, of life. And it makes me feel that certainly all of this scribbling has been for my own good and has saved me such future breakdown. But I, admittedly, often read up to that paragraph and stop because when I read a little further, the truth gets up under my skin like a splinter.
Didion, though in my head I call her “Aunt Joanie” because we are long time friends and she is much older and wiser than I, goes on to write, “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be… The other one, a twenty-three-year-old, bothers me more. She was always a good deal of trouble, and I suspect she will reappear when I least want to see her, skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again, at once saddening me and angering me with vulnerability and ignorance, an apparition all the more insisted for being so long banished.” Reading this brings me face to face with some truths. There are plenty of times when I was just dead wrong, carrying on about something that I wasn’t taking responsibility for or nurturing some lesser part of my personality. Cultivating a flaw. I’ve spent plenty of time doing this, as I discover when I reread my notebooks.
And yet, there are times when I don’t think I give myself quite enough credit for searching for and finding wisdom in my own experiences. So, about a year ago, I dared go back and reread some of my notebooks from the past three years, years that many would argue have been my most challenging. I used translucent sticky notes by Stalogy to write the takeaways/conclusions/words that held true still. And now, I continue to revisit them, each time less afraid to encounter Trina as she was three years ago. When I first encountered her, she was so injured, a victim. But I can see she was trying to keep her head above water and not drown in a sea of self-pity. I give her credit for that, even though she pointed too many fingers. And as the years go on, I see her freestyling and doing strong laps, though other times just barely treading water, in the sea of life.
I dig through my archive storage binders and find an entry from 2014 with the words “Staying Afloat” written boldly across the page explores this very idea. The takeaway: “It is so easy to become a burden and difficult to set yourself free. The trick is not to try so hard to swim, but rather just simply float.”
In 2015, I’m sounding much stronger. On the first page of a notebook insert, I wrote, “How you APPROACH your day will make a difference in how you DO your day.” I still believe that to be true.
As I celebrated the new year, saying goodbye to 2015 and hello to 2016, I found myself struggling with the abruptness of turning over a new year, both with the celebrations and the making of resolutions. The takeaways that day were: “The “new year” always throws me because I’m always smack dab in the middle of life,” and “It’s hard to think of life in years when you realize some seconds are magical.” I recognize, at least on this day, my outlook had changed so, so much, as I was approaching life from a much more grateful place.
Just recently I found this truth, in my wonderings, “Even if you don’t achieve your goal, don’t discount your journey. There have been lessons learned and gifts received along the way.” Yes. Still grateful and more aware of my journey as being what it is and being more than okay with that.
Time and time again, I’ve heard people say they are afraid to go back and read what they’ve written in their notebooks, afraid they’ll be embarrassed by the person they used to be, knowing full well that hindsight is often clearer and that their thinking in the past was often not so clear. But as we write and attempt to organize our thinking, we grow. From the moment our pen hits the paper, we are evolving, and that is powerful. Revisiting what we’ve written in the past can give us the opportunity to see how we have evolved. We may learn that a former self was not as weak or helpless as we’ve come to think they were, or perhaps they were actually quite annoying or we are embarrassed to have once been them. But whatever the case may be, I think it is better to know our other selves, as Auntie Joan points out, or one may show up unannounced and making demands. It’s better to invite them over, while we are completely prepared to let them in and have a cuppa.
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