Small Delights

August 14, 2020

If you are like me, your diary entries might read like the newspapers and other media: all the best-selling bad news, all the tragedies, all the wrongs and slights, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

So I was pleased to rediscover the joy of two small journals I began but never finished.  I think it would be uplifting to try again.  The little black book was supposed to be a gratitude journal.  It includes entries from 2004 to 2010.  I wish there were more entries because there is nothing dark or negative, only happiness.  I quit because it is awkward for me to be “grateful” when I have no god or guide to be grateful to.  Maybe a pantheist needs to simplify to a one to three sentence record of the best thing that happened that day and leave it there.

Some entries:

12-30-2004 “Drove Camel on errands and to the feed store.  He started right up and ran fine.  I loved driving the pick-up again.”

12-31-2004 “Watched the flamenco dancers at First Night.  Beautiful!”

1-13-2005 “I struggled on through with the computer and made a flyer for pet siting.  Hooray!”

4-29-2005 ” M. gave me a photo of the lamb I saved, a mug with women writers, and a book of famous last words.”

1-30-2008 “I enjoyed people’s reaction to my beret.  As always, so many people stare or smile and the men respond.  Everyone defers.  Why is this so?  Why does this hat give me so much power?”

10-18-2009 “My favorite time of the day was sitting in the swing watching the sunset, drinking a cup of coffee after four and a half hours of farm work.”

I think it is quite amazing how much can be conveyed in just a few sentences.  The reader knows a little about me already and about what is important to me, what makes me happy.

Actual diaries from the 1800s, those pocket-size books with about an inch of space for an entry, also convey a lot of information, though not so much the feelings of the diarist.  I.e. “killed three chickens today,” “planted the peas,” “visited old Mrs. Turner,” or “Sally’s baby has colic.”

The second journal in the picture, 3″ by 4″ in size with the beetle on the cover, was an attempt at haiku-like poetic thoughts.  I tried to do one every night before turning out the light.  There are no dates.

Some examples:  “Milo’s eyes twinkled when he saw me.  How flattered I am to be so loved by a cat.”

“Evie tells us: ‘My daddy is the best daddy ’cause he’s soft and cozy.'”

And: “Today I wore the sixties again

Fine in flowing orange cotton India blouse and black pants

Where did the years go?”

And:  “Blond curls. Naked butts. Romping in pool. Such beautiful edible innocence.”

And: “Cat curled on the chair.  Evie pets her, kisses her.  Annie does not run.”

And: “‘Tell you what,’ Evie says to the doll.  Smiling, I see I have been copied again.”

Each one of these short, simple entries, capturing the best moment of each day, is remarkable in the boost of happy memories it brings during today’s dark uncertain times.  It has been like going through old photo albums.  Word pictures.

Beginning Diary #81

May 27, 2020

This is a photo of my diary collection.  My own diaries take up three and a half shelves on the left.    Had I written continuously with no breaks, this collection would be enormous.  The first one I saved was 1964.  I recently began diary #81. When I wrote my first diary I never expected it to be a lifelong passion. Never thought about that at all.

Not shown here are years of letters written to and from all members of the family.  I also keep or have kept gardening journals, trip journals, dream journals, beekeeping record books, movie record books, reading record books, and quote books.  Obviously I am fond of writing things down.  An archivist by nature.

On the right are real diaries written by other people plus published diaries (those deemed “acceptable” to print), books written about journal writing, and a stash of blank books to use in the future.  I study the art of keeping diaries, the illegitimate side of written literature.

I have collected fewer than 25 handwritten diaries.  Some are presents from my family purchased off Ebay.    Even diaries written by non-famous common ordinary people are expensive to buy.  Some of the diaries were written by my mother and great-grandmother.  A very few were donations.

My favorite one was a gift from a friend, picked up at a local auction. It is written by a button collector, but oh there is so much more in that one. She was a character and described her honest feelings about people and events, even when she did not exactly appear saintly.

I write as openly and honestly as I can about people, my feelings, events in my life, my beliefs, animals, books, movies, gardening, my bookstore, nature, phenomenon, and strange synchronicities. Generally, I do not write about politics or world events, unless they touch me personally.  Since 2016 that changed and I have poured my passionate anger into my journals.

I have continued to teach occasional journal writing workshops. If anyone is interested in joining me in the creation of an archive, contact me at The Eclectic Reader at 970-223-4019.

 

 

Not Just for Diaries

May 7, 2020

The National Diary Archive I intend to establish will include letters.  Letters are a different sort of private writing, a more nuanced level of self-exposure.  They may not be written with the desire to reveal much, yet they often betray their creator with impunity.   Everything you write, even what you do not say, brings your character to light.   What does it say about you?  Your choice of pen, paper, even the stamp, whispers truths.

I suppose the level of honesty in one’s letters depends a great deal on who the recipient is, i.e. your father, mother, grandmother, or sister, and, of course, your relationship to that person…close or fraught with tension.

As much as re-reading my journals, I experience the voyeuristic pleasure of reading a stranger’s secrets.  Surprise! They are my own.  Some of my letters contain stories of experiences I had forgotten.  Who can remember 50 years ago?  Now a senior, I cannot reliably remember what happened last Tuesday.

What I do remember from last week is the discovery of a shoebox full of around 50 letters I wrote between 1970 and 1976.  A real treasure!   I am reading about parts of my life that have become dim in memory.   Luckily I come from a family of hoarders of ephemera, who preserved my literary outpourings.

Unless the letters stored in your attic are so banal you would hide from embarrassment, I encourage you to preserve them.  You can make them into a pseudo-diary.  Preserve them in a three-ring binder, or a notebook without harmful fasteners, or put them individually into plastic pockets and then into a binder. Your family, your descendants, may appreciate them.  If not, a total stranger of the future world.

The Gift of Time

April 24, 2020

 

April 23, 2020

Still alive, still healthy, still working (hunkering down in my bookstore…all alone), I have allowed myself to have a few hours of free time devoted to wandering here and there around the home castle and puttering like a honeybee in a hive looking for a job that pleases her fancy.   What’s a diarist to do during coronavirus lockdown besides write about it?  Answer:  re-read your old journals.

Since it was around the anniversary of my brother’s death on my mother’s April 15th birthday, I pulled out this 1998 diary.  Yes, it says “addresses,” but I have frequently re-purposed other bound books.  This one had glossy pages with pictures of horticultural interest.  I am also a gardener and a houseplant collector.

I discover many things when I take a look back at my life.   First, I am grateful for the opportunity to read a portrait of my former self and my life experiences, in my own words, expressed and written when it happened.  Who can remember the past so exactly from memory?  Can you remember what you looked like as a teenager except through old photos?  It is the same with a written record.  Memory changes things, generally a whitewash.  You forget what you said, or did.  You color it brighter or darker than it was.  The details fade.  When I re-read I exclaim “oh,” and “oh,” and I am astonished.  I remember the truth.

Second, I see that I wasn’t such a bad writer.  All journals are “first draft.”  No revisions.  The thoughts spring from deep within your psyche, free flowing, with no censor.  The writing follows no rules as to form or content.  There should be a separate category of literature just for journals.  But there isn’t.  We diarists are the illegitimate offspring of the writers’ world.

My brother died of complications from meningitis overlaid on a lifetime of alcoholism.  He died conveniently on my mother’s birthday as his parting shot.   It took him 55 years to complete death by alcohol and a hedonistic lifestyle.   I laughed out loud at his funeral because the minister (who did not know him) made some mistakes while describing his stellar life. The pages of writing I did about my brother’s death and my feelings about him were the most honest eulogy anyone could have written.   I never hated him.  My love seeps through the writing even though I said some bad things about him.

There were other things in that journal, such as some clear signs that my partner was unhappy with all the work on the farm and would be leaving me for a life of freedom and new horizons.  There was joy, as well.  I re-lived the birth of my memorable buck goat, Hemingway, and his sister, Anais.  (It was a literary names year on the farm.)

The third benefit of looking back in your diaries is you discover the actual date of when something happened.  Now I extract those dates to prepare for the creation of a timeline of my life.  Someday, if I ever retire, I may finish that project.

So, if you are looking for something to do during the pandemic’s “gift of time,” I highly recommend becoming a time-traveler and diving into your old journals for the memories and insights. You will be rewarded.

I Should Have Chosen the Red One

April 20, 2020

 

 

 

 

 

I should have chosen the red one. Instead, on March 13th, I selected this blank book with the Tiffany cover, which is far too pretty and small for a pandemic. We were at about 5,700 people infected with the coronavirus in the US at that time, 640,000 now. I am at 116 pages so far—about half way—and will be done with it before the crisis is over.

I hope that you are writing your story. Coronavirus and You. Cornavirus in your city. A month, week, or day by day account. Write the history, write the truth of it. See it, feel it, taste the experience. Make a record of it for future generations, or for yourself in old age.

Some of our diaries will survive, like the diaries from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the dust bowl of the 1930s, the children’s blizzard of 1888, or the Galveston hurricane of 1900 that killed over 6,000 people. You don’t learn history from the textbooks. That’s all whitewashed and scrubbed clean until it has lost all the flavor and truth it ever had. Primary source. That’s us.

We need thousands of stories. Front line stories: nurses, EMTs, firefighters, or those infected and scared. Who among us has been hit hard, who can barely survive, and who has escaped damage – financial, emotional, social? So many stories, but only you can tell it from where you stand.

While we reach out to connect with friends and reconnect with old friends during this historic pandemic, it is also a good time to reconnect with ourselves—the person we are today who may have become something of a stranger during the normal busyness of our lives.

When did you last have time to be alone with that person without all of the daily distraction of our modern society? To reflect on who that character is in relation to the other characters in your own story, your novel? We are “writing” the book of our life even if we do not keep a diary.

Now we have an excuse. A lost job or a closed business. A lockdown. Maybe you are facing poverty and struggling to survive, yet luckily still healthy and not yet at the primal level of survival. If you can motivate yourself in the face of an uncertain future to get out of bed, off the couch, there’s a gift here—the gift of time to do all those things you said you never had time for, the gift of “slow-time” to look around you and appreciate what you do have.

Although I have been meditating and journaling for years, the coronavirus pandemic is a unique experience. Looking at the specter of the grim reaper, being reminded that our days are numbered, and knowing that tomorrow is never a given, it is a moment to step back and see if I am still heading in the direction I want and if my priorities are straight.

It is also a chance to record an individual perspective on this chapter in history. I am the author of this book and I will tell it like it is for me.

2014 in review

January 7, 2015

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 8,000 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Open Mic Night At The Eclectic Reader

January 6, 2015
This was originally supposed to be posted for my bookstore…but it is also directly related to journaling.  We are having an open mic night at The Eclectic Reader in Fort Collins, Colorado, 1119 W. Drake Rd. C-20 at Drake and Shields in the Cimarron Plaza.  We are putting the spotlight on “fragmentary literature.”  Obviously, one of the main sub-categories is diaries/journals/memoirs/letters…just what the National Diary Archive seeks to promote and preserve.    If you live close by, come on over and share a piece you’ve written and show people why this genre deserves to be recognized.
 1st OPEN MIC @eclecticreaderbooks Saturday January 10, 2015 @ 7:30-9:30pm  Announcing first ever open mic night.  1) Poetry and short prose.  2) Fragmentary writing-bits & pieces, snippets, shards of thought, diary & journal entries, letters, short essays, aphorisms.  3) Music-acoustic, vocals etc. #fortcollins #ftcollins #fortcollinsreads #ftcollinsreads #colorado #scenemagazinenoco #coloradoan

ANNOUNCING OUR FIRST EVER    OPEN MIC NIGHT

SATURDAY, JANUARY 10th,  from 7:30-9:30 p.m. at The Eclectic Reader
Featuring – “Fragmentary Writing”
” ‘Fragmentary writing,’ what’s that? ” you ask.  Well, that’s what most of us do first (before we publish our Opus Majus).  It’s bits and pieces of stuff, snippets, shards of thought, letters, diary and journal entries, short prose pieces, poetry, aphorisms, short essays, punchy letters to the editor and character sketches    Oh, and songs…so music is welcome, too.
We’ll put out a money jar for a prize…winner takes all.  Audience to be the judge.
 Join us for some fun.
On the night of this frenzy of exposition, all books in the store will be 20% off.
Questions?   Call 970-223-4019

Italy’s National Diary Archive Foundation

August 24, 2014

Exciting news:  A reader has just sent me a connection to an article that appeared on August 19 in the New York Times.   It seems that Italy already has a diary archive, containing 7,000 memoirs written by “ordinary” people.  It is located in Pieve Santo Stefano, Italy, now known as the “City of Diaries.”

 

The project was begun in 1984 by Saverio Tutino, a foreign correspondent.  The current director is Natalia Cangi.

 

Go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/20/world/europe/a-trove-of-diaries-meant-to-be-read-by-others.html

 

I have no news on the National Diary Archive for the USA.  I am currently so involved with my final attempt to succeed with a brick and mortar used, out-of-print and rare bookstore that I have little time for the archive.  (I work six days a week.)  The archive needs funding.  If The Eclectic Reader bookstore succeeds, so will the archive.

I have had an interesting donation for the archive this summer- a “commonplace book,” which is  a scrapbook of letters, copies of poems, articles and pictures cut out of newspapers dating from 1870 to 1881.   The only clue as to ownership of this book is the name William Robertson of Glasgow on a certificate of the National Secular Society from 1879.  There are references to Glasgow, Santa Rosa, California, and Grand Rapids, Michigan.   The scrapbook is definitely religious in nature.   The creator of this book could have been a minister. It came to me from the  estate of a minister.  The handwriting is exquisite, but often hard to read.  I’ll try to do a post on it soon.

Writing and the Irish – Guest columnist – Barry Wallace

March 18, 2014

Almost everyone in my family writes well. My twin brother is a poet; my two sisters have collaborated on an unpublished novel and one of them writes a weekly column for a small Florida paper. My younger brothers surprise me with their articulate emails; my father was a gifted speaker; my mother wrote me wonderful vivid letters when I was away at college. I have kept journals for decades and tried other forms of writing. Always writing.

 

For a long time I wouldn’t have associated this gift with our being Irish, but the older I get the more powerful the connections grows. Our story is a familiar one. Famine Irish from the mid 19th century. We never knew much more than that. Staunch Irish Catholic, meatless Fridays, weekly confessions, Sunday Mass and the Holy Days of Obligation. We were poor but didn’t mind it. This world didn’t matter as much as the next. That’s when the Irish would get their share of what life had conspired to take away from them. Mother had second hand furniture. My father couldn’t afford a car that worked. Our TV never held a station. We couldn’t get sick because Dad had no money to pay the doctor.

 

But we had words. Always words. There was no shortage of words. My father loved to talk about the world. My grandmother and her brothers and sisters argued over politics and religion at every meal. Only my mother was silence, and in her silence I also heard words, unsaid words, quiet words that may have led me to write a diary instead of trying to produce the great American Novel. Of course there were plenty of Irish writers that the world knew about. We read James Joyce’s “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” when we were in Catholic high school. Our literature writers included short stories and poems by Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolin and William Butler Yeats. These were new names to me but I instantly recognized something in them that I had never before felt in a classroom – kinship with the  ideas and the people they wrote about. I sensed that I knew them and that they were my own.

 

Why in the world did I decide at 17 that I wanted to become a writer when I hardly had read a book on my own? Where did that come from? Why were words so important to me? Why did I need them? They were like the air I breathed. I needed them before breakfast and after supper. I needed to dwell in words all day. I didn’t know anything about Ireland or the life of the pubs. Or the unique heritage of stories and poems in a small enchanted nation brutalized by colonialization and rended by Civil War. I began to read as much as I could, and many of my interests and questions brought me back to my Irish roots. We had lost contact with our past, but we hadn’t lost the trauma, the gift and the humor that came with it.

 

My great grandmother Mary Clark, whose parents were born in Cork, kept a diary throughout her long life. Nothing fancy – she entered birthdays and holidays, Sunday Mass, spring time drives into the country, good meals, weddings, deaths and parties. Grandma Ma as we called her was barely literate. She sounded out words she couldn’t spell, but I love her diaries and consider them next to my dearest books. The Irish wrote to say, “We were here.” It was a powerful statement given the cultural genocide they faced in the old country, and the fight for survival in the bustling new world they entered full of fight and blind endurance.

 

I later realized that an entire nation had a gift of words, even the silent ones like my mother. I explored my own Irishness in my diaries. I kept coming back to certain indivisible aspects of my own personality and they seemed set for me in far-away places like Cork and Armagh and Sligo, places that I would visit years later and be brought to tears by my sense of having been there in a prior life, the life of a race of people.

 

On this St Patrick’s Day I am once again driven by words. Words to write in a diary, words to send out into endless space of the internet. With words I hold onto what I love and value most; with words I join the community of writers and ordinary people; with words I pain the world I have known. I won’t take a drink on St Pat’s Day. I won’t attend any of the parades. But I will sit down with a book and breathe in the soul of a people with the voice of the Irish to console and to guide and to remind me of why this day matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Answer 4 (Part VII) Questionnaire for Long-Time Diarists: Barry

February 28, 2014

Introductory comments from Cynthia Manuel:  As a long-time book dealer, I have rather liked the fanciful notion  that the books on the shelves of my bookstore are actually “minds on shelves.”  “So many minds to explore, so little time,” to paraphrase a modern aphorism.  Non-fiction is my favorite, biographies especially, but nothing holds the fascination like a published diary if you truly want a glimpse into the mind of the writer as he or she  experiences “life’s ordinary hours.”    Barry writes “it opened up history and literature in ways I hadn’t experienced before.”  Exactly so.

In this installment, Barry answers the question: DO YOU ENJOY READING PUBLISHED DIARIES OF OTHERS?

I was an undergraduate reading from the Norton Book of American Literature when I first learned about published diaries. Until that time I thought a diary was a book that girls kept under lock and key to confide their crushes on neighborhood boys. I would love to read such diaries today, but when I was a young man I thought literature should be serious and boring. Filled with grand thoughts and abstruse reflections.

 

That is until I came upon the diaries of the puritan Samuel Sewell. He was a puritan merchant who kept account of his days and years during the colonial period in Massachusetts. Sewell’s diary was hardly exciting but it did capture something I hadn’t yet found in literature – the texture of daily life written by a person for himself.  It opened up history and literature in ways I hadn’t experienced before. It was refreshingly down to earth after pages of overwrought sermons and pious poetry. Here was a man who just lived his way into literature. In the same anthology I ran across the Quaker diary of John Woolman and was very touched by his gentle childhood reminiscences, especially the passages where he thoughtlessly killed a robin and the pangs of remorse he felt. Why did these excerpts speak so forcefully to me, instead of the great literature that often left me cold?

 

After I graduated college and began my own education I found the books of Edwin Teale, a Connecticut nature writer who kept tracks of the seasons in two wonderfully vivid diaries of every day observations. The writer Hal Borland did the same thing with his journal entries on nature published in the NYTimes. They were both older writers when I first discovered them but I had immediate affinity with their work. I’ve gone on to explore the nature writers who use the diary form to organize their observations. Right now I am reading Sue Hubbell,s “A Country Year” another little gem in diary form.

 

As a young teacher I was assigned to teach The Diary of Anne Frank. I had never read it before so I set out to work. It left a lasting and profound impression on me — this young girl in a garret hiding from the Nazi bullies. She was so filled with life, even in her closed space of innocence and terror. Although I have never reread it, her diary haunts my imagination and sense of life. She is the shadow of time and cruelty that motivate my own words. Her great courage is my small courage. There have been countless books written about WW2 but none have the poignance of her little book. Diaries often capture the human and the humane as well as any great literature can.

 

One of my favorite diaries is Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, a record of his visits to Civil War hospitals, and of his later days enjoying the woods in his Camden neighborhood. Actually he wrote them as notes which he put in journal form, but there is really no difference to the reader. Whitman also coined one of my mantras when he wrote that so few of life’s ordinary hours are recorded in literature and he hoped to do just that.

 

I also discovered that many of our greatest writers kept great journals. You will never read anything richer than Nathaniel Hawthorne’s diary entries about his young marriage to Sophie Peabody and his “Mosses from an Old Manse” is really a diary disguised as an essay. Joyce Carol Oates published a diary. Not very revealing except of her extraordinary intelligence and amazing work habits. A poet named Howard Nemerov published one of the strangest diaries I ever read and called it a novel. Thornton Wilder has an intriguing and brilliant diary. When you get inside some of the great minds in our culture it is a shock and a privilege to enter the sanctuary of genius.

 

But I take as much pleasure in less high flying literary performances.

 



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