Archive for May, 2016

Day to Self

In the way of books talking to one another it seems entirely appropriate that the book I gave up on this past week was mentioned in the opening pages of the book I picked up to replace it. Just a couple of days before the giving up, I was raving to a client who had asked if I liked Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” books. Yes! I did! I loved them. I loved that someone could talk about cleaning out his dead father’s house, bagging up garbage, vaccuuming, assembling meals in between, for upwards of a hundred (or maybe it was two hundred) pages and keep me fully invested the entire time. Then I got to book 4, Dancing in the Dark, and for whatever reason just did not have it in me this week, this month, this year, for such detailed descriptions of teenage boy brain. I didn’t out and out hate it, I just couldn’t muster the will to keep going. When I’m not happy in my reading life I get very snappish with the outside world. I’ll catch up with Knausgaard again in book 5.

What I picked up to replace it was Sixty, Ian Brown’s account of his sixty-first year. I have to admit that while diaries of writers are compelling to me in the way that Knausgaard has been, for the drama and the discoveries to be found in the everyday, a big part of the appeal is what they might offer in the way of instructions on how to live as a writer, more specifically. In the same way I (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) mine those giant Paris Review interviews with established authors for that one mundane habit or philosophy on first drafts or choice of writing instrument that will crack the whole thing open and make it seem repeatable.

But more immediately, when it comes to diaries, I’m also hoping they’ll teach me how to write in my own diary again. We’ve been seeing less and less of each other in the last ten years and even though I know there are bigger worries in the world, this still bothers me. When I read Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock last fall it dawned on me, around the hundredth page, that she had begun each entry with the word “Today.” Which might seem natural enough, but in the moment of realization struck me as the answer to the diaring drought. Of course. Begin that way and the rest will just burst forth onto the page. I haven’t written a single new entry since then.

Brown doesn’t claim to be a diarist. He’s in it for a year, to investigate his own aging process and see what the world looks like from this particular vantage point. He acknowledges that the finished product has been edited down from the original, but I was pleased to see that it still managed to include enough of the flotsam of daily life to avoid feeling overly focused on plugging away at one theme. It’s messy without being mundane. It’s also very funny, in an alarming sort of way.

On the morning of his sixtieth birthday: “And just like that, standing there in the darkened kitchen at sixty, having been the sort of person—the kind who thought he was twenty-one when he was forty—strikes me as a terrible error. O you fool, I think, you did not realize upon what quiet foot The End approacheth. (My mental cadence takes on the rhythms of the Book of Common Prayer when I get anxious.)” (p. 6)

On money woes and retirement savings: “But then I think: why does it have to be lavish? In a few years I’ll be grateful if my anus is still in one piece.” (p. 127)

Having to wait for service: “‘Don’t you realize I’m dying?’ I want to shout at the obliviously texting twatwipe behind the bar. ‘Every second takes me closer to the end!’” (p. 139)

He also spends time thinking about solitude, which is sort of the unsung specialty of diaries. One of my favourite entries was his synthesis of the ideas of British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott on the importance of parents allowing their children solitude: “without requiring that you be aware of their needs at the same time; they neither abandon you, and make you afraid, nor hold the gift of solitude over your head, reminding you of their own.” (p. 206)


A few Christmases ago I went down to the basement at my parents’ house and retrieved the box of my childhood/teenage diaries with the idea of finally rereading them. I started keeping them when I was eight and continued fairly consistently until around fourth-year university, so about thirteen years. The first two years, and I think I speak unbiasedly here, are gems. I’m not saying it wasn’t mostly the usual friend drama and lists of favourite things, reports on dinner and what my sisters had done to annoy me that day, but there’s also a lot of trying on of voices, and it’s easy to follow the struggle between the different types of books I was reading. An avalanche of Britishisms (at one point I wrote, in all earnestness, “I reckon.” Jesus.) would follow an Enid Blyton binge. There was a tendency in some early nineties middle/YA fiction to centre a story (usually a series) on a rigid set of personality types and I can see the mostly stifling effects of that in my diaries too; the subtext being the question of whether I was a Kristy, a Claudia, a MaryAnn, or a Stacey, an Elizabeth or a Jessica Wakefield. My sense is that this approach to characterization is mostly considered passé now, and probably for the best.

But what’s most interesting to me now is discovering that my need for what sometimes seems like a ridiculous, impractical amount of solitude goes back a lot further than I remembered.

I find it first in the midst of a cramped little rundown of my first week in London. After the giant toystore (Wed.) and before Buckingham Palace (Fri.): Thurs. – Day to self.

Let’s be clear: I was ten, on my first trip abroad, in the almost 24-hour company of my mother and grandmother, making the rounds of family friends. When we went up to Lancashire I would be allowed to take the bus from Colne to Leeds with Emma, who was then twelve, received a slightly more robust allowance and had a shopping list going at all times for her next trip to town. But never, never was I alone. Yet there it was, however out of touch with the reality of travelling as a fully chaperoned ten-year-old, my first written record of a now well-established need for hours unobserved.

“Here’s a good one,” I told my mother the day I found that, and read the entry to her. This launched its gradual dissemination into the lives of our pets, and then inanimate objects. The dog, tuckered from a hike, snoozing on the couch, paws in the air: day to self. Stray dessert fork found out on the lawn after a birthday dinner: day to self. The button that leaps off its jacket, the bathroom fixture that comes off in your hand – all merely in need of a few hours away from the pack.

Introversion is having a moment right now, and although I welcome the new level of acceptance for my end of this Myers-Briggs business – and with it the more nuanced understanding that an occasional desire to command coversation might not be in total opposition to the visceral exhaustion brought on by interaction with other humans, when talk feels a lot like being bashed between two cymbals – it feels double-edged. I catch myself googling “is introversion overrated?” (This turns up mostly articles about extroversion being overrated, so I guess we’re not quite there yet.) Still, I wonder whether we will one day move on from this paradigm and remember the days when we were simple and used extro/intro to explain all kinds of things that can’t be or at least do not require labelling.

But I remain baffled as to where I even learned that initial shorthand: day to self. Or that shorthand was somehow called for. I’d like to think it’s an inborn mode but more likely it came from whatever I was reading at the time. In any case, when I encountered Philip Larkin’s diary poem “Forget What Did” just a few years ago, I was immediately home.

Six or eight years ago, when I was still living on the east coast, my dad called one day to tell me he’d found a box of stuff with my name on it that seemed to have been tampered with:
“I think someone might have gone through your books,” he said. “Your journals.”
“Well, I’m not too worried about it. They’re pretty old.”
“Oh no,” he said. “These ones seem more recent.”

I’m not entirely convinced he didn’t have a picnic lunch next to him there on the basement stairs, making an afternoon of it, amid the mouldering National Geographics, cat carriers, ski poles, and horse tack.

His own diaries (he calls them daybooks) have always been fair game for perusal on the coffee table, open to the current day:
cloudy, 10 degrees
egg sandwich
Sue & girls back from coast

Or, more recently, after having his knee replaced: troubled night. (No living that one down.) His reports run alongside lists of jobs he needs to get done and things he wants to look into. To do and what did on the same page. It really has its appeal and whenever I’ve reread a more fraught passage from one of my own books I think maybe I should just calm the fuck down and stick to the basic goings on. I know people who keep journals for specific aspects of their lives: books they’re reading, hikes taken, flora and fauna. And although I’ve taken long breaks from diaring I come back to it sort of as an extension of talking to myself. In some scattered (and frankly mostly cringe-worthy) way, it’s a rehearsal space and demands a narrative voice, even one that wanders back and forth between note-taking and complete sentences. Subject-wise I think I have to be all in. Because what ultimately stops me when I take these breaks, aside from the usual life distractions, is the nagging question of what gets in and what gets left out. Ie. what if I am not a reliable narrator of the only life I can reliably be counted on to narrate?

Having dipped into some of my later journals, from my university years, what’s most disappointing is that there seems to be no reflection of what I remember being very distinct periods of time, of obsessions. One of my strongest university memories is of the months before my friends and I launched a cross-country cycling trip to raise awareness about climate change. All through that winter we got up early and did weight training (in retrospect probably pointless), then made enormous breakfasts, and then after classes worked until what now seem like ungodly hours researching policy, planning our route, and creating our campaign’s website. (Dear Diary, I once knew HTML!) But almost none of that is in my journal from that year. Possibly that should be heartening, to see that nostalgia can’t really make its way into the day by day. Maybe in another twenty years I’ll find something telling in those months, like that day to self, hiding in the weeds of all the alarming confessions in those first diary pages, what feels now like a bit of prescient knowledge about my way of being in the world. And that’s what will probably get me back to keeping a diary again – the pre-meditated curiosity about what my 56-year-old self might make of my 36-year-old way of presenting myself to myself. It’s not the worst reason, I guess.

If I’m permitted one act I can save

Oops. Got a bit distracted there for a couple of weeks. It was probably inevitable (for me) that a grand statement of intent would be followed more or less immediately by total lack of follow-through. However, in that time I paid my taxes, did my bit for the 2016 census, and finally put my application for BC health coverage in the mail and thus basically feel like I accomplished a lifetime’s worth of adulting. All the forms!

Doing my taxes meant reviewing where all the money went and down that rabbithole I discovered that as of May 4th I have been back in BC for a year. This also means most of my books (and some assorted other flotsam) have now been lurking in a dark storage unit in Bayer’s Lake, NS, for an entire year. That guilty thought and then an essay I read recently by champion reader and book-book author Michael Dirda, “The Guest Room Library,” got me thinking about what my own guest-room shelf* would contain, come that glorious day when I scrape together the postage to ship those 500-odd pounds cross country.

Thinking about the books I most often recommend to people I realized that there is definitely a common thread, though it took me a few tries to pin it down. If pressed I think I would have to categorize it as a sort of “seize the moment but let’s please not read too much into this”-ness. What tends to happen when I recommend my favourite pick-me-ups, though, is that I say, “This is hilarious, read it now, it will snap you out of whatever you’re in,” and then the person comes back and says, “But she DIES at the end!” or “How could a parent DO THAT?” So yes, I guess a certain fuckyouitiveness governs my guest room shelf. Here’s a starter kit:

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. This book snapped me out of a dark gloom last winter.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. This one did the job this past winter. (Apparently the complete absence of winter weather was not quite enough to prevent the winter blahs. I stand corrected). Both it and the Semple novel feature AWOL parents, so if that strikes you as decidedly unfunny I guess take a pass.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. A family favourite.

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant. “I would not say no to a tortoise.” (I would also not say no to intel on when Jessica Grant is publishing a new book. Where’d you go, Jessica?)

Rare Birds by Edward Riche. Birding, the tourism industry, diving gear, go.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Wolfhounds, emerald rings, spontaneous/immaculate gender-reassignment.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Because Thursdays are a bitch.

Unfortunately the words that first come to mind to describe this preference are ones I find grating: zany, madcap? Both feel safe, a bit sanitized, and don’t account for the measure of bleakness I apparently feel compelled to push on people. Absurd I like more, particularly for its connection to existentialism which I am always just a few short minutes away from buckling down and studying properly but mostly just toss into conversation and then run. I would say it’s fiction that’s about grand gestures that might not mean anything at all, approaching life as a lilypad-to-lilypad business rather than sitting still long enough to make a plan. Not so much lack of responsibility but lack of interest in investing additional layers of meaning – a letting be.

And to continue the soundtrack vein, I’ve been revisiting the Weakerthans this week. Remember the Weakerthans? They get it. If there were such a thing as an absurdist love song, “Manifest” might be it:

*Utterly fictional. I have no guest room and am known to be a really disappointing host.