Every morning I climbed north on AL-21 out of Atmore on my way to Monroeville, driving through harvested cotton fields, past a prison (where the speed limit dropped to 35 miles per hour), and a lumber yard that sat near a bumpy set of railroad tracks. I saw bits of cotton sticking to the nubby grass along the roadside, like dryer lint that refused to budge. I saw scrubby evergreen trees and a low sky, yet not as expansive as it is in Kansas or Colorado. The lumber yard had an intoxicating cut-wood smell that lingered for a few miles. Atmore did not offer much more than a casino and a few restaurants, but it did have a YMCA.
I visited restaurants with food that soaked lazily in butter baths, with fat oozing off of chicken, and mounds of cheesy macaroni sitting in large metal containers under heat lamps. I felt my cholesterol rise by 30 points as I ate food that shocked my normally-vegan system and caused me to feel more sluggish than usual.
I met with people who are extremely courteous, almost in an anachronistic way, where people are prefaced with a “Ms.” or “Mr.”, and the word “Ma’am?” comes in place of “Excuse me?” The homes I visited for my work … people were glad to see me, although I was a stranger to them. I represented a local business that they seemed to respect, and counted me as one of their own, even though my “northern” accent clearly indicated that I was not. Courtesy won, and I was treated with respect any way.
When I left there late Friday afternoon, the temperature had returned to the mid-60s (after having been in the 40s during my stay). I felt like I should be nostalgic somehow, but I wasn’t. I plopped into my seat on the Canadair Jet, fastened my seatbelt, and proceeded to read from my book “Writers on Writing” as we awaited our departure from the airport in Mobile. This literally will be my one and only time in Alabama for work.
And this was the only postcard I brought back with me.
Christmas arrived yesterday evening, 12.30.15. My husband had ordered some books for me from my Amazon wish list, and my Dad and his girlfriend’s package of gifts arrived as well. I am tired tonight, trying to believe it is truly New Year’s Eve. The two months that I loathe are about to begin. These cold, dark days make it feel like January and February will never end. (February, the shortest month of the year, feels interminable to me).
I’m thinking about a lot of things, nothing organized or interesting, but here are some New Year’s memories that come readily to mind:
New Year’s Eve,1995. This was one of the last nights that I stayed at my maternal Grandma’s house, the first New Year’s after my Grandpa had died. I was a junior in high school. While growing up, she lived one street over from us, within easy walking distance. We found ourselves at her house a lot throughout the years, but New Year’s was a special treat. She made popcorn on the stove using a heavy metal saucepan. She would jostle the pan repeatedly over the hot electric burner as the kernels pinged against the metal pot. Afterward, she poured butter and salt over the freshly-popped kernels, and we ate it happily in front of the TV, watching the excitement in Times Square. We cut up old advertisements that came in the mail, a makeshift confetti, and tossed it upward as the clock struck midnight.
On this particular New Year’s, I was recovering from one of the worst asthma attacks that I’d ever had. Just a few days earlier, I had spent time in the emergency room, taking back-to-back breathing treatments. My lungs had felt like they were paralyzed, like filled balloons that could not receive any more air. I was exhausted from several days of struggling to breathe – there was no where for the air to go. Those breathing treatments brought instant relief to my breathing and my anxiety. For some reason, my Grandma’s house had fewer triggers, and my Mom wanted me to recover there for a day or two. It worked. New Year’s truly felt like a recovery. I wrote in my journal early the next morning, the curtains still drawn against the dim, gray outdoor light, everyone still asleep, but I could breathe, I no longer struggled. I munched on leftover popcorn as I wrote, and I was thankful.
New Year’s Eve, 1999. I was working the night shift in a Dayton, Ohio area hospital, the leading trauma hospital in the area. Y2K was looming. We were prepared for a major malfunction of technology. As Respiratory Therapists, we were worried about our mechanical ventilators (i.e. “life support” machines) failing, so we had Ambu-bags on stand-by in all of the ICU rooms (these are basically big football-looking balloons that we used to manually pump oxygenated air into a patient until mechanical ventilation was available). I found an empty patient room, turned on the TV to see Times Square, all those happy people laughing and yelling, not a single person worrying about potential ventilator failures. Eleven fifty-five p.m., and I started pacing, mentally preparing my strategy. Eleven fifty-nine p.m., I started holding my breath. Suddenly, midnight. The lights never flickered, the ventilators kept humming right along. I don’t remember anything else about that overly-hyped night.
New Year’s Eve, 2001. There is a photograph from this particular evening, taken high up in a sky scraper in Chicago, looking at (what was then called) the Sears Tower. It was the day after our friend Robert’s 30th birthday. I remember two things: it was absolutely freezing cold, the wind whipping mercilessly between buildings, stinging my face so that my eyes watered constantly; my lips felt swollen and my teeth wouldn’t stop rattling. We walked around downtown, as this was part of Robert’s birthday wish – to enjoy the atmosphere of one of his favorite cities. I was miserable and couldn’t wait for the night to end. The second memory is of eating at Uno’s Pizzeria that night. It was a tiny place that seemed to be wedged thoughtlessly into the building, too small and crowded for my taste. We waited outside in the cold for a long time, but when we finally got inside, I didn’t mind the continued wait. Finally, finally, I was warm. There were pictures of celebrities on the walls, people who had been in there and had written glowing messages of appreciation for the place. In my journal, I wrote of these celebrities and wondered what greatness they saw in Uno’s that I couldn’t see. I still do not see the big deal about Chicago. And I don’t remember actually celebrating the new year that night.
New Year’s Eve, 2005. I had just finished my evening shift at a small hospital in southern Indiana. Our friends Robert and Tricia were in town, on their way back to New Jersey. We were completely out of their way, but Robert’s love for adventure made provisions for side trips like visiting us. I arrived home near midnight, where I met them at my tiny apartment. We had a post-birthday celebration for Robert, starring a chocolate cake with pink lettering (thanks to his then-seven-year old daughter). We also met their newest daughter, born in August, a beautiful child who smiled and laughed at my acne-covered face. In my journal, I wrote about how their seven-year old daughter slept on the couch bed in the living room with me, and we told stories to each other until two or three in the morning, like best friends sharing secrets after a long separation. Those were the days when she still liked me, before adolescence took over, before I was no longer cool.
New Year’s Eve, 2015. I am sitting here in the old rocking chair, legs propped up on the purple swiss ball. My husband is off playing soccer. I am here, thinking about how much I hate January, how I refuse to make resolutions, but also thinking that this year is the year that I get serious about writing. For Christmas, my husband bought me three books (two have arrived, the other still a mystery that has yet to arrive). Last night, lying in bed, I read the first book to arrive, called True Stories, Well Told. “Well told” indeed, so well that I didn’t go to sleep until after midnight (on a work night), riveted by essays about cancer, abuse, hitchhiking around Europe and living with a traumatic brain injury. I have been in a writing funk for a few months, which was unexpected after almost an entire year of consistent journal writing. This book fanned the embers, brought life back to my writer’s soul.
And now I am here, writing garbage, but writing. Soon, we will pop the non-alcoholic bubbly, toast our good-byes to a difficult year, and I’ll scribble my pens to a new year full of real and imagined adventures.
This was written on 12.31.13 after walking through a local “county park” where there are trails throughout the woods there. In order to get to this park, I have to walk through a neighborhood near our apartment, where there is a “secret” entrance to the park for those who live in the neighborhood. It had just snowed, and because the park grooms its hiking trails for cross-country skiers, I had to walk purposefully along side of the trails, to avoid stomping into their path and messing up their skiing, making the hike more strenuous than usual.
I found myself at the end of the “secret entrance” trail. For the first time in two years, I saw a freshly groomed trail. Prior to this, I thought a “groomed” trail meant that the snow was packed down from the skiers’ skis passing over the snow. But I was pleasantly surprised to see something instead that corrected my misconception, and it fascinated me for some reason.
It’s actually quite pretty; it looks like someone went by, dragging a giant comb. The lines were perfectly parallel to each other, and they travel side-by-side for the entire width of the trail. I was careful to stay off the trail and walked along the side of it, occasionally grabbing for branches and small trees in order to stay upright. With at least four inches of snow on the ground, this was not so easy.
This day was a beautiful day, although cold. I wore my trusty green winter coat that I’ve had for so long that I cannot remember not having it. I’ve never been cold in this coat, even when walking through Chicago one bitterly freezing night when the wind dashed madly between skyscrapers. Today was no exception, despite the fact that temps were in the teens with even lower wind chill values.
The snow fell in clumps from the bare tree limbs, and sometimes flakes chunked together as they fell from the boundless expanse of gray sky. I took several pictures along the way, which always slows down my exercising, but I had to because I began seeing metaphors that I needed to capture.
The freshly-groomed trails made me think of the upcoming “new year”. What is New Year’s Day? It’s another set of 24-hours that spins past like all the others, but why is this one special? What causes people to want to congregate in Times Square, or other large cities, and watch an illumined ball count down to midnight? throw confetti? drink champagne? kiss people? What is it about us that likes a fresh start? Why do we like the reset that occurs with a new year? Why do we look back at the 364 days that trail behind and think that somehow January 1 will start a new, improved era in our lives?
I am not immune to such hopes. Ever since I can remember, my journal (for the most part) has been the recipient of many new starts, reflections on the old and hopeful wishes for the new year. The earth turns its course around its axis, and the axis spins its way around the sun, and somehow in the dead of winter we cast our hopes aloud or in private, thinking we’ll finally accomplish those tasks, develop those attributes, be the person we’ve always wanted to become.
I thought about this as I continued my hike beside the beautiful, freshly-groomed trail, admiring its cleanness. No one had come through yet where I hiked. But towards the upcoming intersection, I noticed a sign that was posted to a tree. It said “Caution: Two Way Traffic”. As I passed it, I decided to look back. Another sign, posted on the other side of that same tree, said “Do Not Enter, Please”. With the trail behind me, I noticed those longitudinal groom lines as they, perfectly parallel to each other, scratched and sloped their way up the hill and disappeared around the curve of the trail that I had just descended. I marveled at how a change in my perspective (by turning around and looking behind me) gave a different view of where I just was.
Perhaps there is a lesson here. It’s okay to turn around and glance back at the past (and I will expound more on this shortly), but it’s often a bad idea to try to head back to the past. Maybe some of us need a little caution sign in our lives, when life gets difficult and nostalgic lies come creeping in to lure us into false comfort: DO NOT ENTER, PLEASE!
I turned back around and continued a little more up the trail. I saw where another trail emerged from my right and then merged into the trail beside which I was walking. I am familiar with this junction, as I walk this trail a lot during the year. But I liked seeing the beautiful, comb-like scratches in the snow, imagining how it would feel to glide skis over such perfection (I have yet to try cross-country skiing).
Then something else interested me. The other trail that merged into my trail had the marks of a skier. This skier did not just glide through; there were herringbone designs in the snow. I am not at all experienced with cross-country skiing, but this pattern suggested that the person decided to “walk” their way through this part of the trail. As I looked ahead, I saw why. Our trails descended, especially as they merged, and the combined trail continued its descent until it leveled off over the foot bridge up ahead. To me, it appeared as if the skier was resisting the descent.
As I continued along, I snapped pictures of the scenery ahead of me, then turned around and snapped the scenery I had already passed. I began to muse, “Well, aren’t we as humans a little bit like this?” Some of us resist change, and we dig in our skis to avoid the perceived scariness of sliding onto a new, unmarked path. I know I can be this way. There is comfort in the familiar. Perhaps the skier was familiar with the trail but just being cautious. I know I’m very much this way in my own life.
The other thought that crossed my mind was how writing, for me, was very similar to my hike on this day. When I write, I capture a moment or moments on paper, giving birth to a particular context that will not necessarily exist later, or if it does, it will be changed by the passing of time. I am taking mental snapshots and translating them into verbal images in my journal. Weeks, months, years later, when I revisit those words, they tell a story of a moment that is no longer in the present, but gives voice to something that was. I get a taste of my own personal history, and that can be satisfying. A favorite Anais Nin quote comes immediately to mind:
We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.
I enjoyed the different perspective as I turned around and photographed the trail I had just walked beside. At one point, I looked ahead of me at a hill I was about to climb. Subconsciously I quickly assessed it: it would require a little more muscle power, a little more lung capacity, perhaps produce more sweat. I didn’t dread it, probably because I’ve done this hill before, although it was more difficult with my current trail-walking restrictions and the added burden of snow. What interested me is that once I arrived to the top of the hill, I turned around and saw the hill as something I accomplished. The same hill had opposing attributes – both ascent and descent – and the degree of difficulty depended on my current position on that hill.
I believe that writing helps me to see the terrain of my present context, whether a problem, a crisis, or just plain day-to-day activities that occurs. Looking back over old journals is like standing at the top of the hill, looking down the trail I just scaled. And I keep writing, writing my way up the next ascent.
“January 26, 1992Today I gave my sister $10.00 to buy me a real journal, and this is what she chose…”
I read this line with interest, the line that christens my first “real” journal. Somehow over the 20+ years of journal writing, the memory of my sister choosing this important first journal slipped away from me. Perhaps the myriad vapid musings that would fill (currently) 27 journal books slowly erased that particular memory.
The book is an interesting one. It is narrow with somewhat puffy covers. The background design is a honeycomb pattern, each hexagon containing a different fill: some have stars, some have swirls, flowers, cartoon-like creatures, checkered patterns, doves, a bird, a goose, horizontal lines, etc. I remember many times staring at the different designs for many minutes, trying to figure out if there was a pattern I was supposed to understand, a secret code of sorts. Only now, almost 22 years later, I imagine that each hexagon represents the variety in a person’s thought life, which is a very appropriate representation. On the front cover, in the very middle, there is an arched, window-like frame with even smaller honeycomb patterns similar to the ones on the rest of the cover, but these are background to a large black and white cat that sits prettily in the middle of this frame. The cat is a contrast to the mostly pink-hued color scheme of the honeycombed patterns, both within the window frame and the surrounding cover. While there are other colors, the dominant hue is pink, making this journal a very girly journal in my now-adult estimation. Suddenly I wonder: what made my sister choose this particular journal? What were her other options? It no longer matters, actually, it never did, because she chose it for me and I happily began to fill its pages with all kinds of adolescent nonsense.
I read the entries with mostly amused boredom nowadays. In January of 1992, I was a 13-year old eighth grader in a public middle school located in a small town just outside of Akron, Ohio. I had two close friends who play starring roles in my moody rants that season the book with (not surprisingly) a very immature outlook. Thrown in for good measure, I also have many insipid thoughts about certain boys who had my attention throughout that eighth-grade year. Kyle. Ross. Dave. Randy. Robbie. Richard. Even the occasional eighth-grade teacher. I was not discriminating when it came to age … adult men were just as much on my radar as the boys my age.
What produces a low-grade concern in me now, after all these years, is reading through the often-tenebrous entries where I wished for death to take me out of my sullenness … the rape of a friend the spring of our eighth-grade year … There is nothing particularly well-written in this journal, just a glimpse into the mind of an immature, extremely moody teen who couldn’t wait to grow up and be a “real” adult, whatever that means.
Reading these entries, on the heels of recently watching a BBC documentary about teenaged girls with anorexia, further exacerbates my indecisiveness about whether or not to have children. This is something my husband and I decided together when we discussed marriage; both of us felt that it was irresponsible to bring children into such a messed up world. As time has passed and now that I am being confronted with twilight of the ovaries (another forthcoming blog discussion), I am much more open to it than he is at the moment … until I watched the documentary a few days ago. As it finished, I felt relief to not have a prospective daughter of mine staring the horrors of adolescence in the face. And when I read the dizzying rollercoaster rides that represent my terrible mood swings during my eighth-grade year (and beyond), I think, “Wow, I survived that horrible time (as we all do), so why would I want to subject another human being (or beings) to that horror?”
This is just a digression from my original thought journey while reflecting on my first journal. It’s these very issues that jump out to me as I read the scariness that shines out of an adolescent’s journal. It may have caused me to briefly reflect on the terrors of raising children, but ultimately what I have appreciated about reading this first journal is seeing the changes and development that began with the writing of those first few words … “Today…” it was the beginning of something much bigger than expected. “Today I…” How many times have you sat down to something in order to record what you did on that particular day? Photographers do this in a sense, don’t they? They capture a scene or an image, or create an atmosphere using their lenses, perhaps using the lighting, and they say, “Today I ….” Other artists do, too, I’m sure. But to be able to look back more than 20 years ago and get a quick glimpse into the growing cerebral mess that was one’s self during adolescence, well, it’s pretty amazing to consider how life has changed from that particular moment, and it’s interesting to note that we do, in fact, survive those changes, regardless of the horror the can accompany those changes.
I look again at that first phrase:
“Today I gave my sister $10.00 to buy me a real journal, and this is what she chose…”
Ten dollars to a 13-year old is a big deal. Entrusting my older sister to come up with something worthwhile with that money is even more fascinating. That first journal marks an epoch of something that continues to be a parallel universe, a reflecting pool of sorts that has followed me as a shadow for the incredibly bumpy journey of growing up. That reflecting pool formed in 1992 and the image reflected there is very different than the the image I see in the current pool. At this point in time, I am not sure if it’s nothing more than just an older-looking face. I’d like to think that the cerebral mess underneath the scalp is somewhat better, more articulate than the eighth-grader who bravely started this journey, regardless of its insipid and meandering beginnings. It has been a puzzling ride full of deep emotions, from depression to exhilaration, and now mostly-calm drifting through the maze of mentation.