Lines of Understanding

Part 1: Throwing Ink

With two amazing trips planed for 2019, one to Hawaii with my side of the family and one to Alaska with Erin’s side of the family, I concluded that not only did I need to make a travel log, I needed a special book for each trip. I bought two 5×5 Handbook journals with grand visions of combining all of the travel log ideas I’d done before into one amazing book. This would be my best travel log yet. I put so much pressure on myself that the Hawaii book turned out to be the least detailed travel log I’ve done to date, barely filling a quarter of the seventy-five pages. Crestfallen and berating myself for not capturing the trip as I had wanted to, I hastily finished the book before we left for Alaska, vowing to capture this trip as I had wanted to capture Hawaii.  I managed to letter the title page and make one very rough sketch before I let it all go and returned to the words. It was day one of the trip. 

Normally on trips I leave my journal (time capsule) at home, but this time I had brought it along. I put the sketch book aside, and I began to document the trip directly into my time capsule. Soon I was behind on writing daily, but instead of berating myself, I resolved to continue on as best I could and to write down notes throughout the day, as well as a synopsis of the day, in my notebook. Nothing was too mundane, no conversation too short. I wrote not only about the things that we did and saw but the employees that I talked to. I asked them their stories. Instead of collecting brochures, receipts and business cards I simply took notes. It was freeing, and I captured far more about the trip and the people than I ever had before. 

After we returned home I was still catching up on the entries from the trip so I continued to write a synopsis each morning about the previous day, a practice I continue today that has allowed me to be consistent in my journaling. 

Over time I added, to my time capsules, lettering to my entries and at the end of each month a timeline recap. In the spring of 2020 I discovered nature journaling and began taking photos with my phone of the changing world and then using them as reference to sketch directly into my time capsule adding color with colored pencils. I would use the sketchbooks for watercolor sketches that I would then paste into the time capsule.  

My chronicling of life is constantly evolving and I have drawn from many different journaling techniques over the years, pulling out the things that work best for me and ignoring the ones that did not.  I have gone from completely disorganized to over-complicated and still-disorganized to the spot that works best for me and what I am trying to accomplish. I have learned that numbering your pages and labeling everything are two of the most important things I can do to stay organized. I have symbols to put next to entries and a reference system so that I can find an idea in the proper notebook when I want to look something up or write an essay. I use a program called Evernote to keep an idea index of essays, quotes, poems, and many other things as well as a PDF copy of each notebook and time capsule. 

Over the years this process has taught me about myself not only through the words I’ve written but also through the trial and error of finding the proper flow for chronicling life in daily writing. Most important it has helped me to understand what really matters. 

Throwing Ink


I started my first journal in the spring of 1996. The inside front and back covers are filled with quotes about living in the moment, which is something I’ve been obsessed with most of my life. In 1996 I was so self conscious of my poor spelling and grammar that I wrote exclusively in poems. There are poems about love and teenage angst, but there is a particularly long one about complete despair that I now recognize as a cry for help. I had a couple of other notebooks in the late 90’s and into 2001 but only one has survived and much of that has been torn out because I never wanted to see that writing again. What is left is mostly poetry, though there are quotes, drawings and even some regular writing. It is also the first time I put into writing how important it was for me to keep writing and how I dreamed of being a writer, something I barely allowed myself to believe. The end of the book talks about goals and how I really feel about myself deep inside. I remember writing this while living in Boston just after college. The answers were all lies. I knew it then and I certainly know it now. It is important to tell the truth and sometimes that means you write things that you never want anyone to see, that perhaps you never want to see, but you just need to get it out. You can always rip it out later if need be. I write for myself but I also write for future generations and so I stick to the guidelines of, be honest, be real and show your vulnerability. 

In the early 2000’s I began carrying a pocket-sized spiral notebook that I would fill with quotes, poems, and anything else that needed to be written down. 

In 2005 I received my first Moleskin notebook, and promptly put undue pressure on myself. 

“This is the notebook of Hemingway and other famous artists; therefore, this book should only hold the best ideas and work. The poems should come out one and done,” I told myself. This only succeeded in stifling my dream of being a writer. After nearly three years of this undue pressure I put aside pocket notebooks for larger ones and began to sketch more and write less. 

My new sketching obsession led me to discover Urban Sketching and as I am apt to do with new interests I jumped in feet first. Deep down I was hoping it would make me happy. Of course, it didn’t, and I spent as much time comparing my sketches to other people’s and telling myself I was not good enough as I did actually sketching. In truth some of the pictures are really bad, but that is ok, it is all part of the process.  

Along the way I switched back to pocket-sized books and slowly began writing more. I have always loved the idea of combining my sketches with my words, I love the aesthetic of it. These particular notebooks (Handbook Journals) were great for trying this, but I soon concluded that even though these books fit in my pocket the thickness and the hard covers made them cumbersome to carry when also minding two small boys and all their accoutrements. 

At one point I tried to go paperless, but I am too much of a stationery nerd who loves the scratch of the fountain pen and the feel of the paper for that. Frustrated with the lack of writing, I decided an entirely new approach was what I needed to write daily. I picked up some softcover pocket Moleskins with the plan of filling a book for each month. This was moderately successful but in the end I abandoned the whole idea because it was too rigid and my daily writing continued to wax and wane for the next several years.

In 2015 I discovered Field Notes which are now my pocket notebook of choice. I also came up with the idea of making travel journals for the trips that we took. My first travel journal was filled mostly with writing, though there are some receipts and cutouts pasted in. These journals quickly evolved to include floor plans of the places we stayed, typography, cutouts and sketches, anything I thought would be relevant and fun. I desperately wanted to capture every detail, but the more I added, the more stringent my rules for filling the books became and the more time-consuming the books became. It all fell apart on a particularly adventurous trip we took to Utah in the spring 2018. My depression was fully leading the tango at the time and trying to keep up with the travel log did not help matters. I came home with a huge stack of brochures, receipts and the like and the pile sat untouched for months while I spiraled downward, the unfinished project of the journal only adding to my discontent. 

I gave up on travel journals after that and the next few trips were little more than notes of the days with perhaps a thumbnail sketch here and there. These synopses would prove to be a breakthrough in my journey to becoming an obsessive chronicler of life, but I would have to fail two more times before I would learn this lesson. 

More Next week. 

I Wanted to Be Indiana Jones


My Indiana Jones fedora is pushed back on my head as I hunch over my desk on a cold winter morning, looking through my notebooks from the last twenty-plus years.This is more philology than archaeology but I am still discovering treasures. It was from these books that I discovered the poems I posted last month. As a kid I wanted to be Indiana Jones and I had the whole get-up, bullwhip, fedora, though never one that looked like his, and an old leather satchel that was my grandfather’s. I never dared to use the bull whip to swing with but I was pretty good at cracking it. It was a disappointing day when I learned that archeologists were not bull-whip-toting swashbuckling do-gooders. 

I left behind the bull whip and the desire of becoming an archaeologist, but I never lost my love for history, treasure hunting or fedoras. Though the latter I did not begin to wear again until around 2015, when I finally allowed myself to not worry about what people thought of my appearance. My idea of treasure has also changed. When I was growing up I had shelves filled with all kinds of strange knick knacks from a glass head, pewter figures, to happy-meal toys. Part of this was because I liked to collect odd things but the root of it was that I thought displaying these things wold help me be the person I desperately wanted to be. It was not until my forties that I realized I’d been putting on costumes all my life and holding onto material things because I thought I needed them to show who I was. I relied on these material things instead of just being and allowing my joy of Self to shine through. It was an unhappy way to exist to be sure. 

One treasure I have kept and carried with me since I was a teenager is a beautiful multi-colored rock I found on the shore of Cape Elizabeth, Maine. It was an extremely troubled time for me then, though that is not why I have kept the rock all these years. The part of the rock I could see showed only a mere glimpse of its true beauty and yet it seemed to be calling out for me to pick it up. I was shocked to find that the other side was filled with colors of purple, orange, blue-gray, tan and yellow. I have kept it all these years because I still feel the joy and wonder of its discovery.

I am known to come home with plenty of pocket hitchhikers when I go out on a walk or we travel. Sometimes I keep the items, like two smooth rocks from the shores of Bowen Island, British Columbia, that sit on my desk and I use like zen meditation balls when I am writing. Other times I sketch them and then return them. More and more, though, my treasures are made up of words, sketches and photographs. Since 2015 I have carried a Field Notes pocket notebook (notebook) everywhere I go. I also write in a daily journal which I refer to as a time capsule because I am writing not only for myself but also for future generations. In my pocket-notebooks I write down all manner of things; nothing is too insignificant. In this way I am preserving history and practicing mindfulness. Along the way I hope that I am teaching the kids and myself to slow down and not just look at what is around us but to see it. To ask questions and to get down on our hands and knees and smell the earth. To stand motionless in the middle of the forest, a beach, or a bustling city having arrived in that moment. I find that all of this together is yet another way to unshackle the joy of this one magical and beautiful life. 

Permission to Stop Running


I was not anticipating the wave of loneliness and sadness that consumed me as I finished my first run in months. I should have been exhilarated and happy from the exertion, but I was not. I’d felt this sadness after a run before, but never this powerfully. Never before had I questioned my reasons for running as I did in that moment. Maybe, I thought, it was ok to not run anymore.

It was the 70-degree weather on November 11, 2020–the wanting a quick fix for the softness around my middle and my inner voice telling me I should be running–that propelled me out the door. I told myself that it would be another form of mediation. I would not keep time, I would not worry about my pace or the distance covered, I would not listen to music, I would just move in the moment. As I took my first steps, I was already looking away from the moment and into the future, scheming that if I could do a simple run a few times a week then I could certainly continue to run through the winter (something I’ve never done), solving the soft middle dilemma (maybe I should stop sneaking M&Ms).and securing what my inner voice was telling me was my lynchpin to happiness. 

It was in 2012 that I started running to cope with my depression, and the death of my father. Then it was needed and it was wonderful, but now, perhaps it was time to find a new “medicine”? In 2014 I did Running Down Cancer. In the summer of 2018, I ran nearly every day because the previous winter I had gone off my antidepressants and after returning from a trip from Utah realized I desperately need to get myself out of the hole I was in and never go off my medication again. By the summer of 2019 while walking on the beach in Michigan I realized that I did not need to run to cope. But I didn’t give myself permission to stop and thus kept “shoulding” (I should be doing this, I should be doing that) myself about how I needed to run to stay on an even keel.

In the early spring of 2020, I ran regularly to deal with being cooped up due to the pandemic. But by June running just seemed like too much–another thing that needed to get done so that I didn’t slip into the darkness. Over the past eight years, I had convinced myself that I needed to run to survive, ignoring the fact that since I’d changed medications and I’d changed my therapist, there was no reason why I could not change my physical activity. The reality was that I had never run just for fun. I’d done it to cope, to put on a mask of who I thought I wanted to be so that I could be happy. But relying on outside forces for joy is simply not sustainable. 

Two days after my less than invigorating run on November 11th, as I walked briskly up the Summit Trail of Mount Philo State Park with our dog Jedi, I realized that walking this mountain was just as exhilarating as running it. I was seeing far more than I had all those hundreds of times I’d run the trail in the past. I was putting my mindfulness practice to work and approaching other people with compassion rather than thinking about myself and wondering if the “mask” of who I thought I should be was showing forth as I imagined it was. This compassion flooded me with joy and at that moment I gave myself permission to stop running to cope.