Lines of Understanding

Essay
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

Essay

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

Essay

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. 

Time Capsule

Essay, The Charlotte News
 This was originally written for my column, Quietly Making Noise. Which appears monthly in The Charlotte News.

 

 

“Pick up my poop garbage man!” Noah yelled as the garbage truck pulled up to the curb.

IMG_6362This gem of a tweet is from March 2012. Twitter is one of the ways that I journal for the boys and for myself. My mother journaled by writing important events on large, year at a glance wall calendars— I found one from 1977 recently rolled up in the back of a closet. She told me there were more packed away somewhere. “I did it more with Tycen [my older brother] than with you.” she said.

Michelle, a mom of three, summed up her journaling habits this way— “Thoughts on journaling: pre-children-every day. First child-every other day. Second child-every few months. Third child-every year’s end.”

I’ve been journaling off and on since high school but after I began reading letters my grandmother had written from the 1940s to the 1970s I began writing every night. Not only about the daily events but also the internal struggles and joys that help to understand a person.   In the letters, I am able to watch my dad grow up and to understand my grandmother a little more. It has been fascinating to see not only myself in his actions but our boys as well. These letters were never met to be a journal, but given the detail that is in them they might as well have been. A modern twist to the letter is the idea of setting up an email account for your children and sending them letters throughout their childhood, giving them an easy-to-read journal. Along with Twitter and my nightly journals I also have a private Facebook page. This is an easy way to share pictures and videos, in an organized fashion, with friends and relatives around the world.

Steve, a stay-at-home-dad of twin girls said he had recently gone through the journals he had kept between college and marriage.

“[It] Was a great way to remember some of the things that pictures didn’t catch and usually veered from being documentation of what happened, which was great, into what I was thinking and feeling about things at home and who I was with on the trip.

The only journal I have had since marriage is one I started about a year ago. I only write in to keep track of bigger things that happen. Trips, deaths, births, visitors, extreme storms and snowfall and temps etc., big news events. The kicker is that I reuse the same calendar every year so I can see exactly what happened a year ago today. One calendar should last me about 7 years before it is filled up.”

When my father passed away nearly four years ago I realized that I only knew the parenting part of him. Neither my brother nor I had any idea what a force he was in the Vermont planning community. My dad journaled sporadically for the first eight years or so of my life, in doing research for this column I opened those journals. In his words, I discovered another side of him, the one that was worried about providing for his family, worried that there was not enough time to do all the things he wanted to do, the one who was regretful after he yelled at us, his continued effort to not internalize so much.

This is me. These are also my worries.

Even the words he used to describe how he was feeling could be my words. His writing about feeling depressed describes how I feel, and this fills in a piece of my puzzle for me. To find out that my dad felt, at times, the same way I feel is a way for me to understand my depression a little better. I don’t think his was as bad as mine can be, but regardless, knowing this now makes me understand how he seemed to completely understand what I was going through when I was diagnosed with depression in 2009 after I lost my job.

My friend Lisa journals on a daily basis in a photo blog for her son, Teo. She says, “Every day I add a picture, or two or three or 20 (for very busy or highly fun and photogenic days!)  Sometimes I add a short video, sometimes a paragraph or a quote that Teo said. I don’t really know why I do it… maybe it’s my way of dealing with my obsession of time flying by. I lost my father at 47, so I feel pressed by time to leave something for Teo.  If I die early he will have the blog to keep some history.”

Michelle keeps a holiday journal where she describes the ornament that she picked out for each child for that year. She also reflects on the year and what the kids’ passions and interests were. As a family, they also keep a gratitude journal by the dining room table which they try to write in every week. “as a way for us to focus our energy on gratitude… Even our two-year-old understands when we say ‘what are you thankful for?”

In a world that seems to be increasing with intolerance, violence and an emphasis on material growth, this is perhaps something we should all be doing regardless of if we journal personally or not.

Whereas I journal to have a memory for myself and others to read later in life, my friend Julie, who has three kids ranging in age from kindergarten to 8th grade, sees journaling more as a tool rather than something to share.

“It helps me think and to wade through the junk to what really matters,” she says. “I started keeping a journal when I was a teenager.  We had to for English class and it just stuck. 

She now has boxes of journals that she can’t decide if she should burn or read through. Julie not only journals for herself but also with her children; her older son writes a letter to her on Friday and she responds over the weekend. She and her teenage daughter have a journal together that they write in once a week or so. “We ask each other questions and tell about what is happening.” These activities allow her to see her son’s more thoughtful side and what her daughter is thinking about.

Journaling is an amazing gift to give your children and yourself. It is a way to be candid and to wade through the junk. But it also allows you to hold onto memories; it puts a time line to the hazy ones and brings back ones you’ve forgotten. It allows your children to fill in the gaps when they are trying to figure where exactly they come from. It is a time capsule that I look forward to opening one evening twenty years from now with my wife, Erin, when the house is once again quiet and we long to vividly recount those days when the boys were young.