Monday, July 28, 2008

Journaling an Ordinary Life...

I'm borrowing this photo from an early blog post. It's Saturday-- scone day--
with my mug of coffee and my journal right at hand.

Last night in the stack of books I carried off with me to bed was one I haven't perused for awhile-- Time and the Art of Living by Robert Grudin. I bought the book years ago from that wonderful, now defunct, book catalog, The Common Reader (we miss getting that in the mail every month).

As I was flipping through the pages of Time and the Art of Living last night, I ran across this (I had penciled a little checkmark beside it):

In writing your journal give primary attention to detail; for it is detail which organizes and preserves experience for your future self or some other reader. General statements like "We had a wonderful time" or "It was a dismal morning" make a mockery of the whole procedure, for they evaluate experience without recreating it. I kept long jurnals from ages ten to twenty-two, chronicling events and describing emotional states, but again and again missing they physical immediacy of experience, the tiny hooks by which experience could have been caught and held. I failed to record how we looked, what we saw, the minor eccentricities of circumstance which gave special character to a day. I ignored these elements not only through lack of training but through misplaced priorities. I mistakenly assumed that one could discuss the heart of things without discussing the surface of things. And now, twenty to thirty years later, 600 pages of journal seem to have been written by some ghost, a voice dogmatic in its exuberance but wholly disembodied from time.

By all means, describe in detail a single day, especially an average day. In the mountains of literature and data concerning the past, we have very little which conveys accurately the minute-by-minute progress of life. Had we more of these modest historical commentaries, we could better sense the background against which more important events occurred. Had we such dispatches from our earlier selves, we could better understand the decisions, or lack of decisions, which mystify us in the present.


Well. I had to smile at this because my journal has this in spades! I'm not sure, though, that Grudin means the kind of endless inanity that can be read in the pages of my notebooks. :-)

Every single day, when I write in my journal, I have a routine. Across the top line, I write the date, the exact time to the minute, and the precise morning low temperature, along with a description of the current weather. And then I proceed to tell where I'm sitting, what I'm wearing, what I have around me, and usually what I'm seeing or hearing. I'll usually comment about what I've already done that morning, and I'll probably make note of the day's plan.

It's always struck me as sort of silly that I do this over and over, every day, with many days just like the one before it, but now, thanks to Grudin, I can see these "modest historical commentaries" as giving a sense of "the background against which more important events occurred."

Well, anyway...

I climbed out of bed and went to a drawer where I have a little stack of filled journals and grabbed the top one. I opened it randomly to see what I had written on that page. Sure enough, I had fulfilled the journal writing recommendations of Grudin. For your extreme reading pleasure :-), to show you what I mean, here's the top part of that random journal page:

Top line: August 10, 2007. 7:48 a.m. 35 degrees-- all sunshine (and I drew an actual picture of a full sun).

Text (I don't try to write literature in my journals! I sometimes just jot notes and thoughts, even in partial sentences; I don't do one of those cool, artsy-picturesque ones, either-- my only artwork is my tiny weather drawings!):

"It's quite chilly. I'm at the dining table wearing my pink nightgown, jeans, socks, and a brown sweatshirt-hoody. I'm wrapped in a colorful quilt, drinking a nice, hot cup of Tazo chai tea with honey and milk. No coffee this morning. I just put a heater beside me and turned it on for some additional warmth, which seems silly and ironic since I will probably want to turn on an air conditioner later today. But I'll just take the chill out of the air and warm my toes and fingers..."

Or there's this entry:

August 3, 2007. Somewhere between 6:45 a.m. (my clock) and 7:20 a.m. (Nicky's watch). Temperature: just right; coolish. "I'm wrapped in a fleece blanket at a picnic table in our campsite (space #158) at Castle Crags campground. Today we'll hike to the crags..."

Or August 6, 2007. 7:35 a.m. 37 degrees this clear, bright a.m. "It's a lovely, bright, cool morning. The sky is vivid blue and the sun is brightening the western hills. I'm sitting at the kitchen counter in my usual way, with coffee press, a mug full of coffee, Bible, and books next to me. This morning I'm using my "Mrs. Incredible" mug. It was given to me by the "M's," and it's a fun mug, big and red and stretched off at an angle to one side. I love how quiet it is in the morning. Dead silent except for the fridge and dripping water... ??? (what's that?!) And I like drinking my coffee in the quiet..."

August 12, 2007. 8:16 a.m. 35 degrees again. "Mmmm. My coffee tastes extra good today. I'm drinking it in my round hand-painted Polish mug. I have such a strange mug quirk-- I really have to use certain mugs on certain days and I dont know which it will be til I'm ready to use it..."

And on and on it goes, every single day. Somehow over the years, it became a habit to open my journal entries the exact same way. And often I'll carry on about the evening before and how I slept and lots of other fascinating details. And sometimes I'll do what I call a "Freeze Frame" or "Right Now" or "This Instant," simply listing, just for fun, exactly what is happening in one instant (I copied this idea from one of my kids). I did at least one of these in that journal:

This Instant. August 10, 2007. 2:24 p.m.: Melissa showering. Water rumbling in the teakettle as it heats for coffee. Freshly ground coffee bean scent wafting on the soft breeze coming through the open kitchen window. Aaron sitting at his computer. Bright blue sky with a few, small, fluffy white clouds. Pleasant temperature. Screen door open. Two sandhill cranes ambling around out in the meadow. Me at the counter reading Ranch Under the Rimrock (fun book). Georgie (dog) staring out the sliding door.

As I flipped through this journal, I did note that the little, seemingly inane, details are what keep me rereading. I particularly enjoy the parts of my journals that talk about things like getting up in the middle of the night to watch the Perseid Meteor Showers all by myself, and loving it, but being scared back into the house by the blackness of the night and the rustling sounds all around me.

And I like the little descriptions of funny things my kids did or said. And the ordinary conversations. These are woven all throughout the journals.

I like reading about what I did each day, down to the details of what happened at the farmers' market, what the weather was, who I saw and what we chatted about, what I bought, what I want to cook with it, etc.

I like knowing what books I was reading on a particular day and maybe seeing a short passage from that book with a brief comment by me.

I like how I'll be writing about sitting for morning coffee in my chair or on the deck, then, in the next entry, I'm suddenly writing (always with morning coffee!) from a campground somewhere or from my parents house on the lake at the coast. And I like the details of what we've been doing at each place, down to what we made for breakfast or how cold it was in the tent the night before or the silly camp names we gave to each other.


I have a lot of spiritual thoughts written in these pages-- notes from my Bible reading, my thoughts about what I've read, how it applies to me, further musings, and my prayers. I might quote from my devotional reading and comment on that. I might journal my deepest thoughts and emotions, turning them into prayers.

As I read through the journals, I see God's love and faithfulness woven into our days. I see His strength and encouragement lifting me above situations that would dispirit me. I see clearly that He is a real, present part of the ordinary minutes of my life and home.

Over the years, I've often thought that I should keep separate journals for separate topics. That I should keep my spiritual ponderings and prayers separate from the journals of daily life. I've actually attempted to do that on occasion, but it never works. And as I read through this journal last night, I'm so glad it didn't. My journals reflects the reality my spiritual and daily life, the fact that they are interwoven and can't be separated into neat categories. They shouldn't be separated because it's all sacred.

So, I don't know about my journals giving important context to bigger historical events. That's pretty funny, actually, but I do know that the mishmash of details and topics, the mix of sacred and "secular," paint a picture of a real life where everything is spiritual, everything is lovely, everything matters.

Somehow it's all encouraging. It makes me thankful. And it's a whole lot of fun to read!

Do you keep journals? If not, I highly recommend making it a disciplined part of your daily routine. It's very rewarding! And if you do journal, what are yours like?