Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Half-life of a Buried Past

The term “half life” means the period of time it takes for the amount of a decaying substance to decrease by half. Often used to describe toxicity or radioactivity, half-life doesn’t mean that all the toxic particles in a contaminated deposit are half as toxic as before – it’s that enough have degraded to halve the toxicity of the entire mass. Some atoms may now be inert, harmless. But others pulse just as deadly as ever.

This is how I think of a shabby cardboard box that now sits in my basement, after its contents spent the last 23 years hidden away.  Inside is a jumble of spiral notebooks, composition books and artist's sketch books, filled with handwriting. My personal journals, from 1966 to 1982 or thereabouts.

I’ve always wanted to write. I still remember a “book” I wrote and illustrated at about seven, about a fluffy yellow duck. I’d received diaries as gifts, leather books with clever little locks on the covers – but diary-writing never caught on. Then at ten, I read “Harriet the Spy.” Writing in a book with printed dates wasn't any fun, but a notebook like Harriet’s where I could write all I wanted? That was more like it.

At first my journals were small spiral notebooks, filled with my round looping print, often in pink or purple colors. I still remember the pens, actually – bright stubby ball-points in vivid colors, or Flair markers. I remember what a discerning shopper I was at that age, how much care and effort I took at the stationery store.

By high school, I was using lined composition books – the kind with the ink-blot pattern cover. These lasted into college, but by that time, my handwriting had changed dramatically. I used the finest of penpoints – the Rapidograph technical pen, with a 00 nib and ink you had to fill yourself. In the journal the writing is so small I actually wrote two lines between printed rulings, doubling the page length. Why did I do it? Secrecy? But what amazing discipline, and for how long!

In college I carried huge floppy messenger-bags to fit my journals. When I moved to New York City to work in the theatre, I changed to a smaller black-bound unlined artist’s sketch book. I bought them at Pearl Paint on Canal Street.

I carried my journal everywhere, and wrote constantly. I wrote sitting in bars, on the subway, at work, when I was drunk. I wrote when I was love-lorn. I wrote about sex. I wrote about feeling doubt and conflict. I wrote nasty things about others, and I wrote about people I longed for. I wrote about things that shame me now.

Most of my personal things remained in my family’s home when I moved to Seattle – I could only ship a few boxes.  I brought my most recent journals with me, but my childhood journals stayed at Mom and Dad’s, stored in a large wicker hamper. I fancied they were hidden safely, and it's probably true. When my parents sold our home in New Jersey to move to Texas, the hamper went, too, like every other piece of furniture in the house, with its contents intact.

Each time I’d visit Mom would remind me of childhood possessions to claim, but I let the journals stay untouched. After Dad died, and Mom eventually left Texas, I shipped my journals to myself in Los Angeles.

I have a very peculiar feeling about the journals. I can’t read them. They are radioactive. The few times I’ve glanced at a page, I'm shamed by the self I was.  When my son went to college in Manhattan, I peeked inside, to remember the city-scape he would soon experience. And after reading Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” – I paged through to remember my life in parallel time. Compared to Patti and Robert Maplethorpe's lives, my adventures seemed relatively healthy.

But the journals from when I was 13, 14, or 15? I am not strong enough for that. Believe me, the accounts of living in SoHo squats with cocaine-fueled punk-rockers and drag queens shame me far less than the craven, needy, bitter school girl I was at 14. I need a full safety suit and lead gloves to do more than crack the front cover and look at the date on the first page.

I don’t want my family to read them, either – not my husband nor my son.  God help me, after 27 years of marriage and motherhood, I’m still afraid of being exposed as a fraud and monster.

Yet the journals were such an integral part of my life I can’t throw them away.  So there they are in the basement. Sometimes at night, I feel their isotopes glow beneath the floorboards of my bedroom.

I recently read the book “The Red Leather Diary” by Lily Koppel. In it, the author tells of finding an old steamer trunk stored in the basement of an Upper West Side apartment building. In the trunk she finds the diary of an upper-middle-class Jewish girl, dated 1929 to 1934. She reads the diary and seeks out the author. Amazingly, she finds her, alive at 90.

The diary recounts its author’s budding sexual adventures and, frequently, shows her self-centeredness and vanity. Yet when the book is returned, the author embraces her young self. A widow now, she joins Koppel on book tours and interviews, and says “it has brought back some of the passion of my youth and made me feel more alive than I have in years.”

I don’t know what stopped my journaling. In 1979 I left New York and worked for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. You would think that I would find even more compelling reason to journal. But, oddly, that was when I stopped.

It coincided with a change in my life; an affirming and positive love affair, professional success, a change of venue. I never really got back into the habit. Why? Because suddenly I wasn’t miserable anymore? Because I didn’t need to pour my heart out on the pages of a book anymore?
My garden journal, from 1995
When I began gardening, I started a journal again. I wrote to mark the seasons, the progress of growth, to compare plants from year to year. But there is no room for emotional angst in a Garden Journal, except for rage against hungry slugs.

But here I am.  The story of “The Red Leather Diary” has reminded me of the box in the basement.  What to do with them? Keep them? Burn them or throw them out? Heck, should I actually read them?  How about transcribe them and purge the embarrassing parts? What use would they be, as an historical artifact, a life-chronicle of a '70s era suburban middle-class schoolgirl turned East Village bohemian? Should I donate them to a library or university – or is that self-aggrandizement? Should I put them in a safe deposit box with instructions not to be opened until after my death? Instruct my heirs to change all the names?

What would you do?

This post was originally published at Jen on the Edge, on October 27, 2011, and has been slightly edited here with updates. Despite my hope it would escape his eye, my husband read it there, so I figured why not publish it here now?


Anonymous said...

Well, I advise you not to throw them away. I too journalled for many years, planning to be a writer at some point. I moved my box of journals from place to place. I guarded them like a stash of cash, not wanting anyone else to see my inner thoughts. Then I was diagnosed with stage 3 Colon Cancer at 47 years old. I thought I was going to die. One afternoon I burned them all. I refused to read them as I did so, afraid that I would think them worth saving. I did not want my husband or my sons or my parents to find out what a horrible person I really was after I died. I cried for the me who had felt those feelings and written those words. I cried for the me who had once been young and full of promise. I cried for the me who had let go of my dreams.
Well, I didn't die and 16 years later, I wish I had those journals because when I burned them, I lost a bit of myself. Albug

smalltownme said...

In going through my father's things, I found boxes of letters I had written, from my childhood up until email took over. I cringed reading some of the childhood letters. What a mercenary materialistic child I seemed, although I can feel my mother over my shoulder murmuring, "ask him where the check is" and "tell him what you want for Christmas." I, too, am wondering what to do with them.

Anonymous said...

I recently read through a bunch of my old journals, knowing I would destroy them afterward. I don't want my daughter to "inherit" them - nothing in there I want her to carry around with her, literally or figuratively.

I surprised myself by being very kind to the young woman who wrote those journals. Much kinder to myself in retrospect than I was at the time of the writing. Of course there were plenty of things I was not proud of, but don't we all have those things in our past, especially from our younger days?

I'm glad I read the old journals to remind myself where I've been. These things are woven into the fabric of who I am today. That fabric is colorful, shiny with wear, nubby with scars, but strong and warm and I wear it with pride and confidence.

Give yourself some time to read your old journals, and remember to be kind to the person you find there!

Sean Williams said...

When I started graduate school I read through all of my journals and faced the person who had all those horrible experiences. I removed the photographs and memorabilia. And one by one, the journals went into the woodstove. As the pages crumpled and evaporated, I felt the toxic hatred of my bully of a brother, the terror of being sexually abused by a neighbor, the unfairness of the teacher who accused me (repeatedly) of plagiarism, and the harshness of my first devastating love all begin to dissolve as well. It was cathartic and powerful, yet I knew (having experienced the horror of having one of my rawest journals getting passed around among my conservative relatives and surely laughed at) that my memories were now safe inside of me.

Jill said...

Hello Aunt Snow! Save them, read them no and then and garner ideas for a novella or novel. It could give you an opportunity to handle the younger you with a deeper understanding and humor. I have never been a journal writer and wish I had a better record of my younger days.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

I can't tell you what to do. I've destroyed some of my journals while others are probably somewhere in a box, although my husband keeps trying to get rid of old boxes. He is horrified that I still have all of his letters from the time we met until we married, lest the kids read them someday.
When I went out to Seattle to take care of my mother after her cancer surgery, she had me bring box after box to her. She had me shred a large number of papers (and some she insisted upon shredding herself), yet there were so many boxes that my SIL and I were still going through them a year later. While they didn't always paint her in the best light, they did allow me to understand her much better. I wish I could have read more of them.

Lisse said...

When my other moved out of the house I grew up in, I came across some of my journals from high school.

One of the things I think we don't understand as teenagers is that nothing is the end of the world, though everything might feel that way.

I wound up throwing them out. I don't regret it.

Kizz at 117 Hudson said...

I'm with you, can't read 'em, can't burn 'em. Don't know what I'll do eventually but for now they float around the apartment in piles hoping someone will furtively read them under the covers. Maybe somebody will but it won't be me!