Revisiting an Old Journal, 22 Years Later

Here is the beautiful cover of my journal dated November 17 to December 10, 1998. The artwork is from the cover of a Patricia McKillip novel, The Book of Atrix Wolfe. I love the fairy-tale quality of this image. And in keeping with the Shakespeare motif that crops up time and time again throughout this journal, I wrote in the journal about how the cover reminded me of Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (though that’s not what the McKillip book is about). The art is by Kinuko Y. Craft.

I have kept journals for decades. Mostly I write in them, though I also go through periods when I draw as well. Most of my old journals are still in boxes (I moved last year and am still working out where to keep things). But I have a dozen or so of them out and accessible, and I’ve just realized that I haven’t looked at them in ages.

So I pulled one out at random. It covers November and December 1998, so it’s from exactly 22 years ago. What was I doing in 1998? My husband and I were living in our old house, a 1920s fixer-upper Craftsman bungalow about four blocks from our new house. Our son would not be born for another three years, though I was thinking about wanting a baby and wondering if I could convince my husband that we should go for it. I had quit my job as a magazine editor years earlier in order to write books full-time as a freelancer, and by the time of this journal, I had written 20 books. I’d also started working on my master’s degree in Creative Writing at Johns Hopkins University and was working on several more books, including one I guess I would now classify as Chick Lit that I posted about several times in this journal. (I put it aside shortly afterward to focus on other projects, and have not gotten back to it.)

As for what was happening in the world, I see that I sometimes I wrote about the progress of the Clinton impeachment proceedings that were underway at the time. How very different than our more recent proceedings, the ones in which the presidential transgressions actually harmed the nation!

So what else did I write about? Sometimes I wrote about memories of childhood. Interestingly, until I re-read it a few minutes ago, I’d forgotten this incident entirely. It took place during a Girl Scout camping trip when I was about eight years old. We always played with our flashlights at night, shining them in each other’s faces. It was considered normal behavior, and nobody had ever minded before. One night on a late-night hike, several of us girls were with a new assistant troop leader, shining our lights “as if they were streams of water from a water pistol.”

This woman suddenly protested in an uncharacteristically vehement way, ordering us not to shine our flashlights in her face…. She got quite upset, and finally explained that flashing lights could trigger an epileptic seizure in her. I still feel shame when I think of my reaction. I didn’t know what epilepsy was and couldn’t see why shining a flashing in someone’s face could actually hurt them… We had no idea we were being cruel and actually putting this poor woman at risk. but we refused to take her words at face value, refused to accept that she knew better than we did… We did not want to change our behavior because she told us to; we wanted an explanation that we could understand…. I wish I had apologized.

november 17

I did go on to add that she did not have a seizure, but it was still incredibly insensitive of us, even for little kids.

Sometimes I commented on what was happening currently in my life — such as this incident with a woman begging for money in a cafe. When the cashier told her she couldn’t do that in here, she claimed, “That wasn’t me asking for money; it was my twin sister!” Later she cussed out the cashier. On occasion I do give money to a stranger who needs it, but I noted that I would not in this case; the woman was too abusive.

I occasionally reviewed books or movies, including a bizarre modern adaptation of King Lear. King Lear comes up again in an entry on December 2, when I described a conversation with a Johns Hopkins classmate who taught high school English. He said his teenage students loved King Lear because they found it hilarious. They especially loved the eye-gouging part, with all of its ranting and raving. They thought it was the funniest scene of all. I remember taking Lear very seriously when I was in high school. I guess times really have changed. In fact, in another entry I discussed the way I was incorporating a lot of Hamlet references into the Chick Lit manuscript I mentioned. And speaking of Shakespearean drama, here is an excerpt from another entry:

My mother and I spent the night at (my sister) Sue’s house. I didn’t come downstairs until late in the morning. Someone made a remark about how late I’d slept, and I said I hadn’t been sleeping, I’d been reading. My mother asked what I was reading. I told her Hamlet, and she responded, aghast, “First thing in the morning?” I didn’t know Hamlet was allowed only late in the day.

November 21

Another thing I’d completely forgotten was that a friend had asked me around this time to fill out some forms as part of my testimony in a court case. She was fighting her ex for custody of her children, and I was testifying in her favor. Before filling out the form (which in 1998 was on paper) I wrote drafts in my journal of my answers to different questions about what a great mother she was.

And then there was the Bird Man of Del Ray, as I always thought of him. Wow, I haven’t thought of this guy in years, but I remember him vividly. He wore a green hat and had a beard:

This afternoon I saw a man strolling down my street, walking his pet bird. I’m not kidding; he was walking slowly down the street with a parrot on his shoulder. There’s got to be a story here.

December 3

That was the first of many sightings; in fact, I posted about seeing him again only a few days later. I never spoke to him, though we’d wave and nod to each other on occasion. After many months, I just stopped seeing him on my street. I never found out why.

In another entry, I worried about my grandfather’s failing health. (In fact, he recovered from that illness and lived another 11 years.) And once, I recounted an amusing tale about my niece, who was very little at the time and insisted that camels and giraffes were friends who had to do everything together. My sister Maria was setting up a creche for the holidays, and Olivia said she could not have a camel in the stable unless her toy giraffe was welcome too!

When nothing else comes to mind, the weather can be a good topic. I didn’t resort to it often, but I did a couple of times. In one entry, I commented on how the thick gray winter clouds looked like snow could be on the way — except that it was 79 degrees out! Also, at the time of this journal, there was apparently a drought, with no rain in months. Until this entry:

Rain like the patter of small feet on the roof…. It’s a sound I’ve become unaccustomed to. It’s hardly rained at all since midsummer. It’s a peaceful sound, almost but not quite cheerful. Soothing. Reassuring, especially after months of drought. It evokes memories of long-ago nights lying in bed, safe and dry beneath a rain-spattered roof, the sound of droplets almost masking the murmurs of my parents’ voices downstairs, the slow soft breaths of my sister, asleep across the room in Bobby Sherman Country (my side, of the room, of course, being plastered with David Cassidy posters).

december 8

But one thing I spent more time on than any other topic in this journal is my dreams. I’ve always had complex, intense dreams, but I’d forgotten just how many of them I described in writing in this time period. But there are so many of them recounted in this journal that I’m reluctant to add them to this discussion. So I’m going to save that topic for another day.

One thing I have noticed, and regretted, is that I find myself journaling on paper a lot less often since I started keeping a blog. That’s a shame. Some journal entries work fine as blog entries, but others do not. Some things are too private for a blog. Others talk about people by name, sometimes in an unflattering way. That’s legitimate in a private diary; one of the purposes for keeping one may be to vent about what is upsetting you or what you disagree with. And some are long and rambling and completely unorganized. Again, that’s appropriate in a journal, which often serves as a first draft for figuring out my own thoughts on a topic. But it’s not necessarily ready to be shown in public. I still do write in a journal, but not every day, as I used to.

Have you heard of the Sketchbook Project? For $30, you receive a blank 5×7 journal. You write or draw whatever you want in it, and send it back to the Brooklyn Art Library, and it becomes part of a traveling exhibit of sketchbook journals for others to see. (You retain the copyright, so you are free to use the material again.) I’m considering sending away for the journal and joining the project. It wouldn’t be for private thoughts, obviously, but it might be a way of getting myself back into writing regularly in a journal, and not just occasionally.

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