Monthly Archives: March 2020

Journal for the seasons: Spring

Even in quiet years we tend to overlook the equinox, that halfway mark on the path between two annual extremes. Even if we didn’t find ourselves clumsily surfing, as we do now, on momentous waves of disruption and instability, who pays attention to such a subtle gateway into the new season, delicate balancing-point of day and night?

This year uncertainty abounds in our work lives and families. Event plans, travel plans, social plans, and everyday activities face new restrictions and complications with every scrolling headline. Livelihoods and lives are threatened—grim prospects bound to affect real people we care about, even if for now we still absorb the news impersonally, through onscreen charts and graphs.

So what about the inconsequential arrival of spring? We still receive public-health advice to spend time outdoors, perambulate, greet neighbors and their leashed dogs from a prudent six-foot distance. A friend on a bicycle called out, “making our own gym!” yesterday as she rode by. (Indoor exercise facilities had closed less than an hour earlier, not to re-open for the foreseeable future.)

Yesterday, too, Middle Way Farm, located just north of town, announced the year’s first outdoor planting of vegetable seeds—snap peas. “Farm work,” Jordan posted, “is continuing relatively uninterrupted despite how every other part of life has been disrupted. I’m trying to take solace in the work and the steady coming of spring but it’s still hard.”

In personal journals, as on the farm, a rhythm develops between unpredictable events with heightened impact and the familiar cycles we count on—night following day, spring following winter. Long-time journal keepers can look back to see what happened on this day three years ago, or ten. The first seedlings in a bare field, the first redwing blackbird, or the first rain instead of snow might, depending where you live, serve as expected signs of spring.

Right now, as journal-keepers discuss (protected by the safe distance of online platforms) a revival of the “plague diary” tradition—in which people record how their lives are disrupted by threats of contagion and enforced isolation—we’re also encouraged, if we can, to go outdoors, to spend time in fresh air and take in the natural landscape. In a healing way, the journal can weave together what endures and what changes.

And so, though many people will notice this only on a subliminal level, one of the most disquieting aspects of global heating (climate crisis) must involve the alteration of long-established cycles of phenology. For as long as we can, let’s note local details of recurrent renewal even as we mark the ways that everyday interactions, family life, and how we make a living assume a stark new form.

Some habits we’re forced to adopt could recede in the next weeks and months while others persist into the future. Journal-keepers understand this: The diary never knows what comes next. While writing today’s entry we can’t discern what common practices we may be giving up forever, what inconveniences will affect us for merely a week or two, and what all this change means for the long-term. We couldn’t tell back in September 2001, could we, what aspects of ordinary life would alter only briefly and what changes would persist 20 years later?

A well-kept journal reflects large-scale cultural shifts more accurately and vividly than a completed narrative. Writers who already know the outcome will tend to distort the keen sensation of uncertainly—the luxury of retrospect lets them correct misplaced assumptions, point to hints missed at the time, and minimize fears that turned out to be unwarranted. But journals capture a big transformation in the very act of hitting a household, a workplace, or a neighborhood.

Respect the equinox, this moment of balance poised between. From where you are, reflect on the seismic tides of change moving through our lives, accepting that we simply don’t have a long, settled perspective. If you aren’t one of those presently caught up on the front lines, unable to take time to write, make it your gift to preserve an authentic uncertainty viewed from the present vantage-point. Open up a personal journal. The words you write today may contribute, eventually, to forging sense out of this year’s chaotic season.

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Exploring states of mind

Having freed the journal from dwelling entirely in negativity or else entertaining only positive thoughts, a writer may want to move beyond the polarity of gloom versus cheer, exploring the spectrum of interior modes that a journal can reflect.

Neuropsychologists, sleep researchers, applied psychologists, and theorists have recently produced books on studies that show how mental states shape perceptions of time and the body. Evidence extends beyond well-known examples—how time drags when you feel bored, or the fun that makes “time fly”—to far less-common states: moments of acute danger, hallucinogenic trips, sensory-deprivation studies, hypnosis, and even accounts of near-death experiences. These books discuss states of altered consciousness from lucid dreaming, mindful meditation, and intoxication to religious visions and rhythm-induced trance states.

As a mind moves through different states, the flow of a diary adopts shifting views of place, time, and the body. While these recent books on altered consciousness rarely mention diaries, it seems reasonable to imagine that temporal perceptions and physical feelings described on the pages of a diary may respond in part to alterations in the mental state of the writer.

States of consciousness don’t confine themselves to the brain; they infiltrate the physical experience of the whole self. As a normal part of dreaming, for example, the body enters a state akin to paralysis, deprived of ability to get up and move. Though weird to contemplate, this immobility serves a useful function; its disorder can lead to sleepwalking and related somnambulatory behaviors. To give two other common examples, both an inebriated condition and the fever that accompanies an illness may affect multiple sensory perceptions and produce symptoms that one feels throughout the body.

Extreme states of altered consciousness hardly lend themselves to the activity of writing in a journal—though people who experience them may resolve in the moment to remember as much as possible and to record these experiences in their journals when able to do so. Points of heightened intensity “recollected in tranquility” (to use Wordsworth’s phrase), like the panic of a near-accident unfolding in slow motion, vivid dreams or unexplained apparitions, a vision of transport or insight arising in meditation or while listening to music—each can get absorbed into the pages of a journal.

Taking advantage of common, everyday fluctuations in mood and energy, you could begin to experiment by deliberately writing entries while in different mental states. To vary the quantity of light, ambient temperatures, and other environmental conditions that bring new sensations, seek out new times and places in which to write. Write one entry in a burst of emotional energy, another when energy feels flattened out and time seems to move at a slow pace.

Write after a glass of wine or a cup of coffee (if such lie within your habits); write at the glimmering borderline between dreams and waking, or when listening to music that powerfully affects you. Some time when you aren’t feeling well, write in the diary. Another time when you feel too restless to settle, write an entry. Daydreaming, musing, mind-wandering states will produce diary entries quite different from what you write while in your focused and pragmatic planning mode.

Who knows what you’ll learn from these explorations? Whatever direction they take, you’re bound to widen your practice by incorporating new sensory perceptions. Not until afterward, when you look back, can you see whether a certain mental state left an imprint on the pages of your journal.

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