Tag Archives: timelines and cycles

Journal for the seasons: autumn

On this day of the equinox, we find insight in an essay by Maria Popova, who writes on many topics in her online column, “Brain Pickings.” Popova describes autumn as the season most difficult to pin down, a time that can seem “temperate” as easily as it becomes “tempestuous”—a season often associated with the approach of winter and a process of inevitable loss, decline, and decay, while at the same time celebrating the abundance, ripeness, and fruition of yearly harvest.

The changing length of days continues to provide the most predictive cues for many organisms that adjust their physiology or behavior in accordance for the timing of vital activities like migration, reproduction, or hibernation. Days grow shorter during the entire time between summer solstice and midwinter; today we have reached the midpoint, the balance. How do the extending hours of darkness and the ever-scarcer hours of daylight affect patterns in your own day-to-day, journal-keeping life?

Maybe it’s easier to sleep on cooler nights, or harder to get up when the sun hasn’t finished rising. David Glaser, director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London, writes that many animals “become frisky in spring and hibernate over the winter.” Does time feel deeper or slower at this time of year? For many plants and creatures, “sensors of various kinds nudge [them] to keep track of the earth’s rotation around the sun” (Science Weekly, The Guardian, 14 January 2018). Can we still sense this rhythm?

Surrounded by artificial lights and temperature controls, having much the same range of foods to choose from all year round, and spending little time unprotected in the outdoors, to a large extent we have the luxury of ignoring the fluctuations of seasonal change. We don’t feel the physical effects or depend on reading the signs of earth and vegetation as vitally necessary to decisions that determine our food supply or preparation for getting through winter.

We have an abundance previously unknown—a year-round harvest season—and maybe also a loss that’s harder to register, a sameness of experience regardless of time of year. The practice of keeping a journal, especially one that observes nature over time (a phenology journal) can help to recover the balance of seasonality, the varying rhythms of outdoor experience, and an acute awareness of this halfway-between moment, the equinox of the year.

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Journal method #3: Expand the present

Diaries can heighten awareness of the immediate moment—for example, by writing a “here and now” entry—but they also offer a chance to interpret Now or “the present time” more broadly, as the current phase or chapter in one’s life.

Two classic books on journal-keeping explore ways to expand the present moment into a longer time-period from which to move forward. “There are steps to action, but no formula,” says Christina Baldwin in her book Life’s Companion. Baldwin claims that you can more clearly see the steps toward positive change once you establish a clear understanding of where you are now.

Adopting an honest view of the current reality is crucial, because as Baldwin adds, “we need to make use of the world as it is. Only from the position of being fully in the world can we influence it” (285). To this end, Baldwin offers a sentence-completion exercise that repeatedly opens with the stem phrase “Current reality is . . . “ She invites journal-keepers to create a page of sentences each beginning with that stem, to “make an objective list of the circumstances in your life.”

After listing the factual circumstances, Baldwin next suggests using the same sentence-stem (“Current reality is . . . “) to detail, in simple declarative statements, the emotions felt by the journal-keeper about the circumstances listed in the first part of the exercise. Though it may not seem like this exercise would reveal anything that the journal-keeper doesn’t already know, try it! Many have found clarifying value in writing out these lists and seeing what emerges, as a first step toward action for change.

A more intuitive way to place oneself between past and future, or “position oneself in the present,” comes from Ira Progoff’s Intensive Journal method. “Now is not limited to the immediate instant,” Progoff writes in his book, At A Journal Workshop. Instead, “we stretch the present moment back as far as it needs to go in order to include as much of the past as is still an active part of the present.”

This “present moment” could be longer or shorter depending on the person. It usually goes back to some significant event that continues to influence the writer’s life. Progoff writes:

For one person this present period in his life may reach back three years since he had a car accident and was hospitalized. Because of the changes it brought about, the period of time since that event is the Now. For another person this present period may be merely a few weeks since she met a new friend, moved to a different city, began a new job, or underwent some other significant change in her circumstances. Since that time her life has borne the imprint of that event, and it, therefore, is the definitive factor in this present period. (47)

To launch this exercise Progoff asks the writer to take a few minutes, with eyes closed, to reflect on the implications of the question, “Where am I now in my life?” Instead of thinking about it deliberately, the goal is to relax in a meditative state, allowing an image or sensation to emerge in response to this question. The awareness may come in many forms—perception, symbol, metaphor—and can be described with the sentence stem, “It is like . . . “ followed by a description of what has revealed itself.

As a final step to consolidate this insight, Progoff has the journal-writer step back and look at this present period more consciously:

  • When did it start?
  • What are the main outer and inner events that stand out when thinking about this time?
  • How has it generally felt to be you? Is it a difficult time, a joyous time, a time of grieving?
  • What events have focused on the physical experiences of your body?
  • What relationships with others stand out, especially conflicts or newly strengthened connections?
  • What internal events—dreams, emotional states, transformation through art or spirituality—had a strong influence?
  • Have habits or beliefs changed during this period?

For Baldwin and Progoff, the purpose of dwelling in the present and understanding the “now” is ultimately focused on the future. “Present time” entries build a vantage point from which to envision and set forth in a new direction. Such a dynamic model implies that circumstances continue to change, and that the journal-keeper can choose where to go from here.

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Will there be a daily diary?

The modernist poet Gertrude Stein wrote “A Diary” and published it in her book Alphabets and Birthdays (1927). Consistent with her style, Stein filled the diary with enigmatic pronouncements. At the end, she rejects the traditional idea of writing every day: “There will not be a daily diary.” In an earlier passage she declares that “a diary is not a line a day book.”

Throughout, Stein composes playful variations on expected diary themes—cooking details, gossip, habits, domestic tasks, manners, visits by friends, repeated days of the week—which I’ll write more about in a future post. For now, let’s consider the “daily diary.” Where does it come from?

When people question the distinction between a diary and journal, they’re often encouraged to use the words interchangeably, since both terms derive from “day” (dīes in Latin and jour in French). An early definition of diary, from the 18th-century dictionary of Dr. Johnson, is “an account of the transactions, accidents, and observations of every day; a journal.” Some blank books sold as diaries reinforce this idea of dailiness with a format that provides equal space for writing on each date of the year.

Like years with their seasons, the turn of a day marks out a basic cycle to which life responds. 24-hour circadian codes operate at the cellular level, delicately adjusted by cues from the outside world. Despite the recent pervasiveness of artificial lighting and temperature control, these cycles still function in human bodies.  As detailed in Satchin Panda’s Circadian Code, our sleeping, eating, and activity schedules can either align with or disrupt the natural rhythms. The pages of a diary map the writer’s experience of a life that still plays out in circadian ways.

John Cheever’s diary “seeks to give each day some form of shapeliness”; after noting details and images from the day, capturing a sense of the “contingencies of domestic life” he would close each entry with an interpretive flourish that gave it a personal touch (Anna Jackson’s Diary Poetics, 31-33).

Anaïs Nin agrees: “This was my principle when I wrote the diary—to write the thing I felt most strongly about that day . . . I chose the event of the day that I felt most strongly about, the most vivid one, the warmest one, the nearest one, the strongest one” (cited on p. 50 of Marlene Schiwy’s Voice of her Own).

Still, a diary that begins with the intention of daily writing may find itself cast aside when that rule becomes burdensome or impractical. Some of the most highly renowned diarists stopped writing daily. They continued their diaries by writing in spurts, even if the published entries look like a steady, daily stream. Frances Burney and Samuel Pepys both jotted down brief notes and at times procrastinated on expanding their notes into a full journal entry: “Pepys often wrote up as many as fourteen days at one time” (Elizabeth Podnieks, Daily Modernism). Virginia Woolf returns to her diary after spending some time away, and comments on the relief and pleasure of taking up her “old book” once more.

A more recent definition of the diary than Dr. Johnson’s, proposed by Steven Kagle in American Diary Literature (1979), is “a record of events or thoughts written as dated periodic entries.” Periodic can indicate something other than daily. The key point resides in how writers build the diary one entry at a time, spooling out an evolving perspective as later events offer a fresh view of what came before, and allowing the reader to re-live that process.

Clearly, the strict imperative to write every day—or even more rigidly, as the printed format of some diaries demands, to confine every entry to the same length—can feel impractical and restrictive; many of the greatest diary writers have ignored it.

A diary is not a line-a-day book. As Alexandra Johnson explains in her book, Leaving a Trace, “a diary or journal isn’t necessarily something that should be done daily, so much as it is a clue to how to see the daily world around oneself differently.”

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Journal method #1: Here and now

No journal keeper ever needs to stare at a blank page, wondering what to write. Yes, it can feel overwhelming to open the book to a new page and get started—to select an opening gambit when faced with a rush of thoughts and emotions tumbling through the mind—or, at the other extreme, when bogged down by a sense of having nothing to say. Has too much happened since the last entry, or has nothing seemed to change much since you last wrote?

One method for starting any diary entry has proven consistently reliable. Tristine Rainer, in her book The New Diary, named this method “a here-and-now exercise.”  To do it, you engage in describing your surroundings at the time of writing. Rainer advises that this method works best if you “re-awaken all the senses,” intentionally heightening your physical awareness to pick up on concrete details that people don’t generally notice.

Here-and-now starts with describing what appears around you, making the language vivid, to bring readers right into the place of your writing. To do this exercise, it helps if you don’t write in a habitual place at the same time each day. Vary the scene of journal-keeping; look for different times to write and scout new locations.

What does “vivid” mean? To bring your scene to life, most writing guides suggest avoiding abstract words that render judgment (gorgeous, boring, neglected, delicious) in favor of clear factual details that immerse a reader in the experience. “The best way to avoid the trap of dead words,” says Hannah Hinchman, “is to keep a firm grasp on the real stuff, prickly, slimy, or bony as it may be.”

Build a rich vocabulary of nouns and verbs; scrutinize adjectives and avoid piling them on; find out and use the precise names for everyday objects and the parts of things, like a lamp finial or a wall bracket. In my own journals, even as the writing unfolds across the page, I play a game of avoiding “to be” verbs—a page without a single “are,” “is,” or “were” means that I win for clear and pointed prose.

So, describe what you see—branches laden with shades of green outside the window, a fly swatter on the table, softening apples in a bowl—but also note smells, sounds, and even more subtle sensory experiences: The cidery smell and puckered skin of the nearest apple, the whine of the passing housefly, the white-noise hum of appliances around the house—bitter aftertaste of the last, cooled sip from the coffee mug, drape of humid air on arms and neck.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who writes about mindfulness, describes the state of heightened observation where you might notice, for example, how even when you close your eyes, the sound of rain can delineate a landscape, bringing out the contours and perspective of the surrounding space as raindrops hit different surfaces to produce different sounds, creating a complex acoustic experience.

What surrounds you here-and-now offers a variety of textures, colors, objects, perhaps living things to describe. You may also note interior physical sensations: Kabat-Zinn suggests, beyond paying attention to what you see, hear, and smell, pausing to immerse your awareness in the fluid “airscape” against your skin. Even on a day without wind, or when sitting indoors, if you attend carefully you can train yourself to feel a subtle current or draft moving around, in, and out of your body: cool, warm, wet, dry?

Why bother to note such trivial things and write them down? A here-and-now exercise squarely places you in the moment of diary-writing, and diaries take it as their project to begin in the present. “Put yourself right in the present,” advised the venerable diary-keeper, Anaïs Nin, quoted by Marlene Schiwy in A Voice of her Own. “Start there and that starts the whole unravelling, because that [present moment] has roots in the past and it has branches into the future.”

As you write about what’s around you, the outer world comes into contact with your physical self and produces interior sensations. Stretch to consider the less obvious sensory experiences, like sounds and smells in your environment. Let the here-and-now exercise work to expand your idea of what’s involved in being here, and your awareness of how that feels now.

By starting with the moment of writing, the diarist opens space to move in a variety of directions that we can explore in future posts. Just to give one example, sensory details of the present can evoke intense memories after years have passed. By practicing vivid ways to write about your “now,” you offer a gift to the later self who reads the diary—for whom, in Curtis Casewit’s words, “some long-ago days may still gleam there as if you had just experienced them.”

In posts ahead, we’ll look at ways to use the here-and-now exercise as a springboard. Details observed in the present often spark memories and provide a gateway into writing about the past—how it still affects our lives, or what has changed since earlier times. A single object, once we’ve placed attention on it, can become much more—the choice of words reveals what the writer finds important and how they feel at the time of writing. Mental or emotional state shapes everything recorded in the journal.

And finally, in future posts let’s broaden our idea of the present moment beyond a single point in time—the minutes spent writing today—to consider, as suggested by Ira Progoff (creator of the Intensive Journal), an “elastic ‘now’” that expands the present moment to include the length of time that has passed since writing the previous entry, or even the current period in one’s life. The elastic “now” can open enough space to take a fresh look at present circumstances and envision where to go from here.

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Journal for the seasons: summer

Seasons inscribe themselves into a journal. Even our modern lives in technology-regulated settings can’t entirely shut out seasonal variations in temperature, precipitation, and light.

For thousands of years, wherever they lived, people have kept track of seasonal change, because human lives depend on animal migration patterns and plants’ growing cycles, those natural cycles that include a seasonal rhythm of alterations in daylight and temperature.

If a journal truly reflects the here and now, its entries will acknowledge not just the details of daily life that differ according to the four classic seasons of the year, but also those subtler phenological effects that might be called micro-seasons or “seasons within seasons.”

Phenology, as journal writer Hannah Hinchman explains in her book A Trail through Leaves, is “the study of natural phenomena that recur periodically [and] their relation to climate and changes in season.” Phenology studies the life cycles of living things as they respond to weather conditions and to astronomical cycles of the earth.

Governed by these rhythms, the changing length of days (photoperiod) is the predictive cue for timing many predictable changes in the physiology and behavior of living things. On this day, the summer solstice, I want to share with you how Hannah Hinchman connects the more recent practice of keeping a diary with the ancient human practice of tracking the seasons:

“Journal-keepers, because they are creating a life-long record of their encounters, are natural phenologists. The habit of granting each day its singularity lays the groundwork for seeing into the hidden seasons, and seasons-within-seasons.” (A Trail through Leaves, 134-5).

In the Menologium, an Anglo-Saxon calendar poem that describes and praises each season around a year, the poet describes how in June “the sun lingers in field and furrow/and leaves its lovely gift of daylight/a little longer before it disappears/down under the horizon” (translated by Craig Williamson, The Complete Old English Poems.)

Eleanor Parker calls this poem “an exquisite combination of Old English poetry and medieval science. It serves a practical function by reminding the reader of important dates in the calendar, but its purpose is not primarily functional; more important is the relationship the poem explores between the interlocking cycles of the year, between the seasons and sacred time.” The Menologium moves around the year starting and ending with winter solstice which it connects with Christ’s birth; its account of summer solstice is placed precisely at the midpoint of the poem.

What in your life reflects midsummer? Whatever significance the day has for you, you can describe its sensory details for the reader so clearly as to make your words come to life. Picking up the diary even in midwinter, your reader will feel this morning darken as heavy storms flash in, swaddling an early sunrise in heavy blankets of warm humid fog.

You may honor this day as the anniversary of a deeply sad event as my family does, or you may remember the year when you visited a place so far to the North that the sun never set at all in 24 hours. Maybe you once saw the year’s first firefly at summer solstice, or maybe you just now tasted the first green lettuce leaf from your own garden.

Does the extreme length of daylight make it harder to sleep at night? Does it allow for more hours spent outdoors? How will you write the solstice into your journal?

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Perfect timing to start a diary

People like to say that the perfect time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. I recently attended a meeting that wasn’t even about journal-keeping, but when we went around the room to describe what we’ve done lately and I mentioned the dilemma of 127 diaries, several people said they’d love to go back and read their own diaries from ten or twenty years ago–if only they had kept one.

The tree proverb goes on to add, “–and the second-best time is right now.” Fortunately, the first page of a diary always represents a new beginning, no matter what date appears at the top of the page. Almost any day offers some logic for beginning–the first day of the month, the next full moon, the beginning of summer, starting a new job, the arrival of a guest, your first night in a new home, the day of returning from a trip, your birthday, an anniversary of significance: Something in your life is always starting anew. Certainly there’s no need to hold off until January 1 to start one’s first diary or to revive the practice after letting it lapse a while.

Remember, too, that a diary doesn’t need to focus only in the present moment. Even if an entry opens by settling itself in the here and now, your writing may proceed through a doorway into memory or pause at the threshold of an anticipated future.

Some diaries deliberately frame their focus around a marked-off period of time. Someone might keep a diary intended to cover just one term of study abroad. Parents may keep a detailed scrapbook of their baby’s first year. For some, a garden notebook captures each detail from initial sowing to the year’s last harvest.

What do you see on the horizon to guide the shape and direction of your next diary? A fresh start can feel good; the act of beginning a diary can in itself mark the first step of a journey. Even if no big change looms in your life and everything feels fairly routine, it’s just possible that your journal work will uncover a new way of seeing and experiencing those everyday events.

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What diaries don’t know

Unlike most artists, the writer of a diary can’t begin with even a preliminary vision of the completed project. It’s impossible to outline the diary’s key moments, its dramatic scenes and thematic patterns, ahead of the creation. It’s a basic condition of this form that the writer, no matter how observant and accomplished, has no way to foresee where the diary will go.

Even where a specific diary has its foreseen endpoint—for a prison diary, say, the scheduled date of release; for a travel diary, the day of coming back home; for a diarist near the end of life, the point when they can no longer summon enough strength to keep the diary—the person writing the diary can’t control how that ending will be reached, nor predict the emotional significance it may hold for the writer or the reader.

This formal feature of diaries has real implications, including the fact that a reader, much later, very likely knows more than the writer did about how things will turn out. Moreover, the limited visibility of the path ahead may be one of the reasons for keeping a diary.

Each entry in a diary reflects the view and voice of the writer who, at a specific time in their own life and more broadly a specific moment and place in history, expresses by writing a diary the intention to explore, observe, grow, reflect upon, or preserve a set of personal experiences for rediscovery at some point in the future.

It’s not like reading a novel, where the writer holds the cards and only gradually lets us know the ending. The diary writer writes in a state of uncertainty, with no choice but to face an unknown future. Sure, the diarist can express hopes, dreams, and fears about the future, but it’s the reader who more likely knows the outcome, and we often read a diary, from its earliest pages, in that light. Anne Frank’s diary is probably the most famous example. But it can be seen everywhere. I recently paged through the diary of a college student from the 1880’s as she met an attractive classmate and wrote about him in many entries—and all the time I knew, though she didn’t, that she would eventually marry someone else.

So, while it can relate the story of a life, the diary is neither written nor read as one long, smooth arc of narrative plotted and controlled by the person writing it. Rather, diaries consist of a series of separately-written entries (usually dated) that iteratively record where things stand at the time of writing. By using this periodic structure, the diary stays close to the writer’s individual perspective as it evolves through time—again, and very importantly, without knowing what time will bring.

By reading the diary we retrace their journey, appreciating their reactions and discoveries of the moment while layering an extra dimension of thoughts and feelings over what was originally written—however much we admire their insight and their voice. We read their words in an ironic light of knowledge they didn’t have, knowledge that can only come with time.

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