Day 32 of lockdown. The writers travelling with me on the course, ‘In Extremis: Writing in the Time of Coronavirus’, bring with them a wide range of journalling experience. Some have been writing since the age of fifteen, some keep a journal for professional reasons, to reflect on their work, others, and this is the group I belong to, have had a stop – start approach. There are journals covering one year in the life, travel journals and themed journals, of which this Coronavirus Journal is one, but I have also written fragments in notebooks, single entries that I find in file boxes, jottings on scraps of paper that flutter out of notebooks.
We discuss the weight of the writings, the accumulation of years and years of faithful recording. What to do with the volume of work? Keep the journals, burn them, throw them in the rubbish? Lock them in a filing cabinet with explicit instructions, ‘Not to be read until I am gone.’ Annotate and catalogue. Read them through and then sit down and write something new that pulls together the disparate threads. Treat them as notebooks to gather material for another piece of work, a memoir, or a novel and to practise the craft. I once threw a journal into the rubbish bin but as the night wore on I regretted my impulsivity. Although it was a stormy night I climbed the driveway in the pelting rain and plucked it from the bin and brought it back inside. For a long time I stored that journal, and others, with a friend. She kept them in a drawer with a note that read, ‘These journals are personal. They belong to Deborah Shepard. Please return them to her. Her phone number is …’ But earlier this year my friend moved to Australia and the journals were returned to me.
There is pleasure to be had in re-reading old journals and insights to be gleaned. My friend Sue says they allow the writer to become a time traveller. You can discover what you were thinking and feeling in a given moment. Where else might you find direct access to a younger self, and to the inner life of that person, yourself, all that time ago. Generally our past gets swallowed in the onward momentum, the blur and flux of busy lives, experiences piling one on top of another blocking out what went before. This may suit many people. ‘Why go raking through all that stuff from the past. It’s over. Move on.’ And possibly that is valid, and as good a way of getting through life as any other. And yet there are kernels of wisdom to be found in a journal, sudden bolts of insight, an intuitive knowing and sometimes premonitions that can teach us things and enhance our understandings of the present. At the very least the journal offers an opportunity to survey your experience and to see how you have survived and thrived.
It has been in this spirit that I have been re-reading my journal of three years ago. Mostly I had forgotten the content, its detail, but as soon as I began reading it came back and hit me hard. It was written at the end of March 2017, five months before my marriage ended dramatically and decisively. Here it is:
Anais Nin wrote, ‘If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it.’
This morning I am breaking my nightly journal writing routine because I am on the verge of making a huge decision and starting a major life change that terrifies me.
“I slept fitfully last night and eventually, at 5am, stopped trying and got up. Lack of sleep is hard on my pain condition but the morning has brought comfort in the form of a pure blue autumnal day with shades of gold and russet and green vibrating across the garden. The sounds drifting up to me in my eyrie are of the birds that live in this habitat — the tui, manu pango the blackbird, tãringi the starling, kotare the kingfisher, riroriro the grey warbler — and inside, nearer to me, the cat crying, as he climbs the stairs, making such a pitiful, piercing noise you would think he is on the brink of a frightening change.
He found me. And is settled in a slice of sunlight near my feet, his big, white, fluffy belly tilted towards the warmth. And there he goes, he’s asleep already. The other sound is of Neil Diamond on the sound system downstairs. Why him? But listen to what he is singing, ‘If you go away on a summer’s day, you might as well take the sun away – when our love was new and our hearts were high, on a windswept hill and a night birds’ song. If you go away…’
And that is my dilemma. I can not go away but neither can I stay. This home is part of me. My love is in every cedar board, every copper railing, every wall and window, flower border and garden along the winding path. I will tie myself to the walls to prevent the forces from making me leave. And yet if I stay I will surely die. The realisation is so severe and the impossibility of making a decision so shattering I feel paralysed.
I see loss ahead. I see acrimony and dispute. I see a bitter struggle that will be fought to the very end. I see a severe reduction in personal circumstances. I cannot imagine a good outcome. The future is a dirty cloud, swirling low and close and obliterating the view. Yet I truly do believe and feel that the only way through a storm of this scale, will be through my work. This journal and the production of the book of interviews, is my continuity and will sustain me. When I am immersed in the stories of the twelve elders, who prize the writing life above all else, my troubles recede. When they speak of the heights and hollows of their own careers and lives, detailing how they surmounted considerable obstacles, I take heart. I am in the company of twelve strong, good people. In them I glimpse possible pathways out. It is through the work that I will stay my course.”