The Power of Memory
Write what you know.
I don’t always practice what I preach, especially when it comes to the simple, unaffected, and ordinary “journal entry.” Much of my reticence towards the casual journal entry is the public nature of posting our journal writing as blogs that are more or less “open” to the public. It is hard for me as a teacher of writing to post an entry that I know is trivial, mundane, and perhaps of no interest to my readers—but that is precisely what I need to do if I am to model the full spectrum of the writing process. Keeping a journal is more than a search for lofty thoughts amidst the detritus of the day; it is a practice that keeps our wits and writing skills honed for a coming feast by rambling through the meat of the day and drifting and sailing to whatever port is nearest to my pen. Writing is always an odyssey, and so I have to let my mind go and journey (journal) where it will.
Good words are built our of ordinary thoughts. At the very least, a journal, filled with the scraps and pieces of our daily lives, will outlive our own lives and serve as both beacon and reminder to future generations. Once, in my days as a junkman, I cleaned out an old barn in Maynard after the elderly widower—a man I only remember now as Bob—had died. Scrounging through the Bob’s boxes for anything of value, I came across a series of leather bound journals dating back to the 1930’s. I found a journal marked 1941, so I looked up the date of the Pearl Harbor attack, eager for insight on the profound effect that day must have had on the common man of his or her time. I turned through page after page of impeccable script and learned that Bob and his family went to church in the morning, during which they sang certain hymns (hymns that I can’t remember now—but he did.) Afterwards, they drove to Stow for dinner with his extended family. He wrote about the meal, the weather, the condition of the roads, and, in two brief lines at the close of his entry: “The Japs attacked Pearl Harbor today. I trust President Roosevelt will know what to do.” And that was it.
At first glance, I saw a xenophobic racist putting blind trust in infallible rulers. I couldn’t reconcile it with the kind and gentle old man, and best friend to my best friend’s father, who had recently passed away. I didn’t see it as a window into another time and another mindset. In the arrogance of my youthful pride, I couldn’t appreciate the elegiac beauty of his day—a whole day devoted to faith and the full circle of family. It wasn’t until years later when I sat on the bench by the World War Two Memorial in downtown Maynard and scrolled through the scores of boys and men from this one small mill town killed in battle that I realized the full extent of my myopia. I should have sat in his barn for days and read every word from his journals and then, maybe, I could have seen the evolution of a person through the fullness of time through the clarity of still waters.
Maybe Bob’s youthful ramblings, tempered by the death of so many of his townsmen, could have somehow transformed into the pearls of laconic wisdom that old age should bring—pearls that would fetch a heady price in the market of the modern mind. The greatest tragedy is that we’ll never know. I offered the journals to his son, but he was content to have me throw the whole lot into the back of my Chevy pickup and pay me fifty dollars for the load I scattered into the fires of the Concord dump. The irony of tossing those journals away not more than 150 yards from the site of Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond remained lost on me for many years, even as I trudged dutifully to the Concord library to scour through the massive tomes of Thoreau’s own journals. The old man had done exactly what Thoreau believed was required first of any man or woman when he admonished all would be writers:
"I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden
A further irony is that my own journals from my years between eighteen and twenty five years old, which filled a good-sized cardboard box, were also inadvertently tossed into the same dump by a roommate intent on purging all the junk we were accumulating in our Williams Road farmhouse. The Concord dump is now a series of perfectly sculptured hills slowly regaining the shape and character of the woods that Thoreau tramped and stumbled through 150 years ago. It is a noble idea funded by the well-intentioned, but a nobler action would be to dig through the mold and dirt of time and truly find what the past has to offer us, buried almost irretrievably as it is.
Poetry is what is left unsaid. The stolid words of brevity simply point us in a direction only the brave will wander, but through the daily words of an old Italian farmer, I found a new kind of poetry. Pine Tree farm, butted against the rail line on the far side of Walden and owned by the Ammendolia’s, was one of the last of the Italian family farms that used to be scattered in every corner of Concord. Tony Ammendolia was the patriarch who somehow kept the dream alive, even as farm after farm succumbed to the teeming aorta of suburbia. It was there where I worked on school breaks and on summer weekends, picking corn at 4:00 AM before the heat of the day and hoeing seemingly infinite rows of tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, and eggplants in the long, hot afternoons where success and failure crisscrossed and intersected in a struggle to just get by. My Goddaughters were raised there, and their parents, my good friends Deb and Jack, still keep a few acres going to this day. Tony died two years ago after defying for many years the cancer he fought with the same stubbornness that he did the vicissitudes of nature in the cycle of droughts and floods and insects he faced at every turn during his days as a farmer.
Every night for over sixty years Tony would sit at his desk after dinner and write in his journal. Tony knew I was a writer and would kiddingly tease me that he was a writer too, but in a good-natured poke at my transient approach to life, he was also a farmer. I was at Jack and Debs recently for dinner and asked about Tony’s journals. Jack perked up as the proud inheritor of this family treasure and immediately found me one of the many small notebooks that Tony kept. I opened it and felt the tears well in my eyes, for it read like a type of poetry I had never read before. Tony never meandered from the scope of his own life, but his words spelled out a conviction that celebrated both the common fragility and majesty of life with sentences both sparse and foreboding: “Potato beetles got the eggplants on Bedford Street. We will not sell eggplant this year.” “Three days of rain. Lucky, as the irrigation pumps needs a new valve.” Each entry is a sublime excising out of the ordinary: the sky, the temperature, what was done, what had to be left undone, how much seed, what was selling and what was not selling—but never a mention of the money made or not made. There is never a mention of personal angst or frustration for over sixty continuous years. Those details were best left to imagination and speculation. Some, myself especially, have to call it poetry.
Our own journals need the same attention that Bob and Tony put into their daily records so that our journals can also chart the common unfolding of our lives. As writers and sojourners in life it is our call and duty to map the expanse of our existence. We don’t need to lay our souls bare for all to see and gossip about, but we should find a place to keep a daily journal. Whether it is written in leather bound journals, spiral notepads, or saved as private or public drafts in your blog doesn’t matter, but just a few short lines each day will serve to spark your memory in a later age—and memories wizened in the vat of a thoughtful life will always produce a finer wine. Journaling is a word that has been antiquated before its time. Though fewer and fewer of us take the time to sit with pen and paper, there is still a time and a place for the spirit of journaling to continue.
Make the time to map your own quest. A friend asked me yesterday why I didn’t have a GPS in my truck. He simply shook his head when I answered, “First, I have to remember where I’ve been.” Today’s technologies offer us possibilities unimagined to our literary forbears. Our daily journals can hold both pristine images of our lives via photos, video clips, and music, and most importantly, words. The web allows us to scour the world for like-minded souls that share our particular interests with whom we can share our passions on sites like Facebook, blogs, or personal web sites.
My only issue with much of what is out there on these sites is their self-exploitive and indulgent banality. Bob and Tony’s journals seemed permeated with an almost religious devotion as they chronicled the recitations of their days in rhythm with the pattern of their everyday lives, while on the other side, many Facebook sites I have visited have a tiresome and sycophantic obsession with the painstakingly mundane and profligate side of that persons supposed interests and lifestyle. It is hard—and sometimes impossible—to wrest any kind of context out of the content. Nothing, except a prurient curiosity, keeps me interested—and that is no road to enlightenment for either side of the equation. On some few sites there are links to blogs and other artistic websites where a deeper and more invested side of that person comes through. For them, their Facebook page is simply an adjunct to their life—a social gathering place to rest and draw water with friends and community. There is nothing wrong with that, but it should never be the destination of your journey, and if you can’t see life as a journey—an odyssey of existence—then you simply can’t see.
I guess the word I am looking for is devotion. None of our lives are more complicated than Bob or Tony’s lives. All they did that is different is make time to look closely at what was important to them in the daily unfolding of each of their lives.
Take the time. Remember where you've been.