The Journal Keeper A Memoir
By PHYLLIS THEROUX
ATLANTIC MONTHLY PRESS Copyright © 2010 Phyllis Theroux
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8021-1897-4
In 1972, after our third and last child was born, we moved from a small frame house in Washington, D.C., into a gigantic frame house farther toward the edge of town. It was the house of my dreams, with seven bedrooms (the family moving out had raised eleven children there), a cozy kitchen, and a front window that looked out onto a 1950s-era neighborhood full of big trees and little children sucking popsicles as they whizzed down the street on their bicycles. As I stood in the front hall and mentally plugged in the Christmas tree, I knew I could spend the rest of my life here. What I didn't know was that "the rest of my life" was about to end.
Or did I? Looking back, there were signs, some of them quite large. But I wasn't interested in reading them. I wasn't interested in doing anything but working and reworking the classic Vogue pattern I had chosen for my life until it fit correctly. Step One: Get married. Step Two: Have children. Step Three: ... This was the one that was giving me trouble.
A block away was a large park. On weekday mornings it was full of women like me, with downtown husbands who made our uptown lives possible. As they sat around the sandbox balancing their checkbooks or absentmindedly pushed toddlers on swings, I would search their smooth, pretty faces for clues. Were they happy, unhappy? Were they having trouble with Step Three, too? I couldn't tell. We were all so young that there were no lines on our faces to read between.
At night, after the children were asleep, I would sometimes slip out of the house and walk up to the park to be alone with my thoughts. In the dark, the houses on the perimeter of the playground looked like a stage set for Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Lying on the grass and looking up at the stars, I would listen to the muffled sounds coming through raised windows and match them up with scenes inside: someone playing with a dog, a joke-filled dinner party, a couple doing the dishes while they chatted about their children's report cards. The coziness of their lives filled me with longing.
In my own house, there were no scenes of any kind. Not even arguments. And the only sounds, apart from those of my children, were in my own head-or journal. Once, years later, I made the mistake of cracking one of them open. Out spilled the sighs and cries of my life as fresh as the day I had recorded them. I slammed it shut.
My earliest journals-a stenographer's notepad, a student composition book, an accountant's ledger-have a haphazard, impermanent look to them, as if I wasn't quite committed to the practice. I would grab whatever was nearest at hand to record my thoughts. Months go by without any entries. Often, I neglected to date them. The only consistent thread is my handwriting, taught by nuns with Esterbrook pens and calligraphy nibs. No matter how stormy the material, the words flow calmly and precisely across the page.
There were times when I poured my heart out. But other parts of my journals are quite different and dry-eyed. I note conversations overheard on airplanes, the way a beach looks at sunset, or-indecipherable to me now-I scribble down words-authenticity, individuality, spectrum: old and new-like clues in search of a unifying theory. A unifying theory of any kind was hard to find.
In the decade of the seventies, Ms. magazine was launched, Erica Jong wrote Fear of Flying, and the future for women, which for my generation looked like a well-maintained golf course when we graduated from college, was now anything we could make of it as long as we could find a babysitter. Down the street, one neighbor was holding ballet classes for children in her basement. Another woman had started a morning preschool. I began to write-both for myself and for publication. From the very beginning, my life and my writing were joined at the hip.
Shortly after we moved into the big house, I realized that it was not going to save me. One night, feeling restless, I got out of bed and went into a spare room off the porch where there was a desk and typewriter. Several hours later I got up and went back to bed. The next morning, I gathered up the pages that had fallen onto the floor and reread them. This is how it began:
Rocking slowly back and forth, pressing the worms in my chest against hunched-up knees. One little daughter banging for all she's worth against the front door. The baby, needing to be changed, crying in the backyard. A husband fixing the brakes on his bicycle on the patio. And I am rocking back and forth, not knowing where to place my hands, fix my gaze, or rest my soul.
This was a story about being caught in a life that I had been ill-advised on how to lead. Rolling the first page back into the typewriter, I gave it a title: "Getting the Hang of It." Perhaps I could get it published, although my actual thoughts probably ran along the more commercial lines of maybe this would sell.
Manuscript in hand, I went down to the local drugstore and riffled through the magazine rack. My story was about a woman at home. Perhaps Ladies Home Journal matched it best. Writing the magazine's New York editorial address on a large manila envelope, I slipped the story inside and mailed it off without making a copy.
Our lives swing helplessly upon the smallest actions of other people. Six weeks later, an editorial assistant at Ladies Home Journal decided to have lunch at her desk and plucked my story from the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts to read while she ate. A few days later, the phone rang. It was early evening and I was feeding my children supper.
"Mrs. Theroux, this is Dick Kaplan, managing editor of Ladies Home Journal."
Our phone was in a small booth with a seat, off the kitchen. I sat down.
"We have your piece here, and I have two questions for you."
"Well, first of all, are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine."
He seemed relieved, as if I might have been about to follow Sylvia Plath's head into the oven. "Oh, good. We were a little worried about you up here. We would like to publish your piece. We can offer you $500."
After the conversation was over, I sat in the phone booth and gazed back into the kitchen where my children were still scrabbling around with their fingers in plates of spaghetti. Perhaps, I thought, I had found something that wouldn't come undone. Perhaps there was something I knew how to do.
In fact, I didn't. I was writing beyond my ability. That small burst of competence, born out of a strong need to figure out what was happening to me, was a gift, a loan against a talent that had yet to be developed. The practice of writing, of laboring long hours to buckle words around an idea and make a sentence slide across the page like Fred Astaire across a dance floor, lay ahead of me. But when I hung up the phone, I was a different person with different possibilities. A five-page story without an ending had changed my life.
* * *
When people say something changed their life, I think they usually mean, upon deeper examination, that something has revived their imagination. A door we didn't know existed, or always thought was locked, suddenly swings open. Old ambitions, which we were too timid or thought we were too unqualified to realize, are gathered up and reconsidered. A talent judged too small is reevaluated.
Growing up, for example, I had wanted to be a child saint, which wasn't possible because I couldn't find a way to prove my sanctity. Moving on, I decided to be a saintly child movie star, but I couldn't find a talent scout to discover me. Finally, and more seriously, I hoped to be a devoted wife and mother whose husband (also devoted) would be a lifelong companion. We would look like the von Trapp family, without the dirndls, with lots of three-part harmony as we did the dishes.
Children are born with imaginations in mint condition, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Then life corrects for grandiosity. I was no exception. My early dreams did not materialize. But when I became a writer, I saw similarities between them all.
Being a writer does not have the global reach of a canonized saint but, at its best, writing is a deeply spiritual act that can have a profound effect upon the practitioner. Writing is not acting but, for someone who likes to entertain, it is a way of being onstage without worrying about camera angles. And while writing is not anything like being a mother of small children, I found most of my best writing material close at hand, which is where my children happened to be standing as well.
At the end of the day, after they were asleep, I would go upstairs to my desk, take out the file of fragments I was working on, and reread what I had written the night before. During the day, while I unscrewed peanut butter jars, sorted laundry, and worried about my marriage, it comforted me to think that no matter how much I slipped and fell on the ground floor of my life, that in the attic where I worked there was a slim sheaf of words that maintained their freshness and integrity whenever I returned to them.
Night after night, I would spin memories into paragraphs that didn't have a larger context: a stand of cockle-weeds behind the summerhouse that blazed with dew in the early morning, a conversation with my grandmother, the way it felt to be alone on the playground when everybody else seemed so effortlessly popular. Later, many of these fragments would find a place in a memoir. But before I wrote for publication I simply wrote-like a woman in labor who wants to give birth to something inside that is ready to be born.
Five years later I was divorced, with three young, emotionally wounded children, living in the same house of my dreams that was suddenly too big and drafty to heat on a freelance writer's salary. But I was beginning to get assignments from magazines and newspapers. On the same day I signed a separation agreement, the first of a dozen essays I would write for the New York Times was published-which was thrilling, in a depressing kind of way.
While my personal life was going down in flames, my professional life was rising with the same speed from the ashes. But it seemed like a Faustian bargain that had been made without my consent: worldly success in exchange for personal ruin. It would be many years before I could view it in any other way.
My career began at a fortuitous moment. Women were feeling the ground shift dangerously beneath their feet. Magazines and newspapers were actively looking for new writers who could speak for them. I turned out essays, editorials, and feature pieces at a fast clip, finding my inspiration where I spent most of my time-in the kitchen, at my neighborhood cooperative garden, or in my own head as I waited on the front porch for my children to come home from school.
At the same time, I began to keep a daily journal. I thought of it primarily as a ship's log that enabled me to keep track of my thoughts and feelings as I bumped from one drama-filled day to the next. But I used it for other things as well: a place in which to work out ideas, store metaphors, and save odd bits of dialogue the way a composer might jot down small, incomplete bars of music. There were times, in the beginning, when I used my journal as a wailing wall, but I learned not to immortalize the darkness. Rereading it was counterproductive. What I needed was a place in which to collect the light.
Recently, it occurred to me that these journals might be a source of light for others as well. I had been struggling to write about my mother, who spent the last five years of her life with me. Two years before she died I began work; after her death, I intensified my efforts. But as time went on I got lost in the process, increasingly unsure how to make my mother come alive. Surrounding me were notes, letters, photographs, and journals-all the material I needed. Yet for such a quiet unworldly woman, she was proving more difficult to get down on paper than Eleanor Roosevelt.
Was my ego getting in the way? Was I overreaching? Or, as one astute writer friend of mine suggested, "Perhaps you need to set your mother aside for a while and work on something a bit easier-like editing your journals." The minute she said it, I grabbed at the lower bar.
What could be easier than editing one's own journals? I fell into the assignment the way one falls onto a bed full of pillows. This wasn't even writing; it was transcribing. Details that had been lost, like puzzle pieces in the sofa cushions, were retrieved and pressed back into the larger picture. Events that had come unglued from the calendar were put back in chronological order. But until I sat down to read all my journals in one fell swoop, I was largely unaware of one reality that soon struck me as deeper and more profound than anything I had written. As one year followed upon another, it became increasingly apparent to me that a hand much larger and more knowing than my own was guiding my life and pen across the page.
I am not referring here to automatic writing-although what writer would turn it down if it was good enough-or angels, although I have often had a sense of being gently pushed around by benevolent forces whose job it was to make sure I didn't take any wrong roads or miss any significant markers. It just never occurred to me to look in my journals for proof. But there, right before my eyes, were numerous examples of "managed care" where random events followed one another in a kind of planned, compassionate order, unimportant decisions turned out to be pivotal, and, in several instances, huge unrealistic wishes I had written down, primarily to get them off my chest, were granted.
"There is guidance for each of us," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word." Lowly listening-to my own inner voice-was what I had been doing almost every morning for the past thirty years, sitting quietly with my journal. The thoughts I recorded were like ballast in my hold. When I closed my journal to begin the day I felt properly weighted, not so easily blown off course. Only later did I grasp that keeping a journal not only saved my life in the record-keeping sense but saved it in a deeper, more mysterious sense as well.
When this book begins I am sixty-one and living with my eighty-two-year-old mother, who developed macular degeneration and had moved in with me three years earlier. Absent from the pages are most references to my children, who have suffered enough beneath the point of my pen and deserve a little privacy. Missing, too, are most specific dates, which don't seem necessary. With the exception of the week of September 11, 2001, there are very few. But when I anticipate a question or think a particular entry could stand a little more explanation, I have added a few words. Otherwise, the journal simply unfolds alongside my life.
There are recurring themes: the struggle to write, self-doubt, my students and teaching life, living in a small town, loneliness, the care and repair of friendships, aging. Particularly aging. I am preoccupied with time and how often I abuse it. Financial worries come and go, as do I-to Italy and California, where I have conducted writing seminars that helped ease those worries. And weaving lightly through the pages is my mother, who came to live with me at a time in my life when we both qualified for senior citizen discounts at the movies. The Journal Keeper is ostensibly about my life, but I wound up painting a portrait of my mother in the margins, and perhaps this suits her best. Limelight always made her nervous.
Over the years I have read numerous journals, primarily by writers and artists whose thoughts inspire and jump-start my own: Marcus Aurelius, John Muir, Etty Hillesum, Anne Truitt. One can skip around the centuries the way one skips around a roomful of good friends who are always ready to drop everything for another heart-to-heart conversation. Sharing my journal with a third person, as I am doing here, simply expands the dialogue.
Whether it is possible to persuade someone else to keep a journal who isn't already doing it, I don't know. But one thing is certain. It doesn't depend on whether you have the time. When my children were young, I woke up before they did or waited until the end of the day when they were asleep, to make the time. Keeping a journal is like smoking (and for a while I did both together): if you need to do it, you will find a way. In fact, finding my way is why I took up journal-keeping in the first place. I was, to paraphrase Dante, in the middle of a dark wood. My journal was a flashlight. It still is.
Excerpted from The Journal Keeper by PHYLLIS THEROUX Copyright © 2010 by Phyllis Theroux. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.