I’m dipping into my journals in order to write about writing, looking for the notes on old manuscripts to see what tricks of the trade I’ve used through the years. It’s an interesting journey, to read what you wrote twenty-five, thirty years ago. It’s not always pretty; a journal is the place we turn to, where we can put our burdens down.
But it’s not all psychological angst. My journals have been more than just a place to put the bad stuff in life in order to survive the next day. They are around ten thousand, seven hundred and fifty pages of reports, screams, gossip, historical events, jokes, love, rage and rumination. The difficulties of life may push me to record the pain; but many times, I begin writing about whatever is on my mind and end up figuring a few things out. I learned early on that a journal is itself a type of narrative—granted, a sloppy one—a tool used to make a little sense out of the world; and if there is no sense to be made, the journal helps you recognize that truth.
Mine are quite detailed. They are all, of course, from my limited point of view. I write about all the people in my life; and I write about what’s going on in my brain. The tomes are a chart of my mental illness—manic depression—from 1978 to last night. Some of the entries are just too horrendous for me to read—the cycle of moods that catapults me through the roof in spring and pulls me into the thickest shadows of winter; the ebullience that rises too high and, like Icarus, inevitably drops, burns and crashes against the earth. But there are entries that are full of will-power, barbaric yawps of survival, the growl of a brute force that has but one goal in mind: stay the fuck alive.
And the people in my life; I’ve written about them all, especially those I love and who love me. I have written down my own sins and each carefully caught regret; and I have chronicled, in detail, the sins of a select few.
I have written about heroes, women and men who have taught me to take on injustices, fight for the poor, and face my fears.One note I found, regarding a book I wrote called The Holy Spirit of My Uncle’s Cojones—it’s theme: “Living in fear is not living.” That is a mantra I still say, over and again, today, in the most frightening of times.
I have, in these books, reports of conversations with people who chose their own needs over others, who would crush others in order to satisfy themselves. They are the people who taught me what evil is. And they are deep in the journals.
As I read through my life, I find certain themes, and wish to point out two:
I have seen human beings at their most good, the people who love so much that some have chosen to die for the sake of others; and I have seen humanity at its most diabolical, from covetous predators who bend over a toddler’s flesh, to the death squad soldiers who encircled Michelle in Guatemala, who breathed on her the violence of a dictatorship.
The second is: The journals aren’t just recollections, but power, one that I hadn’t recognized until recently. Just one look at a note written minutes after a phone call, the details of his confession, is enough to recall the whole drama around the call. That’s power. I don’t have to say, “Well, I think it went down this way, but I’m not sure.” Yes, the journals are limited, written from my point of view. But I trust my eyes, how they gather the details.
Those filled pages, where I lay my burdens down? The journals are much more than that. They are my backbone and, as of late, they’ve helped me stand upright and look at my personal history straight in the eye. They are, for the first time in my life, allowing me to at least consider speaking about things that I was told long ago never to speak of. Whether or not I do is another matter; the point is, I have, with these journals as witnesses, the choice.