Organizing “The Examined Life”

Definitely a project I would not have undertaken in normal times, but there’s something about the virus that makes creative work difficult and life itself kind of off-center somehow.

I have been through all 23 of these tomes and it’s been interesting in so many ways. Most interesting was the evolution of my knowledge of the chaparral in San Diego County. I moved to San Diego in 1984. For two years I had no idea there was anything beyond the beaches, the bays, bougainvillea and hibiscus, then my ex saw an article in the Reader that said, “Fall color in San Diego? YES!” and on Thanksgiving 1986 we went to Old Mission Dam where the cottonwoods were golden and, when the leaves were trodden beneath my feet, sent that smell that means, to me, fall. I started taking my puppy — Truffle, then only five months old — up there and began the long journey that has not — thank God — ended yet. I thought that there was no good hiking in San Diego, that I was truly living in exile. How wrong I was!

The journals are full of hikes and what I saw.

They are also filled with perplexity about marriage, love and self. It wasn’t until the 2000’s that I sought professional help with these things. There, in one journal, maybe 2004 or 2005, it’s spelled out. My therapist said, “People who are raised by mothers like yours have a difficult time seeing relationships as anything but absurd.” As she was French, her use of “absurd” was more profound that the words “silly” or “pointless.” Think of Ionesco or Samuel Beckett. I wrote a long (typed) entry about this that showed that, on some level, I understood this but it wasn’t until I tried another romantic relationship that I got the full meaning of her statement.

It’s interesting that it’s our relationship with our mom that determines our ability to form relationships, life partnerships. The fact that I never knew where I stood with her, that she was constantly manipulating and controlling me, that in the court of mom I was always guilty, damaged me in my ability to choose partners and my ability to maintain a relationship. It’s OK, but reading through all those (sometimes tedious) journals showed me my struggle to find love, to understand myself, to figure out what I wanted. That’s not a stupid or embarrassing thing. I think love relationships are a fundamental human need, but I also think that not everyone is conditioned to have one. I saw through all that that my most successful love relationships were those that had little chance for permanence. It was clear I didn’t want permanence. To me it equated to my mom yelling at me for closing my bedroom door.

Do we ever get over that stuff? No. It is part of the adult we grow up to be. We can make some choices about ourselves and where we go, but the deeply engraved stuff like that? It’s always there. Understanding it helps and is, I think, the only way out. Now I see that (embarrassing) aspect of the 23 Journals is me fighting an invisible enemy to find my freedom, freedom that can come only through self-knowledge. I still cut a lot of it out, but…

Along with the search for love and the self-questioning are good stories about teaching. Letters and emails from my family and beloved friends. Notes from students, tickets from Italian trains, Swiss concerts, photos of people I love — all kinds of wonders. There I also recorded my hopeless attempts to get tenure — somewhere, anywhere, for the love of God — then the realization that what I had teaching at San Diego State was really what I wanted. I’ve written about the Cedar Fire, adjusting to life in Descanso, the mountains, the beginning of my osteoarthritis (at 51!!!) and how it had been misdiagnosed… Life is in those books.

One of the journals has an entire photocopied book I borrowed from a friend, poems by Rumi. Other books are filled with Goethe — and my conversations with him. There are drawings of hikes and flowers. Eulogies for my dogs when they died. ❤

On each journal, I have taped a note indicating something about its contents and I’ve labeled those with spines the years between the covers.


When I reached the last book (2006) — which is only half-filled — I wrote an entry that explained, from this distance, what happened, a bit about how things turned out. In 2008 when I threw out the Evil X, I began writing an online journal on Blogger, a private blog. I liked it. Who wouldn’t that types 100 wpm? I was already typing journal entries and gluing them into books. The online journal allowed pictures. That journal was my way of overcoming a very dark time and I did that by, every evening when I got home from school, writing one good memory from earlier years. I got this idea from Dostoyevsky who wrote in one of his books that one good memory from childhood can save a man’s life.

As I was writing that final entry, I checked my email and had to laugh. This quotation was on top of the first email, an advertisement:

“If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.”

-Frank A. Clark

I would add that even the path that’s FILLED with obstacles might not lead anywhere. 😂

14 thoughts on “Organizing “The Examined Life”

  1. “Life is in those books”…a treasure, to have the time to review those journals and the journals themselves. Definitely a reflective time we are living in.

  2. I’m teary from the familiarity ~and the beauty of these precious journals. 💚
    Your journey is helping me as I follow behind you~having experienced similar things (even osteoporosis in my left hip) and some major pains in my neck and soul, not from my wreck, but of “man”form. I’m so glad I decided to start a blog~and still spend time writing in my journals. PS~I love Truffle and all your babies. 💚

  3. That mom connection filters into everything. I understand oh so well. Maybe that’s why I have a pile of journals with pages of ruminations about relationships and such. I wonder how much writing it all down helped. I can only hope that it did. We are expected to get over that stuff, but I agree with you. We really can’t, only maybe understand some of the why. It gets hard wired early on.
    I like the plan of – every day – writing one good memory of earlier years. Great song choice 🙂

    • I also wonder how much writing it down helped, too. But I’m not even sure how our minds work — maybe that was my way of working it out, thinking it through before my aunts and my therapist helped me bring all that out into the open where I could talk about it with someone who KNEW — either knew my mom or how those kinds of family situations affect people later on in life.

      I had no idea why I hated and feared marriage, chose abusive partners or partners who ignored me. No idea that it was actually a rational response to having been raised in an irrational way. I played horrible games with the men who cared about me, too. I didn’t know that wasn’t how people ALWAYS treated each other. I don’t know if (I doubt) I would do that now, but I am still afraid of losing myself and can have problems identifying my emotions. I’m OK with it. Understanding has helped me a lot.

      It’s common for women in my generation to feel like failures if they don’t “find a husband.” I don’t feel that now. I’m good with being a solitary person and the freedom I have. I think that is also the result of having been a kind of prisoner as a young person at home.

      Now I’m glad I have those books and went through them. 🙂

      • I think it was my way of trying to make sense of what didn’t feel right or good. As if seeing it in print would all of a sudden become a lightbulb moment of clarity. That didn’t happen, but maybe it assimilated somehow to a path decades later I could feel comfortable on. It helped a lot to eventually – years later – speak with women who knew my mother esp in her younger years. It was a line of support that I didn’t expect but was eternally grateful for. I wasn’t imagining the craziness. And it wasn’t my fault. What a huge relief.
        Identifying emotions…yeah triggers still happen. But the good thing is I recognize them for what they are.
        Ah…the husband thing. You and I are in the same generation. I did “find” a husband, but resisted the idea for a while. I think my mother was shocked it actually happened. And that it worked out fine. I imagine she hoped I would always put her first.
        I like your term: solitary person. It sounds like freedom. And confidence in it.
        I think I’ll take another look at my stack of journals, now in a different mindset. You may have inspired me. 🙂

  4. I’m glad you were able to review and still retain the essence of the journals. I was afraid that you would toss them in a burn barrel and do away with them altogether. I have lived a charmed life – of this I am certain. It is especially true when I hear what others have endured at the hands of family and lovers…

  5. “… makes creative work difficult and life itself kind of off-center somehow.”
    Yes. SO MUCH YES.
    I’ve been looking back at journals too. I want to slap my younger self. Why was I making decisions based on boyfriends? Embarrassing. But also part of life and growing up.

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