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. 😂

Young People! do NOT keep a journal!!!

I have twenty-four journals, books, with keepsakes, letters, cards, photos, quotes, hiking stories; worst of all, my own stupid personal conundrums written in convoluted and (apparently) infinite redundancy. I thought I’d found all the damned things but no; in the process of cleaning out the garage, I opened the LAST box. Guess what? A dozen more of the dumbass things.

You do not want to know when you’re 65 what an idiot you were at any point in your past life. Write the shit if it helps, then delete it. Do NOT commit it to paper or share it online. Do NOT buy one of those beautiful blank books that seems designed to embrace your every sacred thought because someday you’ll have to throw it all out. Save your money. Take a trip to some exotic locale you’ve always dreamed of and get out of your head.

And as I write this, my iPod plays…