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. ðŸ˜‚

Whim

19th century writers used a lot of words. It would be another hundred years before a different style of writing would catch on. Emerson is wordy. There’s no way around it. It’s an incontrovertible truth. When I taught “Self-Reliance” I did it by making a worksheet that had one question per paragraph. The idea was if the student could answer the question, he/she had the jist of the paragraph.

My students hated it, or, anyway, I thought they hated it. When I wrote my thesis advisor, who had edited the Emerson’s Essays we were using, and told him I was teaching it, he said, “Find out who likes it. Get their names and I’ll send them autographed copies.”

The next time I went to class I asked, “Do any of you like ‘Self-Reliance’?” 3/4 of the class raised their hands. I said, “It doesn’t affect your grade. I just haven’t tried this before.” No one put their hands down. Dr. Robert D. Richardson had to send 25 autographed copies of the book.

The message of “Self-Reliance” is that through self-knowledge, a person can learn to act and live in harmony with his/her true nature. The essay is full of beautiful passages buried in the labyrinth of Emerson’s prose. One of the loveliest, densest and (to me) truthful passages of “Self-Reliance” is very dense, but the message contained within it strikes home for me. It concerns “Whim.”

I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation… Self-Reliance” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Whim” in this case is essentially following your heart. You don’t know where it’s going to lead, but the thread to which it attaches might be the heart’s goal. It might not, but, as Emerson says, “…we cannot spend the day in explanation.”

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/04/18/rdp-saturday-whimsical/

Handwriting on the Wall

“Where’s my good needle?”

Saturday, my friends and I went to a nearby town, South Fork, for lunch. On the way back we stopped in Del Norte so E. could get buttons and a special round needle. I failed to ask what kind of needle — but maybe knitting?

The fabric store is kind of a general store for any crafts people might do living 45 miles from the nearest Walmart which is in Alamosa. Along with sewing, knitting, quilting, crocheting and jewelry making, they — I should say she, it’s owned by a dynamic woman named Kathy — have a small section of art supplies. Everything was on sale, but I still didn’t have $30 for a large pad of watercolor paper.

We parked at the side of the two story brick building that houses Kathy’s Fabric Trunk. We were captivated by the writing on the brick wall.

Here’s the building in the 1920s… I don’t know what the store was back then, but Kathy’s is the first storefront, with the awning rolled in (no awning today).

Street life back then was a lot more colorful than it is now. The little building to the left facing was a mineral spring. The spring is gone and all that remains now is the little building, Del Norte’s landmark.

I think of it as a store for all the things people in my immense, cold neighborhood do in winter.

Inside the store are two dogs. A black lab and a little fluffy Maltese/poodle greeting dog. The tiny thing came right to me when I walked in. I don’t just LIKE dogs. I’m interested in them and they know it.

In the very back of the store was a young woman in a wheelchair, clearly living with multiple physical and mental disabilities. The Labrador was in charge of taking care of her and was very good at his job. At one point, while I was helping E choose buttons, I looked over my shoulder and the Lab and the Maltese were sitting together looking out the front door. It was a lovely moment.

I thought of that scene and the whole store afterward. Kathy’s Fabric Trunk seemed like a metaphor for each of us. In front, there are a couple of smiling, competent men standing behind expensive, beautiful sewing machines, prizes for customers who had garnered the most “points.” There are beautiful fabrics, elegant quilts and kits with a careful price point to lure in customers. Wandering back into the deep inside of the store, there is the crippled retarded girl in a wheelchair with her guardian dogs, sitting in front of a computer that’s playing a movie. Further back, are the bottles filled with mixed buttons. A little woman is looking through those buttons trying to find 16 that match, all the right size, with which to decorate the beautiful owl hats she knits for a Christmas bazaar.