When you’re a man of a certain age, you yearn for things of yore. In my case, I yearn for pen and paper. I’ve kept journals over the years. Several in fact. Most of them are harrowing accounts of depression, low points in my life, and tellings of how I managed to survive relationships that ended abruptly in disaster.
Looking over the words I’ve written, and the files I’m still able to open in my computer without getting the error message: “Unable to access file,” I’ve come to realize I write mostly when I’m in some kind of emotional distress, and not when I’m happy or at a high point in my life. I dread to think I’m one of those “art is suffering” type people. What would Brené Brown’s stats have to say about me. [Shudder]
I find pen and paper comforting, familiar, when I write. This is how I learned to write, to think, to feel. Writing with a keyboard is convenient, as is working with a computer. I can write, save, and search my words for a particular topic or thing I know I’ve written when I save a file to my computer or iPad with tags or categories attached to the file. Certainly, WordPress makes it easy to find a post I know I’ve written by searching for titles, or keywords. But no matter how hard I pound on my keyboard, nothing comes close to the catharsis I feel when I write in my journal. I’ve been doing this for several years, and very little comes close to the feeling I get once I reach the final word of an entry. Putting pen to paper and writing the way I was taught to write before I picked up a mouse or learned how to use a computer is the only way I know to unburden my heart and make sense of my emotions.
My journals are nothing but transcripts of anxiety and fears I feel every day when I get up in the morning, or just after I turn off the light at night. Normally, I wake up, take my cup of coffee (must have coffee), groom myself, and sit in quiet meditation for 20 minutes. Then, I sit at my desk, perform a small ritual of lighting a candle and invoking an ancestor, and I write for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until I feel there is nothing more to say — at least for the moment.
There are times when I think I have channeled loving advice from Lord only knows where, and there have been times when the writing has remained as silent as the Sphinx. Still, writing is a healing exercise; it is an intimate moment with myself at a time where privacy hardly exists — what with pings, ringtones, e-mails, and other kinds of digital intrusions. While at the time it may feel that the writing doesn’t solve much, the act does give me a chance to unburden what wells up in my chest before it becomes something I cannot control.
Writing has been a way for me to map the territory of my heart. There are no clear signs or way to get about that territory. Annie Lennox has a great song I used to listen to that opens with, “It’s a dark road, And a dark way that leads to my house, And the word says you’re never gonna find me there, oh no, I’ve got an open door, It didn’t get there by itself, It didn’t get there by itself.”
Sometimes, when I sing alone in an air tight room (which I do for the benefit of hearing folk), I notice I substitute the word house for heart. It’s a Freudian slip I’ve come to find alarming. But the more I write and sing about it, the more comfortable I get with the substitution. Or maybe I’m just getting used to making up my own lyrics.
Christina Baldwin’s Life’s Companion, an excellent book on journaling, has a chapter about and on writing through dark nights of the soul. Chapter 7 is a meditation on navigating and writing during moments of despair. Ms. Baldwin asserts that despair, or a dark night of the soul while a “confusing, painful experience…is also an ordinary, to-be expected part of the spiritual journey” (pg. 91). “It is not,” she continues on page 93, “until we admit our despair, or until someone/something helps us name it, we are in free fall.” But, she also counsels: “These are exactly the times when a half hour of journal writing, first thing in the morning, or last thing at night, may be the greatest gift we can give ourselves. Words reorganize experience” (pg. 95).
I did a lot of highlighting when reading the chapter — too much to transcribe or add here. The point is, I found comfort in Baldwin’s advice and encouragement to keep writing in order to move past the emotions and feelings that flooded my mind and body at the time. Spilling ink on paper felt much, much better than seeing words appear on a computer screen. The feeling of pen scratching paper, leaving a trail of ink behind it, felt as if a poison was leaking out of me through the pen and being contained on the page.
Now, with reams of paper behind me, archived digitally as scans or kept in storage for safekeeping, I am able to trace how over time I’ve become stronger, softer, more resilient than before. The simple act of capturing my thoughts has become an intimate communion with myself that I’ve come to rely on for insight, comfort, and peace. The 15 or 20 minutes I spend in solitude feeling the pen scratching the paper, leaving a trail of ink behind it has become as nurturing and calming as feeling my breath against my pillows when I go to bed at night. It is a daily ritual I have come to trust and depend on to get me from one day to the next.