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Saturday, August 17, 2013
Back-to-school promotions tank my spirits.
I regret to see the ripe head of summer lopped off prematurely, everyone shuttled into utilitarian boxes. So much could be learned from the world around and within, if only we knew how to look.
But things proceed as they will, and back-to-school sales do bring an annual benefit: happy stacks of black-speckled hardbound composition books. The kind you had in second grade, now in green, pink and red!
They have been my own school for a lifetime — the university of the journal. I buy extras each August for schoolmates.
People who keep journals wonder how they could ever operate without one. A journal is not just a school but a portable steering wheel — for the day ahead and for life. It links the invisible GPS of intuition with the surrounding world.
I know people who feel bizarre and disoriented if they start the day without any journal time. They get up two hours early for the sanctuary and grounding peace/mystery of opening a blank page.
Some journal-keepers dump every scattered part of their life into this one receptacle — to-do lists, prayers, drawings, insights, garden notes, troubles, lesson plans, recipes for spoonbread and blotches of batter as well.
With so many bits of disjoined information coming at us today, so many separated compartments of life, a journal is a good unifying device, gathering the soul back from its scattered locations into one still point. There, it can rest and begin to see clearly.
Maybe that’s why journal-keepers can look lost when they’ve lost their journals. We can go dutifully through the day’s motions, but part of the mind is roaming around, seeking a signal from that low-tech device that helps orient us. “Maybe I left it under that pine tree behind the repair shop!”
When we find it there, sap-stuck and rained-on, we hug it gratefully or fling it in the air like a graduation cap. There’s a sense of completion, hope, adventure ahead.
The journal is such an object of attachment mainly because it is a tool of detachment.
If you read the journal notes of Dag Hammarskjold or Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Merton or Madeleine L’Engle, you see the human mind on a journey from personal view to universal.
These writers reason with themselves, working off the mental flab of the small-minded self by questioning their own assumptions.
It’s not always pretty, this kind of training the ancients called “self-examination,” but it helped a person see more clearly in order to navigate better.
A characteristic example from Aurelius, writing to himself: “Thou canst remove out of the way many useless things among those which disturb thee, for they lie entirely in thy opinion; and thou wilt then gain for thyself ample space by comprehending the whole universe … and by contemplating the eternity of time.”
So much for complaining.
Elsewhere this Roman philosopher king says, “Consider the kindness by which God has distinguished man, for he has put it in his power not to be separated at all from the universal; and when he has been separated, he has allowed him to return and to be united and to resume his place as a part.”
What else are we when rattled, discontent or afraid, but “separated” mentally from the cosmos? Re-collection, like self-examination, is the ancient practice which resolves that.
The Swiss doctor Paul Tournier, who recommended his patients meditatively journal, felt that inner disconnect was in fact the source of most physical disorders.
He perceived that the inner nudge of intuition actually made people miserable, because they didn’t want to hear it, or feared acting upon it. Thus they were always divided, running from themselves.
Tournier wrote, “Recently I saw a young woman who after several years of great spiritual adventure, was swamped in overwhelming difficulties. I mentioned to her that during the last twelve years, I could count the days on which I had neglected to write down during meditation what I thought God expected of me.”
Later, the woman wrote to him, “‘I am grateful for what you said. It is a long time since I gave up the habit of written meditation.’” She returned to it, and things fell into place.
When unscattered, one feels less call to fear the road ahead — for all points are one universe.
The morning that he died on a snowy hike, the old conservationist Sig Olson had gone as usual out to his writing shack full of rocks and maps, to type his journal page.
A single paper was later found in that typewriter, his friend and colleague Rupert Cutler told me. It read, “A new adventure is coming up and I’m sure it will be a good one.”
After all, he was already on his way.
Liza Field’s column runs every other Saturday in Extra.
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