I have decades worth of journals I never read. Today, curious about what I used to write about and if I would recognize myself, I randomly pulled a ragged blue spiral-bound notebook off a shelf.
Neatly written on the second yellowing page is December 2, 1975. The final entry is April 8, 1976. This was the winter and early spring of the last year of high school and also of any semblance of ‘family life’ with my nuclear family. I’d spent most of my childhood growing up in apartments mostly in the Bronx with my 3 siblings and parents and a dog that bit. The truncated version of our family – my parents, one of my brothers, the vicious dog and I – moved when I was 15 from our apartment on Broadway to a white, wealthy suburb in Connecticut. A few months after my last entry in this journal, my father unexpectedly left my mother and moved out of our lives. At the end of that summer, my mother sold the house and moved to a wall-to-wall carpeted apartment in Stamford. I went to college and on to my life from there.
All entries in this journal are in only lower case letters. No doubt an E. E. Cummings inspired affectation. I wrote (of course) bad poetry with apparent ease, often about the stars. I was observant, scrawling pages of overheard conversations heard on the train to NYC or in the noisy school cafeteria. I noted a school trip to see Sam Waterston play Hamlet and went to a Joni Mitchell concert in New Haven. I went on a few college visits to snowy New England towns that I wrote about half-heartedly because I had grander fantasies of traveling the world. I wrote that all I wanted was, “… a hunk of time for me — for romance, to read, paint and draw bad picture and write bad poetry.” Yes, I’d still like that.
While mostly these pages are excruciating, I appreciate how often my entries became poetry-efforts. Of course they’re sappy and bad but there was a fluidity to how I wrote down my thoughts and images that that feels true to the creative process of diving in. When did I decide I was no good and should stop? Now I rarely read and never attempt to write poetry telling myself it’s hard and I don’t understand it. That it was a phase. And yes, I think it is a phase that young creatives go through – bravely trying out different mediums, digging our way to the soul. I gave up on that one – probably because I thought I wasn’t good enough. Squashing life experiences pile up as do demands on our time and energy and we lose the sweet momentum of youth, don’t we?
I was busy. Besides school and literary magazines and school play productions, I waitressed in a tiny Indian restaurant. It was just the cook and me and while I worked there, we were friends. Singh told me that he was from a small village in the Himalayan mountains. He’d been living in the US for a few years when I met him, his wife remained in India and no longer wished to join him. He had a daughter. He sat on a step-stool in the kitchen exhaling smoke from one of his endless cigarettes, (the 1970s – people smoked everywhere) he told me he couldn’t remember what she looked like any more and in 3 years, a child changes. Singh was always sad and drank and smoked his sorrow. At night he blasted the Average White Band as we cleaned up.
Between delivering plates of curry, I filled my blue notebook. I wrote about the customers. One of them courted me — successfully, writing love notes on corners he tore off the yellow placemats. These days, he could have been arrested: he was 24 and I’d just turned 17 and I was willing and smitten.
However I was not interested in the teacher, the advisor for the literary magazine I worked on, who showed up on my doorstep. “I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by and say hello and offer you a creative writing deal.” He wanted me to go to a bar with him “for a coke” to discuss some writing and would I edit it? Next, he is in the living room. I perch on the edge of the couch – he sits next to me and reaches over to move my hair out of my eyes and asks if I’d ever heard of Veronica Lake? No, I say, grabbling my hair away, hands shaking, biting the skin on my fingernails wondering when either of my parents would get home. I remember his breath smelled of liquor and he took off his glasses to show me a scar on his face.”What’s your weekend schedule? I was hoping we could get together and you would read this piece I’d written.” In my memory, he is old – in my journal I wrote that at least 45 years old. Old – when you’re 17. I answer him again with a NO, I have to work and have loads of stuff to do for school. “Where do you work – should I come and eat there?” No – it’s awful. He notices the piano that no one plays. He gets up, squeezing my leg before sitting on the bench, running his fingers across the keys before banging out what somehow I knew was “Stardust”. I see my mother’s car pull into the driveway. I’m shaking and my eyes blur with tears. My mother comes up the stairs of the split level and I give her a horrified look. No surprise registers on her face, instead, as if she’s heard her cue, she begins to sing. “Though I dream in vain
In my heart it will remain, my stardust melody!” I don’t remember any discussion with my mother about how strange and wrong this was and the teacher never approached me again. Things like this simply happened back then. Apparently my mother thought so too.
Throughout the pages, scribbled notes of homework assignments, history readings and math assignments and this: “Psych. – brown bag. one side showing you as you’re expected to be, 2nd side – you as you think others see you and on the inside – as you want to be or think you are.” I wish I could look at that bag now. Who did 16-17 year old me think she was?
What compelled me to write things down over the years? I used to fear that until I wrote it, whatever happened did not exist. Floating at the top of one page, perhaps from my mind or read somewhere – this: “Writing is my need to rework life – or at least say something right.”