Parts of a Whole


Every other Tuesday, I have lunch with my mom. We take turns making the food, but we always meet at her house because her house has all the stuff, and that’s why we’re there. To go through the stuff.

So far, we’ve been looking through envelopes of loose pictures. Some of the photos are labeled, but most aren’t. Some remind my mother of a specific time in her life, a certain house, a person, a story. Those are the pictures I like best, the ones she pulls out and then pauses to study, her eyes poring over the details, the clues. Long before she shows the picture to me I see the memories form on her face – the furrowed brow before her smile, her sudden laugh, her (slightly embarrassed) eye roll. I am a rapt audience then, sitting across from her, quite literally on the edge of my seat.

And of course that’s the real reason we’re there. I want the stories – as many and as much as she can remember – and she wants me to have them.

Parts of my whole.


This Tuesday, we found a letter from my great-aunt tucked into a tiny book full of pictures and dates and addresses, laminated memorial bookmarks. The letter was handwritten. It told the story of my mother’s grandfather, a spellbinding tale of sacrifice, adventure, betrayal and forgiveness. I was dazzled.

“Come with me,” my mom said and she brought me to the home office she shares with my father (once upon a time, my bedroom). There, in a drawer full of even more old stuff, she pulled out a diary. On the dark leather cover, my great aunt’s name in gold: Mrs. Drake.

I opened it. On the first page, in my aunt’s neat hand, it said Diary beginning January 1, 1922.

“It’s incredible,” I said, turning the thick pages, “that ninety years after she wrote it, I can still read it.” I ran my finger along the impossibly straight lines of my aunt’s life. I wondered what secrets I’d find, how much of her deepest, troubled soul she revealed in the pages of her diary. My mother and I were silent for several minutes and then I said, “I need to go home and burn my journals.”

“Or you can shred them,” she said, understanding my thought completely. I looked at her, and in that moment I knew there were things I’ll never know about my mom. Or if I do, it won’t be because I read them in her diaries.


I’ve been thinking about that. I have a drawer where I keep my old journals. There aren’t that many. I only started keeping a journal three years ago, but mine aren’t sweet. They’re not innocence neatly penned. I don’t use them to write about the weather.

They’re full of me working through my shit, figuring things out, getting it wrong, getting hurt. They’re raw and searching and embarrassingly self-indulgent. They’re whiny and triumphant, stupid and brave, confessional and clumsy… the best and, without a doubt, the worst of me.

I have to decide what to do with them. In the meantime, I’m sitting here looking at my aunt’s diary, wondering who I’ll find there, half hoping she wrote, ever so neatly, about the weather.


  1. cmw on August 17, 2011 at 12:29 am

    Wonderful post! I knew there was a good reason I don’t work thru my shit by writing it down. Your ending made me laugh out load.


    • j on August 17, 2011 at 7:47 am

      “I knew there was a good reason I don’t work thru my shit by writing it down” made me laugh aloud. The upside, for sure. 😉

  2. Prudence MacLeod on August 17, 2011 at 3:37 am

    Hi Judy, great post. I do envy you that close relationship with your mother. Treasure those days, for they are pure gold. About your journals? Keep them, and when you fall back, as we all do from time to time, read them again, pick up the clues, see where they can smooth your path. perhaps one day, a century from now, a descendant might read through, just to get an understanding of your life, your strength, and courage, as well as your loving heart.
    Bless, Pru

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 7:55 am

      I started keeping the journals as morning pages after reading Julia Cameron’s THE ARTIST’S WAY. They’ve morphed into something more journal-y, certainly more personal and true, over time, as I became more willing to dive into myself. I’ve only gone back to read the first one, and I was surprised at how the same lessons get relearned, how things I want to stick sometimes don’t. I decided to stop reading them… that one, at least, made me feel very devolutionary.

      As for the someone who might read me a century from now… I don’t know how I feel about that. That particular writing is personal to me in a way that this kind of writing or anything I write for publication will never be…

      Definitely thinking about it. I’m sure there will be more blogs on the subject of what parts of ourselves we give away, and what we keep.

  3. Kathryn Dyche Dechairo on August 17, 2011 at 4:39 am

    Ooooh you have to keep your journals, they are a part of you, a part of your history. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter, they are you.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 7:58 am

      I definitely agree with you on that. They are me. But they are me unfiltered, uncareful, and while I think that makes them incredibly precious and true, I’m not sure it makes them public domain-y. I think I want to know who I get that naked with, you know?

  4. laura hardin on August 17, 2011 at 4:50 am

    I love the idea of Tuesday lunches with your mom (tell her I said “hi”). I don’t keep a journal, so the verbal storytelling for me is so important. I’m torn about how I feel about the destruction of any of your written work but I’t’s really about how well you want other’s to know you. I wonder if you will have different feelings on the subject when or if you read your aunt’s diary.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 8:02 am

      Yes, I think that is what it’s about – how much of myself do I want to reveal and with whom. I feel a little pull because when my mom made it clear that the most interesting, true parts of her were no longer in her diaries, I felt disappointed. My mom, struggling with her demons, working through her shit, is not a woman I know. I’d like to. But she’s much more private than I am, and that part of her is real too – the one who wants to keep her demons to herself. It would be an invasion for me to see what she didn’t want to show.

      I thought the same thing… maybe my aunt’s diary holds some clues on the question. (Thanks for commenting, I’ll tell Mom hi!)

  5. kaleighsomers on August 17, 2011 at 5:42 am

    Your knack for capturing a moment never ceases to amaze me. Living with my dad’s parents this summer was a similar experience. I collected stories from my great great aunt who’s 94 about my dad growing up, a little boy traveling the city with his great aunt for the day. It was magical, sitting around a kitchen table and watching their faces light up as they recounted memories. Part of me hopes your aunt wrote about the weather, but the other part hopes she wrote about hurt and pain and love and learning so that maybe you’ll discover just what you need beneath those pages.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 8:06 am

      Yeah, that’s what the other part of me hopes too. It’s strange how this question has a hold of me – fueled, I guess, by my curiosity about my aunt (something I didn’t have until I started reading her words), and my huge respect for my mom, who is quiet by nature. Emotionally beautiful, but reserved. (We are not alike. I have written about our differences before… she is nothing like me.)

      I love those times too, sitting around the table with my parents and the people they’ve known most of their lives. It rarely happens anymore and back when it did, I didn’t realize how much I should be paying attention.

      (And thank you for the kind words about my writing! xo)

  6. lunaJune on August 17, 2011 at 7:08 am

    Such a wonderful way to spend a tuesday … what a wonderful journey to take with your mom. :~)
    I have been writing the stuff of my life since I was 14… I have probably 8 big journals… I use to keep them beside my bed and relive memories on nights when sleep did not want to come…
    The journal I wrote between 16-18 that one I burned… I had a deep conversation with myself and looked into the future and saw after my death them finding them… and only one jumped out… it was soo full of lost and longing and anger.. I knew instantly what I must do… the thoughts that were in there were not really me…just shit flowing through as I found my way to me and in the end I did not wish those thoughts on anyone LOL
    the rest of my journals I use to share with my close friends.. so they would see and understand the deep thoughts I was thinking… the best part is after letting them read it they would leave me love notes :~) I treasure them more than all the shit I wrote :~)

    can’t wait to see where all the stories your mom shares with you take you

    have an awesome day

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 8:09 am

      I think I have to hope my friends send me love notes (like when they’re off visiting Italy, just as an example) without these peeks into my psyche. 😉

      I never kept journals as a kid, and I didn’t even keep them when I started writing seriously though that is a constant piece of advice from writers I admire. Then I read Julia Cameron’s book, and now I’m addicted. I work through everything there in my “j-pages.” Which is good. It means I’m not working through everything here.

      You’re welcome! 😉

  7. Karen L Hogan on August 17, 2011 at 7:15 am

    Okay, I’m sayin’ you’re not tellin’ the truth, I just don’t buy that you want to see entries about the weather in your great aunt’s diary — unless it’s an entry about who she hid under the covers naked with during the great rain, thunder, and lightnin’ storm of ’40.
    I think it’s our shit that makes us interesting, and how we work through it (or what happens when we ignore it) makes us multi-dimensional. So never throw away a journal.
    You can hope you are the last one standing so no one gets to read it except future generations who will find you fascinating and be grateful for the insight you gave them into their lives.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 8:13 am

      Well, I did say “part of me.” It affected me that some of my mom’s diaries will be edited (read, shredded), especially because she told me that in response to a very real, stabbing sort of realization I had while staring at my aunt’s words. We understood each other.

      I think our shit makes us interesting too, but not always for the telling of the shit itself. Sometimes we’re interesting for how we emerge. (Although, your journals… SOMEONE needs to read those, baby.)

    • Karen L Hogan on August 17, 2011 at 9:04 am

      Okay, we definitely need to get together for coffee.
      I still say, “Keep the diaries!” When I go through my morning pages at the end of the year, I’m always heartened to see that I had a life — even during those boring days when I just felt I was treading water, sounding petty and petulant, never reaching epiphanies ( or as I like to call them epi-fannies). Sometimes I fantasize that future English students will read my work, look at my journals and say, “Oh, this is during her period.
      It is clearly up to each of us to decide what of our secrets we want revealed. I had a business where I recorded life stories of older people. Many had family “secrets” that really and truly were no different from anyone else’s family secrets. Secrets were generally kept out of shame, toxic shame not good healthy “I wish I could have done that one different,” shame.
      I do think the solution is to be the last one standing, if you can manage that. If I come up with a surefire way of doing that, I’ll let you know.

    • Karen L Hogan on August 17, 2011 at 10:36 am

      That last post got squiggly. The sentence is supposed to read: “Sometimes I fantasize that future English students will read my work, look at my journals and say, ‘Oh, this is during her (fill in the blank) period.”
      Much different meaning for a girl.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 5:50 pm

      Ha! Yes, much different. This is better!

  8. Karen L Hogan on August 17, 2011 at 7:19 am

    WordPress says I posted the same thing twice. I don’t think I did. If I did, it’s not because I think I’m so fascinating — more like an oops. However, if I did, I wonder if this means I should be writing two copies of my journal.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 8:13 am

      Can I have the extra?

  9. Tall Pajama Man on August 17, 2011 at 7:49 am

    Don’t know why, J, but this post opened me up and laid me bare on so many levels. It made me miss my mom (still here, just another state), made me think of what I share (or dont) with my kids, made me think of the highs and lows and utter dregs that exist in my journals… All that and more… I guess it is just a mirror for my soul, a soul that I have to live in its true form…

    Pondering a lot… Not sure why, but I think its a good thing. More to come later

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 8:20 am

      I felt that way too. I wrote the first two sections of this post and couldn’t figure out what I wanted so desperately to say. Then I realize it’s in that third part where the urgency lies. The pieces of ourselves that we keep, the pieces we give away, the wondering about which are truer, and how naked we are willing to be. Those are questions, as a writer especially, that intrigue me.

      The thing is, when you write a piece for people to see, even if it’s a difficult, baring-your-soul sort of piece, it’s shaped. You attempt to capture the intensely personal truth, and then make it universal. You give it a beginning, a middle, an end, and your hope is to touch, engage, connect… My journals aren’t like that. They’re about digging deep and being so honest with myself I sometimes need recovery time. They’re for me. But the questions you’re asking, about what you share, I think those are the right questions for us to ask, especially when it comes to our children.

  10. Kacey on August 17, 2011 at 7:56 am

    Oh I got rid of mine a long time ago when that exact thought came over me! Sad really cause I’m sure between the crap there’s something special that deserves to be shared someday.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 8:21 am

      Awww… selective shredding. There’s our answer. “The j Papers” (redacted). <3

  11. Tricia on August 17, 2011 at 8:04 am

    I wish I led a purer (is that a word?) life so I hadn’t felt the need to burn my diaries so many years ago. What a treasure it would be to leave my kids snippets of my daily life. If only I had written snippets instead of incriminating, self-damaging burn quality entries. I would love to read them now and look back on the weather, what I was wearing, the music I listened to, the books currently reading instead of the reality show crap I wrote. Damnit, now you’ve made me sad. And I miss my mom who I’ll never live close to since she and my dad move to a different state once a year.

    Oh, but I’ll wait for J to pat me on the shoulder and tell me everything’s going to be OK. And I will be.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 8:26 am

      Pat, pat, pat. There, there.

      Here’s the thing, though. I’d rather lead the life that makes my journals feel proprietary. And, I don’t have it in me to write about the weather and music and what I did each day, so, sadly, I write about the life I have. So did you. If it helps, when I went back and read the first of these journals, after I’d filled all the pages, I cringed.

      I am lucky to live close to my mom, though. I wish you could do that. xo

  12. Anna (@helgagrace) on August 17, 2011 at 8:38 am

    After my mother died, my sister and I were faced with her lifetime of journals and letters. The first thing we really took a look at was a series of letters to someone (not our father) that were intensely personal and not something we really wanted to know about. We took all of her writing and put it in boxes, labeled it “Open 2026” and put it in my father’s garage. I’m not sure I’ll ever be strong enough to read them, but it’s nice to know they’re there.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 5:10 pm

      That’s a perfect example of why this question so has a hold of me.

      I would feel, I’m sure, that same ambivalence. If it were me, I’d want to read them for the whole picture it would give me – my mom as a woman, as messy and confused and thoughtful and screwed up as I am. On the other hand, I’d be a little afraid… I wouldn’t be able to unknow what I learned.

      These must be the questions memoirists face daily, sentence by sentence.

  13. Amy on August 17, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Don’t you dare shred them! Are you crazy? That stuff will be fascinating to your boys once you’re long gone. It’s like being an adult, watching old videos of yourself as a kid. Warts and all!

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 5:13 pm

      Maybe, but I’m not sure how fascinating I want to be. We humans can be so complicated and inexplicable, even to ourselves. I’ll read them again. If all I feel is embarrassed by warts, I can live with that.

  14. C. Fassett on August 17, 2011 at 10:35 am

    I love the image of you and your mother sharing Tuesdays together. What a treasure <3.

    I've had the same question on my mind recently, because while unpacking I came across all of them, of which there are many, ranging from when I started to journal at 18 to now. I picked through them randomly, and it's interesting to see, as Michael wrote about on his blog recently, the evidence of the unpeeling of any masks I had in place, when I stopped editing what I was feeling and thinking, and just ran with it, free flow. In fact, even though it's been 20 years since I began to blurt out the truth of me, get real, I can still remember so clearly how terrified I was. My heart was pounding hard and fast. I was literally shaking. I remember it felt as if I was waiting for lightning to come out of nowhere and strike me dead. I sat there waiting in a moment of eternity for some death knell to sound. When it finally came through my consciousness that no such thing was going to happen, I started to cry. I can't tell you how free I felt, to be able to get so honest, even when the truth of me at the time was full of rage, to be able to free it in a safe place meant the world to me.

    Would I want someone, say, like my daughter, to find them, read them? I'm not sure. But then, they are a study of a life and consciousness making the journey from hate and rage, to love and forgiveness. Even within each individual entry, it can be clearly seen, with objectivity, that that is where I was aiming…to heal. I so desperately desired to overcome all the shit inside me to find love. And I did find it…I peeled it all off, laid myself bare, defenses gone, and discovered love was all that was left. All the shit was just shit, added stuff, not even real. Garbage I could throw away. If reading my journals could help another see that all they feel is okay, and most likely understandable for those feelings and thoughts existing in the first place, and that it's the very acceptance of them that opens us to receive love and healing, then I don't have a problem with them being read. It was/is the journey to love in a human life.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 5:43 pm

      As usual, such a beautiful response. Thank you! I absolutely agree with you that the journals reflect, in my case, not a life, but certainly a journey that has been essential and evolutionary for me. And to the degree that someone I don’t know might one day read them and feel less alone, I’m all for saving them. The problem is that when it’s closer – your daughter, my sons – there are things that might hurt them, or make them feel conflicted, or fly in the face (painfully) of what they believed to be true.

      I guess I’m not ready to think my experience, however transformational it has been, is necessary to their understanding of me. (Also, I’m a very open person. I err on the side of over-communication with the boys, I always have. They may already know more than they want to.) 😉

  15. Michael on August 17, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Beautiful. If I could control font size here, I’d post a 😀 in 32-point. I can’t help thinking about the ten years I spent away, only able to visit Mom once, maybe twice a year, and what stories I might have heard if we’d thought to pay attention to such things back then.

    Favorite scene in a movie ever: Bladerunner, Rutger Hauer dying, knowing he’s dying, and telling Harrison Ford, “These moments will be lost in time, like teardrops in the rain.” Keep the journals, j, ugly confessions and horrible truths and all. Stick them in a time capsule if you have to, but keep them.

    They’re priceless and, lets face it, by the time anyone else gets to read them, you won’t be around to be embarrassed. I have a feeling they’ll appreciate your courage though. We lose too many pure, honest things these days because we’re afraid of what people might think, and those that do preserve them, in words, journals, stories, whatever – they’re heroes. You’d be a hero.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 5:46 pm

      “We lose too many pure, honest things these days because we’re afraid of what people might think, and those that do preserve them, in words, journals, stories, whatever – they’re heroes.”

      THAT is beautiful, and I agree. Promise to keep striving for that here and in all my other made-for-public-viewing art.

  16. Joanne Marie Firth on August 17, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Amazing that your mom is sharing her memories and memorabilia with you now. A rare and special gift. As far as your journals go, leave them be. They are your personal bookmark in your journey through life. They are also a good reference as you move past all of the shit you have been working through. Mine are all in metaphor, so even if they get into someone else’s hands, they will be indecipherable. Wonderful post. xo

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 5:53 pm

      “Mine are all in metaphor, so even if they get into someone else’s hands, they will be indecipherable.”

      Ha! Love that. Oh, to be a poet and a whole lot less literal than I am! Your journals are perfect because everyone will read something different. Can you say bestseller? 😉

  17. hippiechick on August 17, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    One of the drawbacks of not being able to respond til late in the day…most of what I had to say is said so eloquently already. So, I will say:

    I love this post. And the time you are spending with your mom. #priceless

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 5:55 pm

      I knew as soon as I asked her if we could do it that it was a stroke of genius. Thank you for commenting late. I can never hear you say “I love this post” too many times. xo

  18. Pam on August 17, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    I have a diary from junior high which is (to me) hilariously inane: I wrote about which kids were absent from school that day, and how I liked that week’s Starsky and Hutch episode. Reading it now puts quite a hole in my impression that I’ve been this same person all along.

    My journals and such from later on, I’m keeping for now. It’s interesting, though frequently not gratifying, to go back and look at what things I was whining about or trying to understand at various times. Many things recur. I bang my head on the same doorways often as I go through life. :p

    Now and then I wonder about whether I should have a plan to get rid of them, but I’ll probably never get around to it. Bummer for those who outlive me! They’ll have to decide: read or don’t read?

    I’m delighted that you have your aunt’s diary, whatever it contains.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 6:43 pm

      I feel relieved to know that you bang your head on the same doorways often. Here’s what I thought when I read my first journal (about a year after writing it). “Hey, that epiphany I JUST had is the same epiphany I had ten months ago!” #sigh

      I’m delighted to have my aunt’s diary too. I was working on this post last night, but tonight… a glass of wine and my aunt. #excited

      (And I LOVED Starsky and Hutch.)

  19. kitchenMage on August 17, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    Sitting with my mother the day before her brain cancer surgery she said, “Take all my journals when you head north.” So I did. Opened one and it was full of…delusions. Things that never happened. Stories of my daughter that were incredibly detailed and utterly fabricated.

    The next one was the same. As was the one after that…and the next, and the next. Just enough reality to ground her first thought and then off into another rabbit hole.

    I actually asked her doctor about how long the brain tumor could have been growing and messing with her thinking and he said maybe half a dozen years. This went back multiple decades — back to my childhood, and I was 40.

    Ended up burning them with a few plant’s worth of sage in the gloaming of a drizzly equinox evening. Yes, I was going for the magical purge. I honestly couldn’t think of a better thing to do with them.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 6:51 pm

      Wow. That is an amazing, heartbreaking, holy shit story. I got chills reading it.

      Like Anna’s story, it lies at the heart of what I’m trying to get at – this tension between wanting to truly know our parents, and needing to keep them, in some ways, our parents. And also, the other way around. I respect that my mom wanted to keep some things to and for herself. There’s some sort of “do no damage” rule that I’m wanting to apply here…

      I think the magical purge ceremony was perfect. I’ve come to appreciate the value of simply letting go (a journey painfully documented in my journals.)

  20. jb on August 17, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    On the one hand… I’m so jealous of your wisdom to make time to do this with your mom. I wish I done it with my Grandma and my Nana. Now I have their pictures (which I love) — but no stories or clues to the mystery of what they’re about.

    On the other hand — this is EXACTLY why I’ve never been able to keep a diary, even as a little kid I was too worried that someone would read it. Now, like you, I journal primarily to “work shit out”. It’s definitely not a pretty story,so I “store” those pages in the shredder for safe-keeping. 🙂

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 9:58 pm

      Haha! If i decide to go that route, that’s exactly how I’ll think of it.

      I am loving this time with my mom. It’s always just me and her, and so far, she hasn’t hesitated to answer any of my many, many, many questions, and every Tuesday, I come home in a better place than I was when I left the house.

  21. Patricia MacDonald on August 17, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    You always make me think lady, you have that way about you…

    I am certain C. Fassett and I have lived a similar life, if possibly poles apart. I have journals and pages starting from over 38 years ago and stopping about 12 years ago. I started writing to get the craziness out, then found I could edit them, examine them, even critique my words as one outside my body, and not living in the mire. It saved me from taking my life more than once.

    There are some earlier entries, but it began with a vengeance when my children left to live with their dads because I was weary of welfare and knew I had to find something I could do to support them, a nightmare that began with a black dirty train clippity clopping along filthy rails in a pitch black moonless night. But of course I will never forget how that one began.

    There are so many writings and drawings of despair, anguish, self and others abuse, alcohol, drugs, then the near miraculous occurrence when I decided to stop… stop everything except life… I found I no longer needed to edit my mind part way through the decades-long walk to leave that place, when I finally felt like I might make it through, and my children.

    Those valleys and deserts and dark starless nights are still in my closet. Sometimes I find them amongst the photos and drawings of my kids when they were small. I will open one and read a few pages, marveling at where I was. Every time I read a snippet I become grateful again for leaving that place. For that reason, and that one alone, I’ve kept them, to remember where I’ve been and how incredibly far I’ve come. and not only me, but my children too.

    I did a great deal of damage over which I still sorrow, but 25 years ago I took the first steps to stop the abuse, the suicide, that has run through my mom’s family since they lost their language, their culture, 3 generations ago. I am regaining that now. Will I keep those crazy words? I don’t know if I could bear the embarrassment of allowing others to see how lost I was, but as Michael said, I won’t be around will I? I don’t know if I’ll keep them, but I have so far. Nothing to say i won’t.

    • j on August 17, 2011 at 10:05 pm

      Okay, I will try to get past the swoon induced by your first sentence…

      What a powerful narrative.

      See? When it’s you, I’m wanting to say, “keep them!” I feel it so strongly that you should, that your story, especially, is necessary, because you are part of a larger story that is in danger of being erased.

      I absolutely believe that, but I also think you are a woman, not a culture… your very personal history is yours to keep or to share (or to leave for others to find some day) as you determine.

      Still… I’m glad your journals are still there, in your closet, at least for now.

  22. Travis B. Hartwell on August 17, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Another beautiful post, thanks for sharing.

    I too have been inspired by Julia Cameron to do Morning Pages at various times over the last decade. Sometimes I’ll go back and read what I wrote in that stream of consciousness. Some, I’m not sure what I was stressing about, I really can’t remember. Others, I’m amazed by the things I’ve wrote, things that are more true to my own desires laid bare and not masked by fear. I long to tear down the layers that keep me from that today.

    I think I would want whoever comes after me to read these things. There are some deeply personal things that I haven’t shared with many that are written in these pages. But, all the same, they are an essential part of what makes me who I am. To truly understand me, these things need to be known. If you only knew the facts about the hard times in my life (surgery dates, divorce date, etc) it wouldn’t be a full picture of how those shaped me into who I became. I’ve grown to desire as my life progresses to be able to share my words with people, as if to say, “Read this. This is me. This is why I am Travis.”

    I remember an essay from I believe the New York Times that was going around Twitter a few months ago. Something about a writer’s dilemma. The essayist had written several memoirs, one of which was about a particularly racy part of her life. As she now has a teenager (or close to it, not remembering the details), she realizes they just might come across the book and read it. So she contemplated, should she bare her soul because of this risk?

    As you talk about disclosure, sharing, and being private, these are all issues that have brought me deep introspection lately. I miss that near-full disclosure of everything in my heart and mind that I had during those peak times when my ex-wife and I were married. It has seemed like I’ve spent the rest of my life keeping secrets, not feeling safe, not wanting to upset someone, or unconsciously because things were just not talked about. There are certain aspects of my disability that just weren’t talked about growing up in our home. It was the classic elephant in the room scenario. It wasn’t like hiding some mistakes from the past or whatever, it was not talking about how I was different, but because I have dwarfism, it was always staring myself and everyone in the face.

    These journals are a great way to start, because they help you be honest with yourself about yourself. Perhaps then that truth can be shared with those you love. And, maybe someday, your truth will be read by those who come after you and you will inspire them by honesty to be honest themselves.

  23. j on August 17, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    Like Patricia’s, I think your journals have intrinsic value, there are people suffering that same silence you did, that same feeling of “difference,” of actually being the elephant in the room. You write about it without judgement and with such grace and compassion… that would be helpful.

    Trust me when I say my journals aren’t like that.

    I remember an essay like the one you’re describing. The one I read was by Dani Shapiro. It was about hearing her memoir on NPR’s This American Life, and turning it off because her son was in the car. I think the question is complicated. As writers (and readers) we want authenticity, we believe that the closer we get to the raw, scary, fucked up core of us, the more we facilitate connection, beauty, transcendence. And yet…

    I know I say this all the time, but we are complicated beings. Even as I think about the best outcome for my scribblings, I want you to keep your journals. Years from now, I want others to find them and read about you and know, in the moment they do, that they are not alone.

    • Travis B. Hartwell on August 17, 2011 at 10:41 pm

      Yes, that was the one, from Dani Shapiro. I knew it was someone I followed on Twitter, but couldn’t remember who. The problem of reading as much as I do is I remember bits and pieces of things, but often not enough to re-find it. 🙂

      Something I was going to write earlier is that knowing more of the real struggles and also the real joys of those that came before me does make them real, authentic. An example that comes to mind is the very open “Autobiography of Malcolm X”, where he openly talked about his fears, frustrations, mistakes. I remember being struck by how willing he was to share his views, even the most controversial ones, even the ones that at the time that the book was finished he no longer believed. It was authentic and real and made the man real to me.

      And (I almost said unfortunately), I have been feeling a bit of a pull to write my own memoir, an explanation of my life. The slogan I chose when I ran for student body office in college is a lot more meaningful and poignant now, given my struggles of the last few years and constant possibilities. I’ve decided if I’m going to write a memoir, the working title will be that slogan, “Life is Short, So is Travis”

    • j on August 18, 2011 at 3:20 pm

      Do. It. See my note to Patricia below.

  24. Patricia MacDonald on August 18, 2011 at 4:55 am

    OK, I donno how to write in response to a smaller thread, like Travis did, but I want to tell him, WRITE YOUR MEMOIR! In the years since I quit editing my thoughts I have become something of a story writer, and in every one there is something I have lived through, and not just living, have emerged from, as I’m sure you (Travis) have also. Start writing dude! =))

    • j on August 18, 2011 at 3:20 pm

      You have to go to the top comment from the person you’re trying to talk to and push “reply.”

      I agree with you completely. Travis’s story has the potential to help so many people, not just the people who are suffering in the same way he has, but everyone. So much of what he writes about is universal – ostracism, loneliness, connection, faith. He has some important stuff to say, and he should say it.

  25. melissawolfe on August 18, 2011 at 5:32 am

    I used to edit my diary when I was a kid. Tippex out the bits that I didn’t like or go back and scribble over the parts I was embarrassed or ashamed about. Your post has reminded me of how difficult – and how powerful – journals are. I kinda wish I’d let mine stand, particularly as some of the stories are in threads and forgotten now. I’d like that deeper look into what I felt.

    That sounds like a beautiful process of sharing with your mother. I think this passing from generation to generation is so powerful. Thanks for making me think about this. It is, indeed, a very beautiful post.

    • j on August 18, 2011 at 3:23 pm

      I never thought to edit my journals, maybe because I was so much older when I started writing them… and I didn’t think of them as journals. Morning pages morphed into j-pages, which is another way of saying journal or diary, I guess. I think, if you could make yourself do it, writing free of your editor right now would be hugely helpful to you. Maybe don’t even read what you write for now. Write it, and then put it away until you feel sure that you can look at it without giving into the temptation to make it pretty or more acceptable.

      And thank you. I’m loving this time with my mom.

  26. Milliver's Travels on August 18, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    What a precious thing you have with your mom. That has Love written all over it with colored chalk :~)

    When you talk about burning or shredding your journals as a response to seeing your great aunt’s diary, I’m torn. Part of me goes, oh, yeah, I need to think about security for my journals . . . eventually. And part of me is just blown away by a diary written in 1922. What an incredible time capsule! That makes me think of preservation.

    It’s definitely a tricky area. There’s so much we hide from the world, either from embarrassment/shame or the fear of hurting someone. I guess there’s no easy answer.

    • j on August 18, 2011 at 3:38 pm

      Yes, that is exactly the dilemma. It is so cool to be reading my aunt’s diary. The silliest things delight me. She, my uncle, her brother and some names of people I don’t recognize all went dancing at a swanky party on a Saturday night. They got home at 2 am and then had coffee for a bit. Still, she got up to go to mass on Sunday, sleepy and feeling “a little punk.” Just writing that here makes me grin.

      I have a feeling she isn’t the sort to put secrets in her diary, but we’ll see. I’m only a little ways in. My journals are so much more searching, so much less about the day-to-day of my life. I’ve written about my confusion, my loneliness, my longings. At least so far, my aunt’s diary is far less about her interior landscape than mine. Maybe I need two sets of journals! 😉

    • Milliver's Travels on August 18, 2011 at 3:47 pm

      That can be relaxing and therapeutic, actually. Like you, my journaling efforts are mostly about searching – and trying to unknot the big knots in my life. But, occasionally, when things are going well, I use it to shoot the breeze about my work (what I crossed off my To-Do list!) and about good things that happened. It’s an odd mix when it does show up. Maybe you’re right – I need two journals. :~)

      P.S. I loved the part about feeling a little punk. SO adorable!

  27. Eric (@ericacts) on August 18, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    My vote would be to publish them on the web under the pen name “Judy Redux”. Can’t wait!

    • j on August 18, 2011 at 3:52 pm

      Ha! Shit, now I can’t use THAT name. 😉

  28. on August 19, 2011 at 12:50 am

    Thank you Judy, it is so wonderful to think of you and your Ma’ sharing that time. What a wonderful gift to have that time together!

    I have had a compulsion to write things down for a very long time (not necessarily a sign that I should be a ‘writer’). I remember putting some of my journal pages in a sewer drain when I was really young (odd, I know). I think I was 11. There was a lot of anger on the pages. It’s funny, I put them in the sewer. I have trouble expressing my anger to this day.

    I hope there might be a person who would care enough to read all my random notes, lines for songs never sung, pages torn out of half -completed journals, etc. If that person were someone like you, maybe they could make a cool story from the pages.

    I like this image “the pages of her diaries melded together, taking a shape and life of their own from the feelings that were spilled out on them, confessed through the pen so many years before” I can see butterflies, as cliche’ as that sounds. I see a billow of butterflies coming to life from my journal pages 🙂 Thank you so much for making me think about such things, you always stimulate my mind 🙂

  29. Cynthia Patton on August 19, 2011 at 12:51 am

    Maybe it’s because I write memoir, but I would have no problem reading my great aunt’s journal–regardless of what it contained. Mostly because I know that everyone has shit to work out. It’s what makes us human. And once you start working on your shit, you quickly discover that it’s a never ending project. There is always another layer, always a new discovery just around the corner. So for me the goal is to get naked with everyone. Not in an in-your-face, obnoxious sort of way, and not when it isn’t called for. I simply hope to exist (someday) in a place of total self-acceptance where I don’t feel the need to apologize for (or worse, hide) my messy, work-in-progress parts. Because if I can’t love myself completely, flaws and all, then how can I hope to love others fully and compassionately?

    • j on August 19, 2011 at 9:06 am

      Agreed. And I don’t have a problem reading her journal either, in fact, I’m loving it. It was wondering how SHE’D feel about me reading it that made me consider this question.

      That’s a beautiful goal; it’s been mine for a long time too – to lead an unapologetic life. Believe me, I don’t hide my messy parts, generally speaking. They are pretty much on display whether that’s my intent or not. Journals are a little bit different though.

      I would think they’re even a little different than writing memoir (though that’s getting close to it). You do have to edit your memoir. Just like a work of fiction, you have to shape it and make it into something that will have meaning and resonance with your readers. You consider what to leave in and what to leave out for the sake of that shape (among other considerations, I’m sure).

      My journals are unedited. I have not considered the reader’s… anything. It doesn’t mean that no one should read them, necessarily, but it absolutely means that I want to think about whether I’m okay with that.

  30. KjM on August 19, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    I get it, boy do I ever!

    I have bits and pieces of a journal, scattered in pads here and there.

    And elsewhere, writings that are me working through…stuff. Anger, pain, some joy, the messy parts of me and how I came to be the “me” I am.

    Not for general, or specific, consumption. But part od me nonetheless.

    Writing about the weather has it’s place, that’s for certain.

    • j on August 20, 2011 at 9:00 am

      Writing about the weather does have its place – who knew? “Not for general or specific consumption.” I should write that on my journals, though I think they might suddenly be more interesting than they have been up until now. 😉

  31. […] August of 2011, I wrote about the heady experience of opening my great aunt’s 1922 diary for the first time. I was with my mother, who’d pulled the […]

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