The Stranger

writing-journal

The Stranger

I’m a fussy reader. The librarian at the Dunham Library, where I was a heavy borrower before discovering the e-reader, once time told me that once she’s begun a book, she will always finish it no matter what. I, on the other hand, may last a page or two with a book that I can’t stand, or a couple of chapters of a tolerable, but not too entertaining, one.

I often delight in discovering that books that I’ve initially rejected are in fact quite good. That is why the only books on my e-reader that I delete are that ones that I’ve completed. After I’ve finished reading a book I will often look at some of the other books that I’ve started and rejected and give them a second or third chance. Sometimes, we click.

I recently came across a stranger, while in the process of moving to my new house, who was quite a prolific writer. Coincidentally, he shares my name.

Yes, in the past, I wrote copious amounts of journal entries. Having come across eight or nine half-finished journals, I looked into a few of them and could barely finish a page, let alone a paragraph.

Here’s an example from the late 90’s, when my email was jenr@cam.org. “Jenr” stood for Jonah, Elan, Naomi & Ron, my adopted family plus me when I married Naomi:

I woke up this morning thinking, “What is Life?” Well, it took a while to crystallize into this clear-cut question, but it was there in latent form, hovering over my head. Not the question of one who despairs but the question of an innocent, “What is?”

I don’t know how it is with other journalers, but I have no recollection of having written these words and that includes most of what I’ve reluctantly read when opening some of these journal pages.

I discovered writing in the early 90’s. One day, just like that, I sat at the computer and wrote one of the best paragraphs I’ve ever written, about a holy man living in a cave in India, incense wafting in the air, the view from the cave over distant mountains and forests. I turned this into a short story and wrote the first dialogue since writing compositions in high school. I actually sent it to a publication and they responded that they like it but that unfortunately it was too long for their magazine. Excited by this, I enrolled in a creative writing course at McGill University and actually took the same course twice. I wrote many short stories, buoyed up by the energy of the class, some of which I still have today.

But when things began to lag in the late 90’s, I turned to journaling. Journaling as a technique to improve and stimulate creative writing was considered the thing to do in order to feed one’s creative juices. That is the reason why I have eight or nine of the most boring and mediocre soul-searching journals in the world.

Here I sit at lunch, when I should be working, but there’s no work, or it’s not ready (or…). Feeling shaky after having been (more or less) fired today. So, not only will I have to find work for May and June and post-trip July, but I have to deal with this shock to my delicate ego.

When I recently read this, I first thought that I was talking about one job that I had when I lived in Montreal with Naomi and step-son Jonah as a computer typesetter (infographiste in French is a better word) not far from our place near Atwater Market. One of the memorable things about this job is that I occasionally cross-country skied to work on the bicycle path that winds by the Lachine Canal. I had to give up this job when the boss told me that he was required, by law, to rehire someone who had left due to illness. I didn’t know the law; I thought that he was happy with me, but that was the end of that job.

Now I see that it was getting fired from my job at Presslink, a small ad agency, which I had when I first met Naomi in 1995, and where I worked as a graphic artist, a rank or two above my actual skill and talent level. I was getting well paid but I was out of my league. A trip to Prince Edward Island with Naomi in the summer of 1996 gave my boss an excuse to replace me.

So. It now occurs to me that I’ve been rather judgemental regarding my journaling, I see now that it can provide a snapshot of a time of my life, in this case not necessarily a happy one, a picture of my mental, emotional and spiritual life.

I think that one of the reasons why I find the mundane depiction of my thoughts of perhaps 20 years ago, and of more recent years, so difficult to read is how tormented I actually was. I have always thought of myself as a spiritual seeker, but having a goal and achieving it, as I feel I have more so of late, are two very different things.

As always happens at these schools [I worked for about 7 years as a supply (substitute) teacher for a French-language school board based in Granby, Quebec, which took me to many small towns and villages in the Eastern Townships] because of the language barrier, I’m on the outside. I have no contact with other teachers, I being “retiring’, quiet, thus on the outside. No one seems even curious about me.

I’m a person who is quite proud of his memory. Yet, for the period written about in these journals, my memory is like cheesecloth. I can remember incidences but there is no feeling of continuity. The reason for this is, I think, that I was not a very happy person. The brain does things to memories created during unhappy times; it tucks them away in a drawer that’s difficult to open.

What is amazing is how tenacious I was in starting afresh journal writing. I’d buy a new journal, even though my last one had plenty of empty pages in it, and start relating the goings on of my daily life.

memoir-how-to

In the bedroom with Samantha [my cat, circa 1998] and right-hand writing [an experiment. I’m left-handed but was told by an astrologist that I was really right handed] and cold feet. Looking for work – phone numbers – will call. On the left [of the journal page] is left-hand writing so either way, left or right, I’m incredibly messy. Outside, rainclouds (as in one long, grey overcast sky) lots of thick ice everywhere, a land of whiteness. At least there’s electricity! (For now).

However, I did write some nice poetry, which is a surprise.

From my balcony
High above my house
On a trajectory all their own
I see the clouds –
Sometimes in thin bands
Like stripes on a zebra,
Converging together
At the river of space in the distance,
One wide band –
Grazing zebras.
Sometimes as thick, tumultuous
Black war chariots
Charging their way across the sky
Cruelly clearing the space before them,
While cars speed by,
Spurred by electric desires,
On the road below.
Everyone’s oblivious to the drama overhead –
The choir, the actors, the orchestra,
It’s sky-filled purposefulness…

 And so on (the poem continues).

Looking back, as hard as it can be to face it and admit it, I can honestly say that I was not really a very happy person until recently, when my career as a supply teacher started winding down in 2010. My 30’s, 40’s and much of my 50’s had their fair share of angst. The feeling of continuity of memory that I possess of a happier time in my 20’s disappeared after 1984 when my mother died and the following year when I got involved with someone whom I met while holding down a job as a driving teacher in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto. We lived together for just under 10 years, moving to Montreal on the way. The fighting and stress that we endured together, though there were good times as well, blurred for many years the past but now, through the release of stress and normalization that meditation accomplishes, I’m able to look back on that period between 1985 and 1995 with a greater feeling of continuity.

Reading some of these journal entries brings it home to me how blank my memories are from a more recent era, 1995, the year I met Naomi, until 2010, the year I stopped teaching and began looking for a new career. My hope is that this period, too, will clear up in my brain and be fully accepted by my nervous system. Difficulties that I had (not now, thankfully) with both Naomi and my step-son, have poked holes in that feeling of continuity but this state doesn’t necessarily have to continue forever.

As for today, the time that I’m living in the present, many of the hopes that I had when I first began meditating in 1970 have become a daily reality for me: more bliss and happiness, and joy, and a deep appreciation of the present moment as well as of the bigger picture. I’m pretty sure that I won’t take up journaling again. I’ve learned that much more meaningful writing is thematic in nature; who wants to hear oneself say what he is thinking and doing in the mundane present? Hence, my blog, less journal and more… blog, i.e. writings of ideas and points of view, as well as life-changing experiences.

Yet having said that, I do find the writings interesting snapshots of a generally distressed, overly self-aware and unhappy time in my life. I’m proof that one doesn’t have to stay that way.

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