By Ellery Littleton. Ellery has been a Haven faculty member for 25 years. His next writing program at The Haven will be The Spirit Journal Intensive – May 14–18, 2015. A full description of the program is on our website.
I first started keeping a journal regularly, seriously, about 35 years ago. I now allow myself to write about anything I want, without imposing any particular goals or restrictions. If the kitchen sink wants to be in there, I will put it in. I try to write honestly and with feeling, and allow myself to wander and speculate about … anything.
Following are a few selections from some journal entries I made through December and January.
Sunday December 21
Mary Helen has been deep into her annual pre-Christmas flurry of gift-wrapping and organizing, with bags and boxes of gifts piled strategically around the house. She is a wonderful wrapper, and her gifts are always elegant and beautiful, sort of like large origami pieces of art. She has her own method of remembering what has been stashed where in the house, and I sometimes attempt to simplify the process, to no avail. Eg. “Why don’t you put all the gifts in the same area – in the living room, near the tree, for instance, instead of in various rooms around the house?” Answer: “Because if I do it this way, I remember where everything is.” Can’t argue with that.
I told Mary Helen this morning that there was no point in my making suggestions to her about changing some of her plans and established routines around these kinds of things, half jesting, and she took it lightly, hoping, she said, that I didn’t mind if she was so stubborn. And I don’t mind, actually. It’s part of her strength and toughness, which she usually keeps diplomatically on the back burner of her personality. Nice easy-going Mary Helen, if genuinely provoked – particularly by churlish or inconsiderate behavior – will occasionally pull the velvet glove off the wooden fist and give you quite a knock on the ego. To mix metaphors. I know; I‘ve got a few lumps to prove it.
The Christmas tree does look beautiful, and I do stop and gaze at it for minutes at a time, after turning the star and the lights on in the early evening. There’s something eternally touching about the tree and the process of decorating it; something truly pagan, in the best sense, with a frisson of northern European Christianity. Powerful old archetypal images and cultural/racial memories are stirred up and there is a sound of cathedral bells somewhere in the distance. There is much that is beautiful about the whole Christmas season, a purity that is often obscured in this era of anxious materialistic yearning.
Tuesday January 6
I wrote an email to a friend this morning, which presents a pretty good summary of my thoughts and feelings at this time. In it, I said “I have been preoccupied with issues around aging; fears of aches, pains, illness, the loss of my precious store of marbles, death. I have been exploring the questions, “What am I afraid of? Why am I afraid? What can I do about it?” What I mostly do is write about it, as deeply and honestly as I can, and let my feelings and thoughts carry me forward.
“My list of important things for me to do these days is pretty short and succinct: yoga, exercise, diet, writing. And creativity in general, including photography and offering writing programs. And, of course, paying close and careful attention to a few key relationships.
“I continue to write at length several times a week, and have recently been spending a lot of time exploring the past, conjuring up the presence of certain ancestors in particular. These were my people, and I have been revisiting my emotional/spiritual homeland, which we all shared once upon a time. I know that, for people with a genuine interest in the inner life, it becomes more and more important to explore the past as we grow older. It just seems profoundly necessary as we evolve toward self-understanding. I have known this for a long time, but these days, I am living it large.”
Monday January 12
A January poem:
an ever-so light
dusting of snow
fell before dawn
in the last few minutes
of dream time…
and like my dream
it was gone before noon
Tuesday January 13
Once again, I realize that no one is going to fix me; only I can do that. It is good to get help and intelligent guidance – and once in a while some intervention that really does alleviate pain and distress – but in the final analysis, it’s up to me to work to repair my own self-inflicted damage, and to come to terms with the vulnerabilities I have inherited right in the genes from my ancestors … More and more I appreciate that old Irish saying: “May you have a long life, good health and a sudden death.” I don’t want to linger on past a certain point if life isn’t fun and interesting any more.
My spirits felt lighter yesterday and today as the physical load lightened up somewhat. I realize that when I am feeling anxious and depressed about my aches and pains, and health in general, it acts as a kind of lead weight attached to my emotions, pulling them down and holding them in a dark fog of despair from which it is hard to detach myself. I have been exercising some active imagination, as Jung called it, or guided meditations within myself, imagining that the heavy load, pulling me down, can be released and its impact reduced, by giving myself permission to rise above it, becoming more buoyant, floating up into a light space, taking away some of the power I give it by worrying about it. Does that make sense? I don’t know. Maybe; maybe not. It seems to help, however.
Thursday January 22
“That’s the way writing often starts, a disaster or a catastrophe or some sort, as happened to me … And I think that’s the basis for my continued interest in writing, because by writing I rescue myself under all sorts of conditions, whatever it may be that has upset me; then I can write and it relieves the feeling of distress.” – William Carlos Williams
As soon as I read this quote, I knew it was really quite a perfect concise comment identifying one of the reasons I need to keep writing: rescuing myself. There is something energizing and calming for me about writing; I enjoy the process and I feel better afterwards. It’s important to me to record what I think and feel and see; doing this helps me understand what’s going on within me, and how it affects my behavior. Writing is a form of meditation that brings me back to myself.
If I don’t write, in a self-observational, analytical way, for more than a few weeks – or for more than a few days, these days – I begin to feel thick-headed, out of touch with myself, depressed. It’s a very subtle thing; most people, not even Mary Helen, really notice the difference, except to say periodically, “are you doing alright?”
When I get asked this question, I know that it’s time to get back to the keyboard and open a channel for this mysterious inner self, this writing personality, this home-grown healer, this contemplative and perceptive “person within the person,” as Progoff put it. Once I have written “it” down, I can usually leave “it” alone for a while, or at least take some of the sting out of it.
It doesn’t have to be a sting, always, that drives me to writing; it is more often, a pleasure and a gift bestowed upon myself. A deep sense of satisfaction comes from writing honestly and feelingly, about something or someone I love. I feel driven, also, to write about these kinds of things, not just the calamities; it is equal to the self-rescue impulse. The process helps me to bring a sense of renewal and refreshment to the sacred aspects of my life; to those things that bring the deepest sense of meaning and connection. The most beautiful part of the garden needs frequent watering; if it doesn’t get it, it tends to fade away.
Another impulse to write comes from a need to record my experiences, to share them, to give them value, at least to myself. I write so I don’t forget, and to help my descendants – most obviously my children and grandchildren – remember as well.