an externalized memory

stencil graffiti of a garden archGood morning from the house of crunch and panic. What’s the name of your house today? I’ve got the candles going, the tea all asteep, and got myself up early enough to actually do my morning pages. The pen on the page, the hand moving, the thoughts mustering themselves into order enough that they can fall into sentences or phrases or just semblances of particular letters: that all helps.

I’m in my small writing room that is filled nearly to the gills with old writing notebooks. Where does this want to go today? There are notebooks here from 1992 and 1993 — next year will be the actual twenty-year anniversary of my last assault, the anniversary of my decision to break contact with my stepfather. This could go in a number of directions now — what does ‘decision to break contact’ mean? Why is his voice still in my head all these years later if I haven’t seen him (except in jailhouse orange and chains) since that last awfulness in Hanover? Do I really want to write about him today?

No. I want to write about the notebooks. I have three or four stacks of notebooks from just this year, ones I haven’t filed yet because I have sections I want to pull out and type up. There are completed notebooks stuffed into the office bookcase, a bunch I’m in the midst of reading through are crammed into a bookbag that I can to take with me to a cafe. Then there are a couple of big plastic storage containers with the older notebooks, from college and my years in Maine, from the last nearly ten years here in California.

I haven’t yet thrown a notebook away, but I don’t go back into them nearly as often as I used to. What to do with all these words, with these old selves, with the recollections, with this constellation of possibility and frustration and memory, these pages of whining and want and eruptive beauty (here and there)? How to find time to harvest the nuggets of gold and silver, the hidden four-leaf clovers, in all those so many pages?

I save these books because they are my externalized history, my memory on paper. When I return to the notebooks from the earliest years of my freedom, after breaking contact from my family, I find bits of story that I no longer remember, pieces that I don’t tell anymore. For years, I wrote my life diligently, I recorded my most days, because I couldn’t count on myself to be able to remember it all for very long, or very clearly. I would have a conversation with my mother, for instance, and begin to forget it or get confused almost immediately — sheer survival tactic: if I have forgotten about it, I can’t get in trouble for it. Writing helped me learn to remember again. The pages held what I no longer wanted to hold inside, or only inside. And through the writing practice, through the practice of recording, I learned again to hold memories in my body — while experiences were passing through from brain to hand to page, some of those experiences tendriled in and found, after some years, safe and solid ground to perch themselves within. Is this making any sense today?

I have nearly no storage in this apartment; why use up a significant portion for the bulk of these notebooks in their bins and piles? When will I be able to let the thesis notes go, or the pages from ’93 and ’94 filled with waves of anguish and terror, or the ten years of workshop writes?

Here’s what’s true: when my stepfather was arrested in the mid-90s, my mother was left to deal with the house they’d shared and all the bills and horror he’d accumulated there. Because she was arrested at the same time he was (as an accessory after the fact, which is a story for another time), there was a stretch of six months when a no contact order was in effect, and she was not able to communicate with me or my sister. During that time, she had to sell their house, had to get rid of it — which meant getting rid of everything in it. Gone were the boxes of jr high and high school mementos: notes, papers, diaries, pictures, yearbooks — all of the detritus of those selves, those years of this self.

I have the pieces of memory that my parents have saved — the school work and their favorite photos, for example — but I don’t have the parts of myself from those years that I had chosen to save. So now I have some hundreds of notebooks that I can flip back through to meet the self I used to be, to trace the trajectory of my transformation, my growth, my loss and my healing. Someday some pieces of these writings will show up in a memoir or an essay — but most of these words will remain exactly where they are, having accomplished all that they needed to as a daily stepping stone of writing practice into the self of my now.

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What’s your relationship with your previous writings? Do you keep it or let it go? Do you have a special folder on your computer with all your journal entries, or a place in your home where your old notebooks are stored? Are there reasons why you never save anything you write, or didn’t used to? Give yourself ten (or twenty minutes!) and write into this relationship today: how do you hold, or release, your already-written words? Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go…

Thank you for all the twists and turns that your healing process has taken. Thank you for your patience and beauty. Thank you on this day for your words.

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