Shaking the Grass

January 9, 2014

And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.
— Ezra Pound, 1885-1972
American poet

My friend Harvey Freedenberg is an attorney, a fiction writer, and a prolific book reviewer whose take on literature, intellectual property, football, and the world in general I find both engaging and wise. For many years he has kept a commonplace book, a compendium of collected bits of news and ideas, quotations, passages copied out of reading, perhaps a photograph or drawing. He wrote about his own two years ago at Beyond the Margins.

Recently, he asked Facebook friends about their habits of keeping diaries or journals, how we did it, what we used, what we included. He himself does not do this, but he was thinking of starting. Many of us responded enthusiastically. We talked about our methods (every morning for an hour, or just jotted highlights at the end of the day), our materials (plain lined notebooks, top- or side-bound spiral or perfect or sewn, pocket size, letter size, gilt-edged leather-bound, electronic), our histories.

For me, it’s 25 years in 40 volumes stored in two wicker boxes that fit under the highboy in my living room. I started Volume 41 on December 1, 2013, and last week I bought a new box for the next 20 volumes. I use plain lined 8.5×11 notebooks, many top-bound. I wrote about my habits and my collection of filled notebooks just two months ago, and included a picture of my wicker boxes.

Harvey was also interested in the why of our daily journal-keeping. Again, answers were varied. To work out personal concerns, to record prayer concerns, to note the weather and the headlines, to record “a picture of life and times then available for kids & grandkids,” as the character says in the excerpt from the George Saunders story I use to open my November blog post. To remember, to remember, to shake the grass.

For reasons I cannot now explain, Volume 29 of my journal, covering December 21, 2009 to May 26, 2010, sits on my computer desk at the moment. It’s 150 pages in a side-bound spiral notebook with big red poppies on the cover, one of five such that I bought at an Ingles in Georgia in March of 2009. I opened it to today’s date.

January 9, 2010

7:30 — 24 °

The coffee is really good. Lots to do today — get ready for dinner guests, take Lynn to the train station, have the dinner guests. Anxiety anxiety. Not enough time here to settle into reading and writing.

I have no idea – absolutely no idea — who those dinner guests were. Nothing in the pages that precede the notation indicates the extending of an invitation. I also could not recall where Lynn was going on the train, but she did. She and a friend were going to New York City to see Wicked, a gift from Lynn to the other young woman who would soon be leaving on an extended mission trip for her church. I remembered the plan to see Wicked, remembered the other girl’s mission, where she went, how long she stayed, remembered getting out of the car to hug her goodbye when I picked them up on their return from New York and delivered her to her house. 

Even those details did not help me recall who my dinner guests might have been, nor why I might have been anxious about the event. Subsequent pages are filled with the work I was doing to prepare a manuscript for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and notes from my reading. A week later, I copied out a passage from The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields: “There are chapters in every life which are seldom read, and certainly not aloud.”

I will continue to try to recall who my dinner guests were four years ago. If it was one of you, reading this, please let me know. And I hereby resolve to try to put a little more detail into my notations, to shake the grass a little more.

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