The title of this journal is taken from Markings, the excerpts from Dag Hammarskjöld’s private writings published first in Swedish in 1963. Hammarskjöld was a career public servant who was Secretary-General of the United Nations when he died in a plane crash in 1961. The material in Markings begins with a poem Hammarskjöld wrote in 1925, when he was twenty and studying law and economics in his native Sweden. “I am being driven forward into an unknown land,” he writes, and what follows is a record of his trying to come to terms with his faith and with his destiny. The writings never mention his career as an international diplomat, neither the people he met nor the historical events of his time, many of which he influenced directly. They record only his inner life, his private transactions with the divine, his continual efforts to examine his conscience and to say Yes to the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
I first read some of Markings when it was excerpted in Reader’s Digest or The Saturday Evening Post or some other magazine that came to our house. I was fourteen when Hammarskjöld died, just beginning ninth grade, not particularly interested in world events. Somehow, though, I knew who Hammarskjöld was, and that there was some controversy over the cause of the plane crash that killed him while he was on a peacekeeping mission to what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Markings was published in English in 1964, when I was seventeen and just becoming aware of my own inner life.
Hammarskjöld’s work made an impression on me, although I did not own a copy of Markings until some time after August 1971. At least that’s the date in the hardbound edition I bought for $5.95, noted as the twenty-seventh printing of the work. As I recall, I picked up the copy that belonged to one of my teaching colleagues whose office it was to choose and read a quotation to begin our school day’s “moment of silent meditation.” This exercise was followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and then our morning announcements, those reminders of daily life (tickets for the Winter Formal go on sale next week, field trip permission slips are due, report cards will be distributed Friday) that surely swept away any thoughtfulness inspired by the carefully chosen reading.
Knowing my friend’s habits, I can imagine that she used Markings frequently during the 1971 school year and probably left her copy on a shelf in the faculty lounge where she stopped each morning to put away her lunch before going up to the office to make the announcements. I would look at it from time to time during my free periods, and I probably wrote down passages I found particularly stimulating. I was twenty-four and pulling down a full-time professional salary, so when that school year ended it was no longer necessary for me to steal a book I couldn’t bear to be without.
I kept a diary from time to time in my twenties, although nothing before 1980 survives. Those undocumented years were my Agnostic Period when, like Francis Thompson, “I fled Him down the nights and down the days” until I stopped, took stock of “the dust o’ the mounded years,” and said my own Yes to the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I took up journal writing as a personal growth tool, and I now (March 2006) have 18 top-bound spiral notebooks of the sort one buys in a college bookstore, arranged in chronological order in a wicker file box. They contain my private musings on the divine and the quotidian, some chattiness and cattiness, some meandering prose that occasionally finds its way into my fiction. What might happen to them and the information they contain when I am no longer able to control access is a matter I think about from time to time.
And there are these pieces, several hundred separate essays amassed in seven years as an online journaller, private thoughts shaped for public access. When I adopted The Silken Tent as the title for my site, I meant it to be an umbrella title, with each separate section signifying a cord attached to a central cedar pole, the soul’s “pinnacle to heavenward.” I renamed the general journal every year, created and dropped other sections, and in general cast about trying to find my voice.
I think I have. In 2006 I began using a title (“The Gestures of Trees”) I’d used before, but I didn’t like it. That is, I didn’t like using it again. I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. just before my birthday in March , and a day or two later I went into the room where I shelve Hammarskjöld’s book to put away some of the art postcards and other trip memorabilia I’d acquired. The title, Markings, caught my eye, and I thought, That’s it! That’s the title I’ve been looking for, for the journal to mark my sixtieth year, and all the rest of the days of my life.