August 30, 2013

Look Back, Move Forward

I have been out in an old country house much of the summer, falling asleep to crickets. There, in my childhood bedroom, on the bottom of a rattan bookshelf, were nineteen years of journals lined up like little time bombs. I thought it would be fun––funny, maybe?––to start reading through them again. That was one of my more short-sighted moments. Once plucked off the shelf, one by one, I read them late into the night like suspense novels, unbothered by time slipping into early morning. I couldn’t stop. They were by pages humbling, hilarious, humiliating, and I had to know everything I’d forgotten. Every adolescent embarrassment, every disappointment, every obsession. Would Jenny and Blake break up? Would Alex lean over my library carrel one cold winter morning? Was my writing any good, and how would I know? There are snaps into depression and the kind of grandiose bravado that must be the stock-in-trade of the insecure. My college journals felt more familiar––I still remembered much of that time’s happiness––but they were every bit as aching to revisit.


The boy-craziness––going strong now for coming on twenty years––didn’t surprise me. It was there in sixth grade passing notes with Kevin addressed to our grown-up selves (“How is work on your latest novel going?”) and still there, more fiercely than ever, in the summer after my senior year of college. What did surprise me, in a stabbing and bittersweet way that stuck in my throat for days, was how much the world of language and ideas had once meant to me. All the evidence was right there: when I sat in a rear pew of a church listening to Li-Young Lee read and felt so moved by a sense of wonder there was nothing to do but cry. Jenny and I drank coffee on the front steps of Wallace and talked about beauty. On dates in Wisconsin diners over plates of chicken fried steak and white gravy, I talked about Mrs. Dalloway with a boy I loved. I vandalized a Hélène Cixous library book with my furious underlining and wanted to be a mash-up of Naomi Wolf and Susan Sontag. There are few moments as distinct with accomplishment in my life as the early evening I skipped home after presenting my senior thesis filled, finally, with a buoyant sense of freedom and release. I was surprised to see how completely I’d lost my tether to a world of curiosity.

There was another sense of loss, too, maybe even more profound. All that youthful excitement, all those portentous moments, all that intense longing. Desire sets out into the night, and the world is full of potential, adventure, promise. It’s like Joan Didion writes: “I could stay up all night and make mistakes, and none them would count.”

At some point things do start counting, or I started to sense that they should, despite being a young(ish) woman still unencumbered,  no mortgage, no children. But years ago a grown-up ballast planted me firmly in a material, adult world. Work a good job. Contribute to a 401(k). A body that was once the form for joy and mischief, high-heeled feet pumping the pedals of a red bicycle, is now scanned for suspicious moles and malignant lumps. The trouble with remembering just how vibrantly alive you once felt is realizing how very quiet a part of you has been.


But part of reading was seeing something that’s never changed. Any “realization” about what matters most to me in life is really just me circling back on something I already knew, echoes. Take this: Earlier this summer I thought I’d figured something out. I was smoothing the soil in my first little garden plot, where I crushed up egg shells and dropped them in holes dug for young tomato plants and pushed a wheelbarrow full of rotted manure on an uneven gravel driveway. I worked in the hot sun and had streaks of dirt on my face when I went inside for a glass of water. I stayed there in the country at my parents’ house for weeks, watching the raised beds explode with basil and spicy, bitter Asian greens. City ambitions––some idea of what “success” is––were crowded out by the quiet, familiar hum of rural life. In the evenings, after the work day, I closed my laptop not motivated by what I could achieve but by what I could experience. It turns out there are miles of country roads around my mom’s house I had never seen, and I steered my bike on them, past barking dogs and swimming holes. The air was thick with summer smells, mown grass and hay. When the wind blew through the trees, the sound was like rushing water.

Whatever that is, my adolescent self already knew it. I wrote long passages about being a baker, living in a cottage in Maine. I wanted to be this painting when I grew up.  I felt connected to something bigger than myself, bigger than my sadness or school drama, when I was outside slicing through snow in a back field on my cross-country skis, or running the same roads I rode this summer, chasing the  exhilaration, wanting that same hit of being alive.

And so that is what’s been on my mind during this long summer silence from here. Those past selves, still always within us, no matter how dormant they might feel. Can we invite them back in, into this seat on the bus, into the short weekend? They are why I have the same abandoned thrill on my bicycle, why I still step into a pair of red high heels I once wore to catch a cowboy’s eye. Three weeks ago, I found a large, empty cardboard box downstairs in my parents’ living room and carried it back up to my bedroom. I dropped the journals in it, stacked high and lining the sides. It wasn’t with a sense of a sadness that I folded down the top and pushed it to the back of the closet. I felt maybe more myself than ever.

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  • Katherine: Oh, how glad I am to see you back here writing. I could relate to every word of this post, from the embarrassment and wonder of reading through old journals to recounting the feeling (power) of old crushes. How wonderful that you were able to spend some time rediscovering part of yourself in the country this summer. It sounds like you’re in a good place.4 years ago

  • Ewa: This is, objectively, very fine writing, Sarah. I hope you can see that. Hugs 🙂4 years ago

  • Patrice: I loved reading this.

    During a lazy summer, a few years ago, I pulled out my journals. I had not opened them for years but they had moved with me from apartment to apartment, city to city.
    I found myself engrossed, a real page turner, I could not wait to read the next chapter.

    While I remembered so many details, there were stories I had long forgotten. And a young girl who was funny, determined and made a few embarrassing mistakes. What fascinated me was that I knew what would happen in the next chapter. I wanted to cry out to my younger self and say “No, don’t do that!” Or “yes, you are right on target. Stay true to yourself.”

    I enjoyed meeting that person again. And I often thought of that Oscar Wilde quote..,

    “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”4 years ago

  • Crystal: Wonderful post, Sarah. Isn’t it amazing how you can head down an unknown road and wind up finding yourself? Silence, solitude and a change of scenery can be quite clarifying. Welcome back!4 years ago

  • Kristina Strain: Love this. I’ve been missing you this summer, my friend. Right now while I work at canning tomatoes, I’m going to be thinking about my many past selves. And it will feel good.4 years ago

  • Stephanie: oh, the embarrassment and the inspiration that comes from reading old journals. 🙂

    i keep mine stowed away in a closet because i know i’ll lose entire afternoons reading through them, laughing and cringing at some of things i wrote about, but also feeling nostalgic for the happy moments. like you, i think about my past self and want to bring more of her to my days.4 years ago

  • Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams: So lovely, Sarah. I’ve kept my old journals but haven’t looked at them for ages. I love the idea of these past selves, still present. (Reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle’s words about still being every age we’ve ever been.)4 years ago

  • Amanda Bretz: Your writing always speaks to me in a way that few others’ writing can.
    It is an amazing feeling to go back and find yourself again. To read what you already know, but somehow forgot. I think we all need to remember, to circle back to what we already know, as you said, until we no longer need to.
    A few years ago I got rid of all my old journals when I was on a serious de-cluttering spree. I regretted it for a while, but then I realized that whatever was in those journals, whatever it was that pulled me back and made me feel like I had to keep going back to read, I must not need that stuff anymore and that’s why it was okay to let it all go.4 years ago

  • Asri: Sarah–
    Beautiful. Thank you for that.4 years ago

  • Julia (Color Me Green): i feel like my younger self was able to relax into a sense of wonder at the world, a feeling that’s been crowded out by the ball of nerves that adult life has made me. i catch glimpses of it, but something’s still missing.4 years ago

  • molly: and again, and again, and yet again: my thanks to you, sarah, for showing up in this space. you mine truth with a clarity, an aching exactitude, that i appreciate every single time. especially this one.

    molly4 years ago

  • Amy: You just take my breath away with your writing. I’m teaching at the middle school I attended and every time I walk down the halls, I’m reminded of some small detail I’d forgotten, about who I used to be. And then I remember and it’s simultaneously comforting and heartbreaking. This post is just gorgeous. I fall in love with your writing every time I’m here.4 years ago

  • sebastian: One of the most beautiful pieces you’ve written. So moving.4 years ago

  • Alyssa S: What a wonderfully inspirational and moving piece.
    It is so wonderful to read your work again. Thank you for sharing and putting words to what so many of us can relate to and feel in our hearts.4 years ago

  • Mac: Thank you Sarah. I was always afraid to keep a journal…not really sure why. Reading your reflections, and process was very lovely. It has encouraged me to to find my younger self and explore what is to come!4 years ago

  • Stacey: Yay! You’re back!
    What an amazing piece! So resonates with me.
    Thank you!4 years ago

  • Jody: Thank you for writing this. It really resonated with me. I have a lot to think about now… in a good way. 🙂4 years ago

  • Jill: I have been looking for your posts this summer. Your writing topics always hit a nerve with me and I love your use of language. Glad you are back.4 years ago

  • Christine: Beautiful, as always. Glad you’re back 🙂4 years ago

  • Heather Grilliot: so beautiful, as your writing always is. You know I’m such a fan. Loved this Sara.4 years ago

  • Susan: I’ve just turned 35 and I’ve been wondering exactly this: where have all my old selves gone? The awkward unhappy teenager, the shy but thrilled student, the lost unhappy 25 year old, the blooming 28 year old, the sparkling 30 year old and now – the woman who finally has a strong sense of self and ambition but who yearns for that lost sense that anything is possible and that time is still stacked high around me instead of running ahead of me. I haven’t kept a journal regularly for several years but you have inspired me to start again – this time with the aspiration to ‘catch the light’. Thanks for your beautiful writing, Sarah. It’s truly where your brilliance lies xx4 years ago

  • Kate: Yay!! You’re back! A summer of reflection and some time out is always a great thing – good on you for taking it. Thanks for your Brooklyn advice – fell in love with the place and with a Brooklyn boy and landed a dream job. I think this summer’s journal is a pretty punchy one which will be hard to beat. . .

    Lovely writing as ever.4 years ago

  • Birdy: This is so lovely.. good to know that we all have this kind of novels in our private library 😉

    Love from Germany and the fatcatconnection
    have a wonderful weekend years ago

  • Beatrix: Your posts are always so full of the wonder of life, they inspire me even as I reread them for the 10th time.

    This is off topic, but have you heard of the website Clementine Daily? It has a beautiful manifesto, here is the part that resonates with your post;

    “She values wisdom over smarts and authenticity over perfection.”

    clementinedaily.com4 years ago

  • Lukelover: Everybody’s spot on here about the fine writing.

    But what I especially like is that you’re on the right path, but you’re not there yet. There is still big tinkering to be done. Why do we all get so quiet and lose that bravado? And what opportunities for joy (lasting joy?) does that quietness create?4 years ago

  • Alexa Mergen: I am so glad to find your blog and read this post.4 years ago

  • Evon T.: Does anyone know where Sarah is? I hope she is ok…4 years ago

  • Mel: Sarah,

    This made me weep. Adult life is so different than that magical time of curiosity, growth, and possibility that we were so lucky to experience in college. I read your blog often, inspired by you – my memory of you, and the image of you as you live your life now, the lovely woman I knew, all grown up and making a splash – and your reflective sensibilities. Reading old journals (we’ll save ourselves the humiliation of calling them “diaries”) is such a rare experience, and something only people who truly live in words and feelings know. I love thinking of you and your pile of notebooks: God knows, I’ve my own shelf, too.

    I just wanted to drop a line and say that I’m so glad I knew you, and I love hearing about what you’re thinking about, feeling, and cooking. It’s a cruel world that puts so much distance, obligation, and really, reality, between us. You’re a beautiful person and you make me smile and cry.

    Hugs forever,

    Mel4 years ago

  • Heather Grilliot: you are missed…..4 years ago

  • gkgirl: oh…how i loved this
    and you took me back
    to my own childhood
    in so many ways
    and phrases…
    🙂4 years ago

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