The Book of Joys and Sorrows

The concept fascinated me: a chronology of important points in one’s life.

Perhaps 40 or more years ago, I came across an article by a man who had chronicled his life, not through a diary or journal, but by simple notes jotted onto paper calendars. When something significant or simply interesting happened in this man’s life, such as the night he attended a dance where he met a fascinating young woman, he penciled a remark onto his calendar. At year’s end, he tucked the calendar away, saving it. Thus, he could look back over the years and know precisely when a major event occurred; i.e., the night of the school dance where he met his future wife; the day his first child was born.

This concept fascinated me. Already in my late 20s, I wondered if it was too late to begin compiling my own chronology. But I was blessed/cursed with a ridiculously accurate memory. I might not be able to recall the exact dates that certain events occurred in my childhood and early adulthood, but I could make a good estimate at least of the years, perhaps even the seasons. By asking older relatives for information, I could probably target many incidents more closely, reconstructing my early personal history.

And so my own chronology was born. I began compiling what would eventually grow into My Book of Joys and Sorrows.

Beginning with misty, distant memories, I chronicled my earliest years: important moments of my childhood, such as my first memory as a tiny child; my first day of school. I noted our family’s move to a new home; the joyful acquisition and sad loss of pets; new friendships; my mother’s many mental health hospitalizations and suicide attempts. Meanwhile, just as the writer of the article described, I now began jotting down daily events onto the pages of calendars. At the beginning of each new year, I would sift through the old calendar and transcribe the most momentous occurrences into my Book.

From its simple beginnings, that Book has now grown to over 70 pages, the notations ever more detailed and involved as my life, and my understanding, has grown complex. Reading over its pages, I see, even touch, the dates of the most important moments of my life: my wedding day…and the date my divorce was final. My dreadful miscarriage. The date of my daughter’s and granddaughter’s births, and of their first steps, first words. The day of my daughter’s wedding. The dates that I graduated high school; began jobs, received promotions. My mother’s and father’s deaths, and the sad passings of beloved friends and pets. The day I learned I had cancer; various surgeries and illnesses. My memory of 9/11. The “Coloring and Tea” party I threw myself for my 65th birthday.

Moments of my life, as the title claims, of both great joy and immense sorrow.

Had I been born in today’s more technological era, perhaps I would, as the younger members of our family constantly do, make endless videos of my daily life (recording their lives instead of living them, I sometimes think). Mine is a book, though, and while certainly not literature, it is all the more complex for not being a video record. As I have become more deft at creating my Book, I no longer merely document an event, but instead sift though the most minute details. I delve into the emotions of that moment, or the responses of others, describing how their behavior either affected or caused my own; examining my understanding of each situation while holding to the light the success or failure of my own conduct.

I’ve never shared my Book with anyone. It waits there, a document on my computer; a hard copy in my filing cabinet, but not gathering dust. Instead, it is alive with constantly expanding information. It is a detailed record of my existence; a map of my growth or regression and changes; my few accomplishments and many failures.

It is my great hope that, when I am gone, the pages, hard and digital, of my book will not be discarded into some trash heap, but kept—perhaps cherished; at least read. I flatter myself, laughing aloud even as I do so, that, like the journals of the great diarists of past centuries, my Book of Joys and Sorrows will be a chart that future readers in some distant day may use to gain slight understanding, not just of this era’s daily life, but of thoughts: the constantly-expanding hopes and fears of those of us born midway into one century and surviving all the shocking changes to the next.

Perhaps you might also enjoy “My Kindness Journal”. You can locate that essay by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published on November 2, 2017.

Happy Birthday, my darling daughter, light of my life!