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!

The Names of Our Years

Now thoughtfully updated, this essay was originally posted in 2019.  What year will 2021 really be?

This morning, as I traced my fingers over the numbers at the top of the calendar, I realized: I know what year it is. I do. It is 2021.

But I don’t yet know what year it will be.

Many, perhaps most people do this, I’ve noticed. Throughout our lifetimes, the majority of years are remembered as the calendar year.  But that number often pales into insignificance as we give the year a verbal title recalling events pertinent to us: The Year Joe Died. The Year Haley Was Born. The Year of the Flood, the Wildfire, the Hurricane. The Year We Bought the House. The Year I Graduated.

These titles lend such richness and flavor to our memories that we often speak of them in just that way before stopping a beat—closing our eyes and searching our memories for a moment to recall the actual date of the occurrence: “The year the kids were married—oh, yeah, that was 2017.”

I have a flock of years like that in my recollection: arrows of memories winging their way through the skies of reminisce, named for events both traumatic or blessed, as I scroll through the chapters of my life—for that is how I think of them: chapter titles. Beneath each title unroll paragraphs tracing details and events quite unrelated, one would think, to that chapter title. Together, they comprise the book of my life, beginning with Chapter One: The Year I Was Born. (Perhaps the book might be titled: I Was Born: It Could Happen to Anybody!)

In these later years of my life, though, I’ve noticed more of a tendency to think only of verbal titles, rather than those numbers displayed so prominently at the top of the calendar page. And so I currently look back upon The Year I Retired, followed by The Year of the Cookbook. (That second odd title requires a touch of explanation, no doubt: That was the year when I told my cousin, proprietor of our late Grandmother Marie’s huge box of recipe cards, “Look here, Susie, you’re busy! You work, you have a teenage daughter. You’re never going to get around to copying those recipes for all of us. I’m retired; time is on my side. Lend me the cards, and I’ll transcribe them into a cookbook for everyone in the family.” And transcribe I did, through the course of one entire spring and summer, occasionally losing a bit of my mind in the process as I stumbled through difficult handwriting, missing information, and antique nomenclature that required hours of research to resolve.)

The laughable lunacy of The Year of the Cookbook was followed by further insanity during The Year of the Wedding, as I leapt into the preparations for the wedding of my  daughter.  It was a frustrating, amazing, exhausting, magnificent year, in which everything that could go wrong, did.  Despite all that, I somehow managed to help produce a marvelous, glorious wedding celebration for my beloved child.

Then came 2018: My Dickens Year. It was, genuinely, the best of times, the worst of times. I might have titled it “The Year of Cancer and of Morrigan’s Birth”, but it’s simpler just to recall it as My Dickens Year. Diagnosed with cancer in January, cured by surgery and prayer and natural treatments in March, and finally overwhelmed by breathtaking joy at the birth of my first grandchild in August, it was, beyond any measure, a year of the worst of times, a year of the best of times.

Yet 2019 continued to trace a similar path of instability, as I floundered in a haze of repeated shocks when friends and the children of friends passed away, one after another, without warning, while other loved ones experienced frightening declines.  Despite all of the sadness, though, I found each week punctuated by immeasurable delight as I thrilled to the pleasure of watching my granddaughter’s first year of life. I felt as if I was on a rollercoaster, flung from dizzying heights to indescribable depths.  2019, then, became My Rollercoaster Year, and I prayed for calm and peace to follow.

I was doomed to be disappointed, as were we all.  For 2020 happened, not just to me, but to each of us, all of us, everywhere, worldwide. To anyone who endured (and survived) it, the exquisite torture that was 2020 needs no explanation: The Year of the Pandemic.

So it was this morning, as I traced my fingers over the digits at the top of the paper calendar that I persist in using and enjoying despite a digital world, that I realized: I know what year it is. I do. I really do. It is 2021.

But, for the moment, I don’t yet know what year it will be.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Paper Calendars”, which can be found in the archives from December 11, 2019.

Once More, a Talking Stick

§  For those unfamiliar with the practice, a Talking Stick Ceremony allows survivors to speak at a memorial service without the formality of rising to address a crowd. Instead, a simple thing—a stick, a branch, a piece of wood, decorated to represent the lost individual, is passed from hand to hand, so those seated may speak a few words in kind memory. §

I have created Talking Sticks now for several friends and acquaintances who have passed: Debbe, Mary, Terry, and now Cathy. I did not create one for my mother (see the post My Mother’s Talking Stick, November 17, 2017) only because I was, as I knew I would be, the single person to speak that night. Speaking for a woman who had few mourners, though, was far more difficult than assuming the responsibility for creating a Talking Stick to be spoken through by several people who will be missing someone.

Rather than being difficult or hurtful, there is instead great beauty and release in being the person who is privileged to create another’s Talking Stick. It is a physical meditation, allowing one to think through the value of a friend or loved one’s life, and to say farewell by determining the representative talismans or totems to be included.

IMG_20190725_152444340For Cathy, who loved all things natural and green and growing, the talismans on her Talking Stick (although of necessity made mostly of non-organic substances) will be representative of those passions. A small tree branch, sanded and finished with clear lacquer, will be wound with silk vine to symbolize her history as a farmer. A packet of flower seeds called “Bee Feed” and a rubber honeybee will signify one of the last things she ever spoke about to her friends in our Monday night meditation group: that she was sick with worry over the plunging honeybee population. A copper flower will further denote her delight in the world of growing things, while a silver tree of life will stand for the hundreds of trees she planted in her lifetime. And because she rode her bike everywhere, dying just after returning from having enjoyed a ride with her biking group, a bicycle charm will be prominently displayed.

Having created it, I will once more carry the Talking Stick to a friend’s memorial service, explain its creation, and then encourage those there to pass the stick from hand to hand, each one speaking a pleasant, special, or humorous memory of our friend. I’ll remind them to begin their memory with “I remember Cathy”, because, as the ancient Egyptians believed, if our name is remembered, our soul continues; to speak lovingly or caringly, for if their relationship was rocky or difficult, this is not the time to discuss those problems—respect for the dead really being only consideration for others present who are not in a fit state to hear that sort of bitterness. I’ll mention quietly that, if they haven’t anything pleasant or kind or humorous to say about the soul who has gone on, then there is no shame in merely holding the Talking Stick silently for a moment before handing it off to the next person. Their very silence allows us to acknowledge their own special pain, and serves to remind us that we are all complex creatures; that our view of a person is not necessarily the one which is shared by all who knew her or him.

And when the memorial is completed, I will gift the Talking Stick to the person who best loved the deceased, so that they might do with it as they please: keep it, cherish it, burn it, bury it—whatever is best for them. It will have served its purpose, which is only to evoke memories to be shared, and make it easy for loved ones to recap a life; to help us say goodbye.

Four times, four times now, I have created a Talking Stick; stood to explain its significance, spoken the formal words of the Crossing Ceremony, and, after the memorial,  passed the Talking Stick on to the person who best loved the one now lost.

Someday I will be the one who is being remembered as the Talking Stick is passed from hand to hand. I wonder what talismans will be on my Talking Stick. I wonder who will create mine.

In Memory Of:

 Debbe Boswell
Mary Cole
Terry Robare
Cathy Dawson