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!

Paper Calendars

§   I don’t believe that I can be the only person who eschews technology to use a paper calendar, despite those convenient (and often so, so irritating!) reminders on one’s cell phone.  §

I use paper calendars. I do put the odd reminder (“Take the trash bin to the curb”) into my phone, but my paper calendar is sacred to all the genuinely important things in my life: not just the birthday, but the date by which I should mail the card or wrap the gift or call the person celebrating. The unpleasant reminders of dental visits. “Write to the twins.” “Touch up my roots.” “Babysit Morrigan”. “Shakespeare in the Park performance tonight”. Those events are entered the right way: with colorful stickers and bright marking pens and occasionally even glitter—entered, and then satisfyingly marked off.

As the close of each year approaches, I take down the paper calendar, now grown wrinkled and spotted, and, sifting through its pages, transfer vital notations—the birthdays and anniversaries and all the other important detritus of daily life–onto the pages of the pristine calendar that I will be using in the coming year.

I don’t believe that I can be the only person who eschews technology to do this, either, despite those convenient (and so, so irritating!) reminders on one’s cell phone. I know it can’t be just me using this old paper method, for the stores each fall are clogged with pretty paper calendars and desk pads and planners, while charity organizations (the same ones which so consistently dun me for donations) also mail free wall calendars by the dozens.

But I am choosy when it comes to selecting my annual calendar. I require spacious boxes in which to write notations—none of that square-cut-into-triangles nonsense squeezing in a date at the bottom of the page! I have one other very specific requirement: that the photos which decorate the pages of specific, special months always be ones I like.  Everyone using a paper calendar knows precisely what I mean, I’m sure: out of a dozen lovely photos, there will always be at least one, if not two, that just don’t appeal. I find it acceptable to look at a few such unappealing pictures throughout the year just so long as the scorned photos do not decorate the pages for my own month of birth, nor that of my daughter and granddaughter. Those pages must always contain pictures that I genuinely enjoy. I also appreciate seeing notations for phases of the moon, as I am moon-mad, loving to witness the changing lunar landscape. I’ve been known to page through the dates of the upcoming year making notations such as “Blue Moon”, “Super Moon”, “Lunar Eclipse”. One of my old calendars bore the rare notation “Transit of Venus”; others remind me of the annual Perseids meteor shower.

But these days when I hang up my new calendar, I always recall one year, one very sad year, when I waited desperately for New Year’s eve so that I could pull down and dispose of the very lovely calendar hanging on the side of my refrigerator.

My calendar that year had been a gift—and a constant reminder of a terrible day. A friend, Terry, diagnosed one awful afternoon with stage four lung cancer, had wakened the very next morning to the death of her sweet old giant of a dog. Having no family close by to help, she reached out to her friends.  After we ferried poor Sadie dog on her final journey to the vet’s office for cremation, two of us kept Terry occupied, first with brunch and then shopping.  It was then that we’d found some lovely paper calendars, and our friend bought one for each of us.

That same paper calendar was hanging in its usual spot on the side of my refrigerator when, just nine months later,  Terry died.

Each month that year as I turned the calendar to a new page, I’d been reminded of Terry’s diagnosis and loss and consistently failing health. Each month, I wished that I’d hung up any other calendar–even one I didn’t like–rather than this one which bore such sad associations.

Three months after Terry’s passing, I was finally able to consign that lovely, unhappy calendar to the trash bin. I hung up another, brilliant and new and totally free of links to distressing events.

I still use paper calendars, and plan to continue doing so. But I have learned an important lesson: I’ll never again put up a calendar chosen on a day with painful associations. And I will forever keep a spare calendar in abeyance, to be substituted if necessary, should the one I am using become connected with a terrible pain or loss or death or sadness.

I’ve never lived a year of my life without heartbreak occurring somewhere on the page; I don’t expect I ever will. But I hope to never again keep a reminder of sorrow hanging for months on the wall of my home.