On Keeping a Journal

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Yesterday, I spent 5 solid hours on a plane correcting a toddler, who was banging with both fists on the seat in front of him, throwing his shoes, and screaming like I was sticking pins under his toenails. It has been a long time since I was so desperately beside myself.

The good thing about your life exploding is that it twists your arm behind your back and manhandles you back to square one. Beginner’s mind. Humility.

The growing pains of going from one child to two, both of them with lots and lots and lots of needs, has left me little dedicated time for writing. I steal an hour here and there, early in the morning, late at night. I have to fight for even that much. I know it won’t be this way forever- it will change as all things do. I also know that when it changes I will be both relieved and beset with panic. Because change does that to me.

Part of me wants to follow the path of least resistance and check my creative life at the door of motherhood. Find ecstatic joy in macaroni collages. Marvel at the potential of the popsicle stick. Instagram whimsical, earth-friendly ways to decorate for each holiday.

I’m not knocking the creativity, even art, we bring to mothering. Not at all. But I am also a writer and an individuated being. I’m not interested in pouring every ounce of my creative inner life into my children. I need sacred space in which my mind can wander and my self-expression doesn’t have to be stamped with a G rating.

Before kid #2, I had a pretty manageable schedule, in which I had hours at a time to work. To daydream. To write and write and write. And now I don’t. The end.

I can’t shoehorn 3 more hours into my day.

So what now?

It’s easy for me to get stuck in resignation and self-pity. It’s also a convenient out. I have a perfectly reasonable excuse to not write right now. Writing is very hard- I’m tempted to surrender far too easily.

Whenever I find myself facing this dangerous mindset, I return to a place of curiosity.

What is it I really want to say right now? What’s burning to come out of me? What’s essential?

Then I look realistically at my limitations, and summon all my creative resources and say- how? How am I gonna do this? Is there a way of accomplishing this that I never considered before?

I’m someone who works things out on the page. I ask myself questions and I write and list and chart until I come to some semblance of a conclusion or a next action. This may take minutes, or hours, or weeks. I usually do this in my journal. So journaling has again become so important to me, with my radically limited time. There’s almost always time for a journal entry.

The most important thing I’ve learned in all my years of writing is not to expect every word to be a publishable pearl.

I have kept diaries for roughly a billion years. I have stacks upon stacks of them moldering in the garage and there they will stay until I die, when they will be shredded and donated to the SPCA for kitty litter. They are process documents. They are research and therapy and muscle building. They are not works of art.

I’ve employed a lot of different journaling methods over the years, and I recently did a complete overhaul. I had grown pretty lackadaisical about it, so I gave my journal a hard look and noticed that my writing was completely compartmentalized. I had a tiny notebook I carried everywhere, a large journal I kept in my bedside table for morning pages, a legal pad with an ongoing albatross of a to-do list, a smaller legal pad for grocery list/stuff we needed….

And then I happened upon this post by my friend Karen Walrond at the wonderful Chookooloonks, which suggests putting everything in one notebook. At first, I blanched. I mean- my grocery list next to my Deep Thoughts? Heresy! But in the spirit of curiosity, I decided to give it a try. If I didn’t like it, it only cost $15.

When you organize your thoughts differently, your perspective shifts. Man, I needed that shift so badly. I realized I was compartmentalizing not just my actual physical lists, but also the various aspects of my life. My Writing Time was sacred, as opposed to the to-do list- the minutae.

Combining all has caused me to notice it’s the same me- same heart, same mind, same soul- wandering the aisles of Whole Foods or sitting down at my desk with my important frown on. And life, all of it, is what art is made of. Not just the lofty parts- the passionate love affairs, the dazzling sunsets, the childhood tragedies. Toothpaste, tin foil, animal crackers, crushed tomatoes… has its own poetry.

When we let the high and low- sublime and ridiculous- coexist, a certain kind of magic happens. Without any extra effort, just by proximity, the creative work is lent texture by the daily details and the daily details demand a different level of consciousness.

I also find that having a “friend” always nearby to whom you can tell your most awful thoughts helps those thoughts to not leak out the sides.

For instance- Tariku has been having trouble sleeping lately.

A few nights ago, I had been around and around with him for 4 hours. It was 11pm and there he was, sitting in front of me and I was at THE END. THE END. I wanted to say the worst things. You don’t even know.

Instead I said, “Just sit here and color for a minute.”

And I turned to my journal and wrote all those awful things in giant, psychopath lettering. Then I turned back to him, and said, “Let’s try again.”

Not exactly a gratitude journal, but I got to say it all! With zero consequences. Because there is no such thing as a thought crime.

I can’t say enough good things about putting it all in one place. When I color with the kids, I do my crappy drawings in my journal. When I give my students a writing prompt, I do it along with them.

I almost never look back at it. But as a result, all of my work has many more layers of richness.

What goes in your journal?

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(photo credit: Casey Sjogren)

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Coming Home

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I’m back, friends! Sorry for the long absence. I’ve missed you! I got home from my wonderful (if exhausting) book tour during Tariku’s last week of school and crashed full force into the daily minutia of life. The every day-ness of waking stupid early, making breakfast, facing piles of laundry and cleaning dog throw-up was both an enormous relief and a bit of a let-down. I had exactly three days before we had T home full time. And that was five minutes ago. Oh wait- it was three weeks ago. How is that possible? You know, how summer is so relaxing (cue hysterical laughter of moms who work at home)?

This book is extremely precious to me and it was thrilling to be able to share it with so many people. I went to parties and readings, spoke on panels and taught workshops. One of my favorite events of the tour was a panel on transracial adoption at the Mixed/Remixed Festival here in LA. Mixed/Remixed brings together people of all races, creeds and genders to celebrate what it means to be Mixed, multiracial, or part of a blended family. Being in that room felt like taking a deep breath. I was overjoyed and inspired to dialogue with people about so many of the subjects about which I’m passionate- family, belonging, race, identity, adoption, self-worth, parenting…

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And then Charleston happened and it knocked the wind out of Scott and me.

The day following the terrorist massacre, Scott and I were meeting with our social worker, talking about our next adoption. I looked over at Scott and he started to sob in the middle of a sentence. Soon all three of us were crying.

I have to be honest here and admit that when Scott and I were first talking about transracial adoption, nearly ten years ago, I was dismissive of the idea that having an African American child would make me think differently about race. I would have told you I didn’t need a child of a different race to be concerned about racism. I was an artist and an activist- someone deeply concerned with equality. I protested discrimination and injustice whenever I could. After all, once upon a time I had driven hours to see Angela Davis speak at a rally about diversity on college campuses.

I was so clueless. Because all the college protests in the world did not remotely prepare me to look into the face of my child, my heart, and know that someday soon, I will have to explain to him that he is not safe. That he will not be treated equally. That I enjoy privileges that he may never enjoy in his lifetime. That people with his skin color in this country have experienced hundreds of years of brutality and disenfranchisement and discrimination. That he lives in a world where we must shout #blacklivesmatter, because it’s not obvious. That things might be better than they used to be but not nearly better enough. Not even close.

I don’t have anything particularly new to offer the discussion. Maybe you feel the same way. Please don’t let that stop you from raising your voice and speaking out against racism and discrimination as loudly as you can.

I offer my grief, my rage, my fear, my solidarity, my tears, my voice, my eagerness to learn, my willingness to work.

Here are some of the posts about Charleston, from my touchstones:

Awesomely Luvvie: “On Charleston, Forgiveness and Black Pain”

Jamelle Bouie on the GOP and the Confederate flag.

Jon Stewart being awesome.

Mocha Momma: “Let’s get to the Work of Anti Racism”

Brene Brown: “Own Our History Change the Story.”

Karen Walrond at Chookaloonks: “Say Something.”

I am memorizing the names of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson.

#takedowntheflag
#blacklivesmatter