I suppose every kid keeps a diary for a while. Stores even used to sell those little bespoke lockable notebooks for wannabe writers that promised to guard their secrets safely within. And, of course, they never did; secrets only have value when they’re advertised as kept; when there’s a chance that if they were ever revealed, something important would be liberated on the ever waiting world.
With few exceptions, most quotidial activities don’t qualify though, and I could never justify locking my diary; few cared that in Grade 5, I got up each school day at 7; fewer cared what I had for breakfast then; and even fewer thought what comics I read that night were important to them. To be honest, I had little in the way of negotiable secrets and hence unlike, say, Proust, little of interest to submit to editors years later. There were no Proustian moments in my adolescent writings -nothing I wrote conjured up memories of my mother’s cooking, or the smell of a pile of leaves burning in our back yard each autumn. Times –my times- conjured up nothing; alas, they abjured memorability. Hence, I stored the diary -or, more probably, lost it somewhere- along with the wordy, yet miserably unimportant details of the daily life of an otherwise sesquipedalian ten year old.
And yet, in my yellow leaf, I have to hope there must have been something to remember; some thoughts to cud (if I may be excused the Shakespearean denominalization). Still, I can’t believe that my youth -any youth- can be reduced to banality.
I am especially concerned about my inability to remember those days now with any degree of confidence; with any assurance that I am not presently confabulating my life, tarting up memories that remain unnailed to something reliable.
Indeed, I have recently been put to shame by the diaries that Heidi Julavits described in her 2015 book The Folded Clock: a Diary. I only discovered these from an essay in Psyche written by the art historian Grace Linden. https://psyche.co/ideas/time-like-memory-is-fickle-days-wrap-back-on-themselves
At first, the subject matter of Julavits’ diary reminded me of my own naïve attempts at narrative: ‘she [Julavits] discovered that mostly her writing was unimaginative, boring. She’d recorded her test scores, the boys she found cute, TV shows she’d watched. Her diary was notable solely because she wrote in it every day.’ It was only in the retelling of the events, shuffling the time frames and jumbling the thoughts, that she discovered the wisdom of the ordinary.
‘Time is the subject of The Folded Clock, but in Julavits’s hands it is made pliable. Her clock is defined by echoes and returns that wrap back upon themselves… this is how memory operates: people circle in and out, objects serve minor, then major roles; there are acts and reprises and second chances. The experience of time is hardly ever chronological.’
And then an apparently misdiagnosed illness in her adult life forced her back to keeping a diary. ‘In illness especially, time can take on new forms. ‘It was no longer linear,’ writes Julavits. ‘I did not see time ahead of me. I experienced time on top of me. I experienced time underneath me. Time became a hollow, vertical enclosure.’ She suffered from ‘plummet[s] in time altitude’ in which moments in her life seemed to speed up or recede. Her days became asynchronous.’ A marvellous description that immediately captured me.
It made me wonder what a neuro-tangled elder like me could possibly remember about a ten year old self, now as distant in hopes as in years; an aging man as likely to recall what he thought in those days, as what he had for dinner last night.
Of course, that’s not to say I have no memories, but none whose telling would be as reliable as those of my adult life -none that are written, at any rate. And none whose themes I could fold over each other as metaphorically as Julavits.
It’s almost as if there are long contestable stretches of time when my memories are, at worst, jumbled and vary according to my mood, and at best, layered according to my audience. It’s not that I mean to parse them in keeping with corroborative expectations, just that they seem to come out that way. And who among those who haven’t known me since childhood is to refute the telling if I, who have, cannot? Maybe I only remember unusual, or surprising things from the distant, ever-flickering past, and have carelessly dumped the rest in boxes I have no hope of ever finding again.
I remember Russell Wimbush’s boa constrictor, for example -the one living in his bedroom that I refused to visit; I don’t remember why he moved back to South America, though.
When I was young and still living across the street from a polio hospital in 1950ies Winnipeg during the epidemic ravaging the country, I remember stealing carrots on rainy evenings from its garden -an adventure made even more exciting by the rumours of catching disease through the partially opened windows from the patients breathing in their iron lungs.
And then there was the invitation to inhale the smoke from a cob of corn we burned in the alley behind my house. It sounded reasonable to Frankie and me because her father smoked a corn cob pipe and seemed to enjoy it. We both got terribly sick however and, for me at least, explained why I never took up smoking anything.
But perhaps my most vivid memory was the night of the big flood in the same 1950ies Winnipeg when we all had to sleep in the attic of our still unfinished house for protection, while my father bravely manned the sandbags along the river. There was a thunderstorm, I remember, and lightening hit the transformer on a telephone post near the upstairs window. The whole thing was suddenly engulfed in fire until the wires finally melted I suppose, and the rain doused the flames. But my mother gathered us around her, screaming that if we were going to die, it would be together as a family…
I might well have written about those things somewhere, but I doubt that any words I would have used at the time could have had the same emotional impact as the memory I’ve stored in my mind. Have I managed to fold them into something, bend them into a shape they were never intended to keep? Or have I merely distorted unremarkable events over the years to fit the childhood that others, myself included, might be expected to enjoy -early indications of what I hoped to become?
What is Truth, after all? And how could I ever know it from a few scanty entries in an otherwise banal and youthful diary -a diary that, far from predicting the future, only chronicled the past? The adult me -the aging me- is quite content with what I have managed to retain, or at least reinterpret, from a youth so far away that I can imagine it how I want. At least, it might be true…