Saving Words: Old Letters and Journals

by Audrey Borenstein

“Nobody ever recognizes a period until it
has gone by…: until it lies behind one
it is merely everyday life.”

—Willa Cather, “The Old Beauty”

Noah’s presence has been drawing nearer my writing-desk as I grow older. Bearded and in a flowing robe, he hovers above my shoulder as I sit at my typing table or hunched pen in hand over papers on my desk. However dark my skies, there is always enough light for me to sense his shadow as a wingspread sheltering me as I compose myself. Composing one’s self is what it seems to me I must do to give words to the currents coursing through my mind in writing a personal letter or making a Journal entry. Walt Whitman heard it as a song by each “simple, separate person.”

I do not know from whence my cacoëthes scribendi came to me, only that it came early, in the morning of my life. Since childhood I found certain impressions, thoughts, emotions and happenings so compelling that it was imperative for me to set them down in writing. In retrospect, I think my intention was to make art of them, chiefly the art of poetry. But as I turned them to shapes, they became stories or pensées more and more often than poems, and as I grew older, reflections I wove into personal letters and Journal notes.

In midlife I resolved to provide for a life beyond my own for writings likely to remain unpublished at the time of my death. Among these were a slender sheaf of poems I thought worth keeping, and finished stories, novels and essays that, because I continue to seek publication for them, are already in preservable form. But my trove of personal letters and Journal notebooks were far from that. I decided to transcribe and then gather them into a portfolio that might protect them in the aftertime as a gift to my descendants.

The biblical figure sending forth the dove to scout for dry land was my inspiration. This I think is so for ardent preservationists of all space-times, because the story of the Great Flood has been told in cultures around the world for millennia. Its motifs have wondrous varieties. Among the best known is the ship of seven storeys the King in the epic of Gilgamesh built, into which he took the seed of every living thing. Two far less well-known tales are from the Americas. One from the Pacific Northwest tells of the rope of arrows climbed by the one righteous man and his retinue up to the cloud above the snowy summit of Mount Takhoma. There they took refuge from the flood sent by the Great Spirit to destroy the wicked. Another is the legend of the enormous canoe built by the four couples among the Kariña people of South America who heeded the warning of Kaputano the Sky Dweller of the coming deluge and filled it with pairs of every animal. My own ark of safety is to be a portfolio of words inscribed during a lifetime of my labors at the writing-desk.

My earliest life writings were letters I wrote to my father during the times he left Chicago to work in another state. I wrote to him so as to enliven the bonds of affection and sympathy between us. I was nine years old when I began writing these letters, the same age at which I wrote my first poems. I was sending words along these two pathways, imagining I was in possession of the spellbinder’s power to lure the beloved to my side, to call forth an answering call in a duettino between writer and reader I thought could go on happily ever after. Ten years later, I wrote letters to one of my brothers for the same reasons when he was in military service in Korea. So far as I know, none of these letters survive. Nor do the poems I wrote during my childhood and youth and later destroyed.

During my college years and thereafter, I wrote letters to family members, and also to an ever-widening circle of friends as they or I moved about the country. I soon began saving their letters to me. They were my charms against the ache of absence and separation, and the fear of loss.

Some children begin keeping a book of their own at a very young age. I was not one of them. It was not until I was in my early thirties during the last summer of the span of the historic years 1954 to 1964 I lived in Louisiana, that I began keeping a Journal—a word that has more music for me than the words “diary” or “daybook.” That summer of farewell I felt the need for a gathering place for my notes and reflections, a notebook separate from those for my fiction, poems, essays, my commonplace book of treasured quotations, my folio of family memorabilia, and a small cache of keepsake personal letters and postcards sent expressly to me. This separate notebook was the genesis of my Journal.

During my late forties, I began making copies of the letters I sent to my many epistolary friends. I typed those I’d written in longhand before mailing them, and made carbon copies or photocopies of those composed on the typewriter. By that time the absence of such a record had on a number of occasions been a cause of my dismay, puzzlement, or keen regret. It happens that I had become a devotée of the forth-and-back call-and-response pulsations of corresponding with souls of widely different temperaments, interests and points of view. Each of them brought out another side of me: what was sacred to one might be anathema to another; what enthralled one was less than fascinating to the next; what entertained one, another found was not at all amusing. When the spirit was upon me, I penned or typed long letters to my friends-in-writing in response to theirs. Because each of these epistolary friendships was sui generis, I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually begin saving both sides of each correspondence. I had learned well that a good habit for indefatigable letter writers to cultivate is to review what was written to whom, and when, lest one weary or wound or offend through a slip of the pen.

By my jubilee year I had amassed an extensive collection of my pied beauties of personal letters and an alps of Journal notebooks, to prepare for my ark. Both my chosen forms of life writing had saved me from suffering irrevocable losses; now I wanted to return the favor. My studies and research had taught me the irreplaceable value of letters and Journals for students of literature and for cultural historians. This was to be a long labor of love for me. I had trundled my own bundles of letters and cartons of notebooks along beside me, filling ever more capacious hold-alls, as I moved from one region of the country to another. Where to begin a task I knew would take many years to complete? And where was it written that I would be granted those years?

By the age of fifty, most of us are keenly aware we are mortal. Every day is a gift; who among us knows for certain how much time we have left? I now had to decide which, my letters or my Journal, I ought to attend to first. I thought enviously of authors and custodians of personal papers who do not have to make this choice. I thought of Jefferson, who said that his letters would constitute “the only full and genuine Journal” of his life. My need to choose which of them I should attend to first required that I consider the qualities I had found to be unique to each before making that decision.

Traditional letter writing has been mourned as a lost art because of the advent of electronic mail. I believe the announcement of its demise by a form of written communication scarcely a decade old to be premature. Perhaps those of us who practice the art in what Yeats called “the excellent old ways” are not so tiny a minority as many observers suppose. The point that has been made that e-mail meets our needs for intimacy and creativity is well-taken. However, the same could be said of traditional letter writing, at least in my own case. Moreover, electronic mail presents opportunities for the proliferation of mischief-making in letter writing. The ease and speed of e-mail communication may encourage back-and-forth banter that debases the quality of discourse. A “speed demon” at the typewriter, I know that speed-writing can corrupt sensibility, just as does speed-reading of serious writing. I distrust the ease of fluency in composing missives to be sent into cyberspace because, after a lifetime of labor at the writing-desk, I know how hard-won fluency in serious writing is. Some of us find it difficult, though not impossible, to write from the heart in exchanging e-mail.

One reason I prefer not to correspond electronically is that I believe a personal letter is written to be read and responded to in kind after a period of ripening. Exchanges engaged in as sport or contests of quick wit and innuendo have no appeal for me. We learn from experience in face-to-face encounters how to “read” facial expressions and body language that convey the nuances of the spoken words. Experience in exchanging personal letters with intimates and friends also teaches us how to read “between the lines.” One may take a sounding of the genuineness of a personal letter by the tone of response in it to matters known to be of concern to oneself. A shared sense of timing is critical in cultivating this kind of correspondence. I have no doubt that many epistolary friendships are stillborn because, for whatever reason, the recipient responded to the other’s overtures either too soon or too late. Too soon, and the response may convey either over-eagerness or dismissal; too late, and it may convey a disinclination to continue.

Co-creating its own rhythmic mutuality of style and substance with each individual correspondent is a distinguishing mark of letter writing in contrast to Journal-keeping. Although I often address my Journal in the second person, it is out of whimsy that I beg my Journal’s pardon for, say, throwing a fit of political rantings between its covers, or that I explain my silence after a long lapse between entries. Nor do I withhold out of considerateness for my Journal’s sensitivities. My Journal is the younger of the two forms in my writing life, yet at times I reflect on letter writing in its pages as a person might confide to one of a pair of siblings about the other. A letter written by the same hand that keeps a Journal works in a different key. The writer of a personal letter should speak exclusively to its intended recipient; the Journal-keeper often confides To Whom It May Concern, the Great Spirit, or the universe.

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world. It has long been the custom for some people to compose a letter at year’s end to be sent to a list of people as a holiday greeting. This practice, which necessarily sacrifices depth for breadth, results in a letter in name only. Such documents strike this recipient as a report of the sender’s personal news and social commentary. Thanks to the ease of electronic communication, which encourages writers to make multiple copies of their writing at any moment, cyberspace is now flooded year-round with such reports. Unhappily, many of their senders succumb to the worst vices of careless Journal-keeping, composing self-serving screeds few have the forbearance and time to read.

The most full and genuine letters I have written and received are direct and personal exchanges between two people who conjure the unique person named in the salutation, keeping in mind as they write the point counterpoint—what it may be like to walk in the other’s moccasins, yet at the same time how to find the way back. Every such correspondence enriches the letter writer’s mixed company of inner lives, of the characters each partner awakens or discovers in the other. In contrast, a Journal faithfully and honestly kept is a scroll continuously unfurling so long as one keeps it. It is the only letter to oneself I know of that is sent both to and from the mixed multitude inside each “simple, separate person” who writes in it anything and everything, and in any and all modes of being. Its distinguishing marks are its shape-shifting, its day-to-day mutability and provisionality. One brings to the Journal the entire republic of one’s selves.

Make thee an ark of gopher wood. Mount Ararat is the ultimate destination for the arks of safety built by the preservationists among us, many, perhaps most, of us unknown. Along the way, we have sensed what Joseph Conrad observed, that it is not only the writer who stands confessed in his or her works, but also the writer’s age emerges from it. It has been said that gopher wood rides lightly upon the face of the deep. I have read of an ancient legend that fires of brimstone (gophrith) burning under the earth heated the waters of the Flood so that all life on the whole earth outside the ark would dissolve, even the bones which had been thought to be imperishable. My relationship with my Journal will endure till death do us part, unless or until I am undone by blindness or incapacitation. But unlike the originals of my hundreds of letters sent abroad this past half-century, there is only the original copy of Journal notebooks. Therefore, although letters were the first-born of the two forms of life writing, I felt I had to prepare my Journal for preservation first.

It happens that, in the early autumn of 2002, as I was completing that task, I was asked to visit a class of first graders for twenty minutes or so, to talk about keeping a Journal. The teacher had invited me to do this because her pupils were beginning to practice writing by making entries in Journal notebooks. She sent me an invitation from the class that said they were eager to show me their first Journal pages in return for my showing them what some of my notebooks looked like and what writing in them signifies.

This was the first (and remains the only) instance of my visiting a group of people of any age to speak on this subject. For days beforehand, I scribbled many notes in my Journal about what I might say. Reviewing them the night before, I saw they were intermingled with my impassioned fury and grief over the war cries thundering throughout this land, and also my fears for Louisiana, threatened by floodwaters unleashed by Hurricane Isidore.

That morning I rode under night-dark skies through a steady rain to the public school in the village in upstate New York where I live. My responsibilities to these young novices haunted me. I thought of Noah’s ark floating on the face of the deep for forty days and nights, and of my nearly forty years of Journal-keeping. A quotation echoed in my memory. I had copied the words years ago into my commonplace book, words quoted without attribution which I read only recently were said by Yeats: A child is not a vessel to fill. A child is a fire to light.

As I settled in the rocker drawn up for me, my audience came forward and sat on the floor, looking up at me expectantly. I thanked them for their invitation, and told them that I was very excited to meet them just at the time they were writing their first Journal pages. I did not keep a Journal until I was grown up, I said, and I am happy for them that they are doing so now. I confessed that I wished schools had classes about the practice of Journal-keeping in the longago when I was their age.

And why might that be? I asked, and answered myself that all of them must have seen photographs of themselves when they were little. And hadn’t they all heard stories about their sayings and doings then? There were a few giggles accompanying the nodding of thirty heads. We can see what we looked like in those pictures, I said. But we can’t know what was in our mind or heart just by looking at them or listening to the story. Of course, we can have a general idea if we see a happy or sad face, or hear stories about why we were laughing or frowning. But to know more about what we felt and why, we’d have to look deeper, to see what was inside. Once one knows how to read and write, one can tell one’s own story in one’s own words, in a book of one’s own. And when one is older, one can read that book and learn something about what was in one’s mind (pointing to my head), and about what was in one’s heart (pointing to that).

In this bright room with its chalkboard and walls festooned with crayoned drawings, was there an aspirant to this practice for whom it might prove to be a journey of continuing self-discovery? TODAY IS SEPTEMBER 27, 2002 the blackboard proclaimed. These children were too young to make much of the palindromic year. But for me, of late a thought enshrouded with dread had come to stay, that fate was binding events of the palindromic years 1991 and 2002 in cerecloth. Vivir es ver volver, as Azorí­n wrote—living is seeing things return. One day that aspirant might hold the first notebook he or she so proudly displayed today, and open it in search of some word, some sign of the coming cataclysms of a pre-emptive war and a hurricane named Katrina.

What words do we bring to our Journal to keep them alive with our selves? I asked, and answered, We bring what is outside ourselves, perhaps that we notice the rain is growing heavier as the minutes pass by. In our version of the story of this particular day, the rain is caused by the hurricane. Because I lived in Louisiana for ten years when I was younger, I will write in my Journal today about my memories of that time, just as I will write of this time I am here with you now, when I go home this morning.

We tell our Journal what’s inside ourselves too, about our memories and our dreams. As we write in our Journal, we remember more and more of our thoughts and feelings, and we set these down on our pages. We come to understand ourselves and our world a little better. We’re like an Eskimo hunter I read about, whose way of carving ivory was like the way of the writer at work. He’d hold the unworked tooth lightly in his hand, turning it one way and another, whispering to it, “Who are you? Who hides there?” And after working a while, he’d greet whatever showed itself to be what he’d been carving. “Ah, Seal!” he might call out. He was happy because he’d kept carving until the hidden form came out. He saw that he was releasing what was inside that tooth, waiting for his handiwork to set it free.

I spoke to the children of special days most people have that they want to remember, for example a day at the beach one enjoyed. One might find a beautiful shell. And because no one owns it, one may take it home. And every time one looks at it, one remembers the feel of the water and the air and the warmth of the sun, and one’s happiness. The shell is a keepsake, I said, and words can be keepsakes also. If you write in your Journal about that day at the beach, then when you read those pages, no matter how long afterward, you live that day all over again.

I had another question for them: How many of you feel that you’re talking to yourself when you write in your Journal? More giggles and a few embarrassed grins; here and there a hand was slowly raised to half-mast, fluttered, and was swiftly lowered. You are in a way, I agreed, because you’re writing to the special friend who lives inside you. Our Journal is interested in everything we bring to it. A writer named Ralph Waldo Emerson said on paper long ago, “Happy is the person who…writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts—who writes always to the unknown friend.

It came time for me to go around to their tables and look at each child’s Journal. As I gathered my notebooks and held them up for everyone to see, I reminded them that Thanksgiving would soon be here, and that it would be a good time to give thanks for being able to go to school and to learn how to read and write. Why is this? Because the more we read and write, the more we learn how to see and to understand. Words light up the world outside, and the world inside ourselves too.

During that sweet time with the children, I wrote to a fellow Journal-keeper long afterward, I dared hope that even in this age of “film culture” there are souls to whom this torch may be passed; and that one of them—for there had been a certain boy who confided to me that he has been studying violin, and that he loves music and loves to write in his Journal—was in that classroom. I wrote her that I felt a meeting of souls in that moment, that this child and I had imparted something to one another—a charm, a blessing.

In a dream that was not a dream, the Voice spoke to Noah and showed him a ship riding on stormy waters. My mission was to encourage the children to think of the Journal as an ark of safety, because storms would be coming all too soon. I could only hint that a Journal faithfully kept can call back the past when it is read years later, just as my own now restores to me the day when I sat in the rocker and spoke about Journals to them. Had I not told my Journal of our time together only an hour afterward, I would not have so rich a remembrance of it. Today, these pages are for me a draught from the cup of wine Noah regained, harvested after the ark came to rest on dry land and he gave thanks and planted a vineyard.

Miraculously, I have been granted the time to prepare copies both of four volumes of my Journal and four collections of my personal letters for preservation. My editing was not extensive, but deeply considered. Noah’s cursing of his youngest son for uncovering his nakedness was a cautionary tale guiding me. In numbering my days, my Journal had become my familiar spirit, my secret sharer, my constant companion and Listener. The words I gave it were far less apt to have been weighed and measured than those I wrote even to intimates. They spoke candidly of the pain and passion and perplexity along with the pleasures that have been my portion. If “letters mingle souls,” as John Donne has said, in my case the Journal is the smithy where the soul is forged. Therefore, I felt morally bound to read all my Journal notebooks, and after that all my letters, before transcribing them for preservation. Write them upon the tablet of thy heart. As I worked, I scrupled to abide by any promises I’d made not to reveal secrets, and to conceal or obscure the identity of persons whom I had named in certain passages I thought might trespass against them.

The task of stewardship is formidable for the author—and custodians—of personal papers who feel these constraints. Some undertake it and abandon it or, fearing they are not equal to completing it, destroy the writings. Others, among them myself, persevere, trusting that saving our words may serve some good purpose for our survivors, and perhaps even one day for a wider community of readers. It is an article of faith for me that wherever literacy is a birthright, every person is free to become the author of his or her own life-story. Personal letters and Journals, and also memoirs and autobiographies, express the author’s commemorative impulse to set down on paper his or her own “song of oneself.” I believe that providing for their safekeeping is a wider giving of this return gift for the gift of literacy.

Old letters and Journals may enchant readers of a later time by their wonder-working of evocation and restoration. Perhaps it is because they are written in and of their author’s ongoing present. Their very spontaneity and concreteness gives them a freshness and immediacy that keeps them ever green. Time cannot come again, and yet it comes again in reading my old Journals and the bundles of letters I have saved, the far greater number of these from loved friends now no longer living. Among them is a collection of my correspondence for twenty-five years with someone whom I never met face-to-face but with whom I shared worlds of thought about literature and the social sciences. His death ended one of the richest friendships of my life. Yet I feel that I am resuming it whenever I revisit our letters. The sight of his beautiful handwriting, and the generosity of spirit in his words, return his presence to my writing-desk in ways I am still discovering.

I am far from alone in remarking the mysterious power of old letters to resurrect the dead. In Testaments of Time: The Search for Lost Manuscripts and Records, Leo Deuel writes that of Egyptian papyri written two thousand years ago, yet appealingly intelligible to today’s common reader, the liveliest are the letters. Someone whose family may have forgotten him only a few years after his death “here comes back to life. We see the twinkle in his eye, his dismay, his pain, his pride. He strides to inspect the labors of his slaves; he quarrels with his neighbor over water rights; he hugs his little son or reprimands him.” Deuel reflects that language, “conveyed by a few dozen symbols, may be the closest approximation to immortality.”

Memoirs and autobiographies are written expressions of the quest for the design of their author’s life through an exploration of his or her native grounds and the private meaning of the events and emotions experienced in the past. They are usually composed during some interval in the second half of life as a summation-song of oneself. In A Peculiar Treasure (1939), Edna Ferber commented that the booklists of that time were filled with works now subsumed under the rubric “nonfiction,” among them autobiographies. Currently, memoirs appear to have supplanted their place of prominence on publishers’ book lists. Although there are as many varieties of life-stories and ways of telling them within each of the two forms of life writing as between them, both have in common a retracing of the life-journey or a portion of it from the perspective of the author’s current present. Sven Bikerts writes that memoirists “use the present to get at what might be called the hidden narrative of the past.”

Both memoirs and autobiographies are much more likely to be composed with the intention or expectation of having them published than are Journals or collections of personal letters. Even so, only a small number of any of these forms of life writings are published while their author is still living, and many of these are soon out of print. The rest are stored in a cache of written memorabilia in a desk drawer or a chest in the attic or closet or basement of a private residence. Some eventually may be donated to a private or public archive. Others may be destroyed. Of those that survive, only a very few are published long after—in the case of Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life, decades after; and in the cases of Mme. de Sévigné’s letters, Pepys’s Diary, and John Winthrop’s Journal, centuries after—the author’s lifetime.

Most personal letters, Journals and first-person life stories are destined to remain in manuscript, consigned to the vagaries of custodianship after their author’s death. Over time, some go astray and are lost. Occasionally it happens that such personal papers come to light by what, initially at least, appears to be a chance discovery. If their value is appreciated, those who read them may find they illumine not only their author’s world, but also the path connecting that world to the one their finder inhabits.

Like countless others, I have read many published life writings that stirred my sympathetic imagination. They gave me access to my most intimate feelings, so that reading them was very like conversing with their author. In time I came to see that in honoring the author’s desire to impart on paper what that author lived and witnessed by reading his or her work, I was bringing that life to life. Reading is itself an act of preservation. To read another’s writing is to keep its light in this world.

There is more. It is not often enough appreciated that writing and reading are ways of engaging with the world. The author and reader may transcend boundaries of time and space, and meet. In these intercommunications, influences flow in both directions. Words inscribed in stone or on papyri or paper and later read can be deeds in this double sense, both as acts and as endowments. The reader who responds with empathy to writing of an earlier time brings the past near not only so as to apprehend what cannot come again, and even perhaps why, but also to disclose its meaning for the present moment. The past is variable; it endures as readers of successive generations infuse it with continuing life by refashioning it anew. In The Past Is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal writes that “every act of recognition alters what survives. We can use the past fruitfully only when we realize that to inherit is also to transform.” Attentive reading is a transformative art.

I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token…for perpetual generations…of a covenant between Me and the earth. The work of preservation begins with the desire to leave a trace of what may become of benefit for humanity. The promise is that the inheritors or finders of these labors may prove to be the center of an ever-widening circle continuing the conversation between members of a perpetual succession of generations.

There comes a time, usually during the second half of life, when a trove of personal papers summons their author or custodian to the task of ingathering—reading them again, contemplating their meaning, and deciding their ultimate fate. By all means, begin your folio, Robert Louis Stevenson exhorts readers of his essay Aes Triplex. The threefold brass symbolizing indomitable courage in ancient Rome inspired his well-chosen title. Indeed it takes time and work and heart to prepare one’s folio as a bequest, whether the work involves editing certain passages in personal letters and pages of self-communion to protect one’s privacy and that of others, or composing a memoir or autobiography. The work may prove to be surprisingly creative and self-replenishing. But it is hard labor, and often emotionally as well as physically taxing. I believe I have some sense of the feeling of moral necessity that impels one to undertake it. The challenge is bracing—to integrate the disparate parts of the life-journey so as to disclose, even if it may be only to oneself, its essential truth.

Most of us probably wrestle all along the life course with the opposing forces of the need to keep to oneself what is felt to be the truth of one’s life and the need to avow it. The struggle may intensify as one grows older. There is much to overcome—declining health and energy, the sensitivity to opening past lives to judgment, and the acceptance of the complexity and immensity of life’s compass. But even the authors benefit from it. Catherine Drinker Bowen re-read bundles of old letters, unpublished autobiographies and diaries and journals kept by her parents, siblings and her younger self, in composing her memoir, Family Portrait. Harriet Monroe re-read her own diary in writing her autobiography, A Poet’s Life. Dorothy Day and her sister kept notebooks when they were young for the sake of enhancing their present lives. “Recording happiness made it last longer, we felt,” she wrote in The Long Loneliness, “and recording sorrow dramatized it and took away its bitterness; and often we settled some problem which beset us, even while we wrote about it.” At the other end of the life cycle, Helene Deutsch wrote that in her old age, she felt a great need to set her past life and her past self down in autobiographical form. It amazed her to find that memories “long buried beyond the reach of consciousness” returned so readily as she was writing. Composing Confrontations With Myself—An Epilogue enriched her life immensely: “It is a great psychic achievement to accept the disillusioning present just as it is, yet at the same time preserve the values that still remain.”

Preparing one’s folio as a bequest whether to named persons or to posterity is an act of generosity as well as of courage. It is an endowment made with the awareness of the value to humanity of each person’s first-hand testament of how a life was lived and what it signifies to the author. It serves as a connecting link between the generations. It joins writers from the past who inspired and informed it, to contemporaries who follow its traveller’s tale on many roads not taken, and to readers of the aftertime. It affirms the beauty of the choice to embrace life in this way, in the hope of bringing one of the myriad branches of the vast memory bank of testaments of human life on this planet to light.

In our time, the confessional mode may predominate in published life writings, especially those by celebrities. The value of all life writings for the community of humankind may not be recognized or even respected by their authors, yet it is implicit in the very act of setting words down on paper. All writings are communications, interweavings of the private and the public, the confessional and the communal. What changes over time is the emphasis on one or the other. In The Cultural Life of the American Colonies, 1607-1673, Louis B. Wright tells us that many histories, descriptive narratives, and personal journals were written by New England settlers out of the conviction that “God had a particular oversight of their endeavors and that it was their duty to make known his favor to them.” Similarly, in Winter Friends: Women Growing Old in the New Republic, 1785-1835, Terri Premo writes that American women diarists of that period recorded their lives with the understanding that their writings would be preserved as a legacy for posterity. As recently as Eleanor Roosevelt’s lifetime, it was customary in some families for personal letters to be circulated among kin living far from one another. She wrote in This Is My Story, decades before electronic mail made this possible for so many, of her admiration of the English, who in this way “keep up a kind of intimacy which wipes out time and space.”

A light shalt thou make to the ark. I have read that the light was many—that there were skylights in the ark. In my talk with the schoolchildren, I sought to awaken their sense of connection with the keepers of words everywhere and in all times. I sought to help make readers of them, to instill in them the habit of gathering words they treasure in some sort of commonplace book. Mine are the skylights of my ark. I confess here what I did not tell them, that the pages of my own commonplace notebooks are filled. Until I am able to undertake my next project, to prepare them for preservation, I have been tucking some of my collectanea into the side pockets of my desk blotter. Others dangle above my writing desk from strips of transparent tape affixing them to the wall and the mirror on the wall: I call them my wall-hangings and my mirror-hangings. I look up and read what G. B. Shaw wrote to Ellen Terry: “Let those who may complain that it was only upon paper remember that only upon paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue and abiding love.”

Even as I mentioned the hurricane to the children, and my fears for Louisiana where I once lived, a mimosa tree rose up in my inward eye, its many arms braceleted with feathered leaves and pinks. In a white-hot flare of Southern sunlight, fragments of mimosa blossoms drifted down into the sandbox where my little ones were playing. The scene, swift-passing as in the light of this last season life itself seems, shimmered and was gone. I cannot call it back with words. I did not begin to keep a Journal until my last summer there. And another decade would pass before I began saving my own personal letters to cherished friends from those lost times.

That morning in early autumn I had spoken wistfully to the schoolchildren of their good fortune in beginning to keep a Journal in first grade. Children that age are especially fond of stories of the adventures of heroic rescue figures. I think they would be perplexed—but pleased—to know that I, joining a long procession back to Noah, have been on a rescue mission; and that in declaring their selfhood in a book of their own, they are too.

The passion to preserve my own papers, strewn with the seeds of every living thing I have read or written, was born of the desire to honor the covenant between the generations. Who has not dreamed the impossible dream of imperishability of all we have loved well? None of us can know whether or for how long or for whom what we wrote may make a difference. In this space-time we call ours, the floodwaters of grim daily news are rising; it seems that our prophets write doom in letters of white fire on canvases black as the pitch covering Noah’s ark. What is more, some learned physicists tell us that time itself is an illusion. Yet its passage is what we experience, and its arrow seems to grow heavier in the quiver we carry as we journey on.

By all means, begin your folio. “If there’s an afterlife,” Robert Lowell wrote to a friend in 1975, “I think I’d spend it living and reading everything written to me.” The dove carrying the olive branch on its return flight to Noah is one of the loveliest images in all literature I know. Eventually, all surviving life writings become space-time capsules imbued with the atmosphere of their historical moment, the spirit of the place and time in which they were composed. If mine have life beyond my own, I hope they may stir their readers’ artistic and historical imagination as such works by others have stirred mine. Helene Deutsch writes of “the patina of time,” the mellowing of the past in memorial consciousness. The phrase gives rise to my reflection that the patina that forms over the surface of an object with age and use has preservative powers. Like the trees that provide the substance of the paper on which their words are written, treasured life writings become ever more beautiful with the passage of time.

Copyright © 2007 by Audrey Borenstein

Audrey Borenstein is co-founder of the Life Writing Connection and has been writing in a variety of literary genres since the 1960s. Her published books include One Journal’s Life: A Meditation on Journal-Keeping (Impassio Press, 2002).

Entry Filed under: A. Personal Essays