Thursday, March 30, 2017

"Sunflower Stories" - How Keeping a Journal Can Save Your Life

In honor of Guy Giard, a humor colleague, fellow AATH member, and all around genuinely nice person, I am republishing, "Sunflower Stories." While sharing the progress on his autobiography, Guy recently shared how many journals he has kept, and how they provided him with a lifesaving outlet. I too, benefited from the lifesaving affect of keeping journals. And even though now, journaling has turned into blogging and other self expression, I cannot let go of those dozens of notebooks, and the messages they have for me.

Sunflower Stories
©by Noreen Braman
(written as Noreen Manfredi)

"The books crouch in the corner
their blackness casts a shadow
that reaches across the room.
Even with my back turned,
I feel their ominous presence.
My own words,
from long ago,
can no longer remain hidden."

The books occupy an entire file drawer, their cardboard covers and yellowed pages shut tight against dust and light. I rarely read them now, and yet, I cannot relegate them to storage in the basement or even move them across the room. I need them near me as I write; I need to hear their faded whispers, see their familiar shapes. They are not pleasant, these chronicles, and for years, just their presence terrified me.
I didn't start keeping a journal because I understood the therapeutic value of writing. I didn't even know that putting thoughts on paper was a marketable skill. Back when I was a silent, moody adolescent at Churchill Junior High School, a friend and I began writing to each other utilizing a coded language that only we understood. Based on a combination of real words and made-up words, we soon became fluent note-writers. We kept these notes in a binder, and recorded all the events, major and trivial, of our lives. Although confiscated more than once by unimaginative teachers, the topics our school-day messages were never revealed.  

Most of our correspondence centered on my family, and my ongoing battle to try and make sense out of chaos. Writing in code gave me permission to express my true feelings about my alcoholic parents, their treatment of me, and the misery I felt as a 13 year old social outcast. Soon, the notebooks were filled with notes by me, to me.

I tried, for a while to get someone to listen to me. In my journal I find entries about the school nurse, and my frequent visits to her office. I read them incredulously, not remembering ever being that desperate for a sympathetic ear.  I am also struck by the cold response I received, and thirty years later, my face grows hot with embarrassment. Without my books, I might not recall today how my stepfather hit me so hard that I lost consciousness and wet my pants. His threat to leave me behind in a trailer park while the rest of the family moved into a new home might have faded. And possibly, I may have come to believe that the night my mother chased me with a scissor and burned my sister with a cigarette wasn't all that bad.

"Mist parting - or is it cigarette smoke
faces behind
young innocents
Who robbed their cradles?
half-filled glasses left,
the child tastes and vomits.
If only the adult could so easily purge
the slaughter of childhood."

If I read on, I find that most friendships hinged on my ability to shield my friends from my real life. On several occasions, someone I considered a close friend tells me to stop talking about my family; my confidences are too depressing. I began to think of myself as the rock in the Simon and Garfunkel song, touching no one, with my books and my poetry to protect me.
My parents' lack of interest protected my journals from discovery long after the secret language had been discarded, and made me feel secure enough to write uninhibited. Storing my emotions between the covers of composition books kept me from becoming completely invisible.  Since then, no one has ever read my journals, although I've tried several times to arrange the entries in some sort of sensible, publishable order. Each time, the terrors of long ago come back to life and I can hear my mother's voice, slurred and hoarse, raised in fury. I can feel my stepfather's hands around my throat, closing tightly and lifting me off the floor.
"The eyes
how the eyes could frighten
even the voice
would terrorize.
the look, the sound,
and no escape.
no reasons either,
being the child was reason enough."
Those nightmarish images consistently creep into my writing. Fear of my mother's eyes created dark poetry, and unanswered pleas to God for help led to stories where insensitive, egotistical authority figures suffer tragic losses and painful deaths. At a writer's conference, someone compared my work to Shirley Jackson, sending me to the Public Library for a marathon summer of Jackson reading. While best known for her short-story "The Lottery," Jackson was also very successful writing endearing anecdotes, columns and books about family life. Her work thrived like a sunflower plant, with roots in the darkness, and blossoms always turned to the light. Although I cannot remember who exactly made the comparison, I will be forever indebted. It was as if, my own dark work had suddenly been brought out into the sun. 
Recently, I completed a short story about a mother staying at a hospital with a sick child. Somewhere during the writing process, the mother began to control the direction of the story, haunted by memories from her own childhood as she sits powerless by the bed of her son. She recalls how, as a child, she summoned the vision of a mythological creature to her side for protection. It was a memory from my own childhood, long buried.

"Through the window, the young girl could see the horse clearly as it galloped alongside the car. With little effort, the horse kept pace, hooves barely striking the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike. The luminous white color of his coat and the dazzling brilliance of his snowy wings almost blinded the child. It was, after all, the winged horse, Pegasus, who shadowed the station wagon. The girl, oldest of the three riding in the back seat, struggled to stay awake. She knew that if she fell asleep the magic would be broken, Pegasus would disappear, and danger would envelope the family."
At home, I was expressionless, forbidden to show anger, unwilling to show hurt. I never had the chance to talk about things that mattered to me, never allowed to voice an opinion. Because there was no one at home to talk to, it was my notebook that I turned to express my feelings about what I was studying in school, who was tormenting me on the school bus, or what boy broke my heart long before I ever went out on a real date. I recorded, in detail the night that my stepfather woke me up and made me go out to the family car to drag my drunken mother into the house. I helped her into the bathroom, where she promptly fell and wedged herself against the closed door. In my notebook I wrote that she spent the night on the bathroom floor.  During my teenage years the pages were filled with threats to commit suicide or leave home, and the conclusion that no one would notice, either way. 
Despite all this, my later journals are covered with collages of upbeat images, flowers, castles, sunshine and jokes. I practiced elegant penmanship and used bold, vibrant colors. During long, lonely school vacations I kept track of songs played on the radio, and began writing an epic fantasy that is unfinished, but still fermenting, today. 
The books cover almost 30 years of my life. With some silent stretches there are still entries about my future husband, the births of our children and some of our best and worst marital moments. Like Shirley Jackson, my writing, too, is a garden of sunflowers, stretching from darkness to daylight.
A long time ago, at an ACOA support group meeting, someone told me that your past makes you what you are today. Fulfilling a wish to change what has already happened would also mean monumental personal changes would occur; changes that would create a different person. So, I've come to accept the journals, and what they represent. Slowly, I've begun to make peace with those terrible memories. The writing that I kept private has grown into a marketable skill. I've learned to write happy while still maintaining enough raw emotion to put up a good fight on the editorial pages. The popular culture that passed me by in the 60's and 70's has been fuel for nostalgia pieces that serve as little journeys of discovery for me, and my poetry has reflected this growth.
"Now I shall sing
mournful hymns
joyous love songs
in the hope that she will hear me,
she always hated silence.
Now I shall sing
without fear
without doubt
in the hope that she will love me,
I always hated her silence."

The written records of my life serve as a tangible and bittersweet reminder of where and who I've been. Like a night sky constellation, the books form an unchanging pattern that consistently guides me through the shadowy unknown. So until I'm sure that they have served their entire purpose, I think I'll keep my journals right where they are, close by so I am never out of touch with the past that continues to mold my future.

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