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Marvin Repinski: Making sense of keeping a journal

Before me are two books, one titled “The Journals of Anais Nin,” the other, “The Best American Essays of 2020” selections by Andre’ Aciman.

The Bible and documents of other religions may be approached as journals. A verse from the epistle of Romans, verse 10:18, may be a manner of noting our written materials: “Their voice has gone forth to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”

A definition of a journal can go in dozens of directions. My purpose is to narrow down the multiplicity to several themes. Interesting? Yes! In the essay “Sunset Me,” the author probes the life of Susan Sontag. She is best known for her writings in “Against Interpretation:” After Sontag died in 2004, the focus of attention began to drift away from her work and toward her person.”

I wish to get back to Sontag’s life, but a comment on “toward her person” may enlarge the reasons for pursuing a writing, a record, an evaluation, and a commentary on our own lives.

It’s not just to leave a history that we, indeed, did inhabit the planet. It’s not just that we desire to let others know something like, “She sure left her accomplishments to the wide world!” A recording of the day-to-day, possibly week-to-week, and into the years, is a way of gradually knowing oneself. Like what? Someone at the Kiwanis Club meeting you visit as a guest will probably ask, “Who are you?” Answer? Maybe bafflement, but you’ll give a name and then answer a question. “Are you from around here; live in Austin?” “No, actually I live in Hayfield.” “You are new here?” “No, I own a filling station off Highway 95.” “Maybe the Kiwanis Club will fit my bill.”

You now have a little relationship going, but the larger question is, who are you?

Again to Ms. Sontag, toward her person. Reading or seeing a TV program or movie relating to a certain person dig into the “who” of a person. This may be revealed by a journal. It is not for the new person at an organization to get to know you, it is the mysterious, ever-tangled depths and heights of your own life. Who am I? An inquiry into the pilgrimage that is your own. Seams and threads may come together in a mosaic that aids you in reconnecting memories of incidents and friendships that without a record, you would be less of today’s person.

Who was Ms. Sontag? I trace a kind of trail by walking through her journals and insights gained by a short story she wrote, “Pilgrimage.” She writes in a gentle mocking and proudly affirms the curious girl she used to be. She refers to her slumming, her moments she embodied shame and dread. In her photographic image, she was said to have a “way of being at home.”

Her son, David Rieff, wrote a penetrating memoir about his mother’s illness and death. Annie Leibovitz, Sontag’s off-and-on partner from 1989 until her death, released a portfolio of photographs, unsparing in their depiction of her cancer-ravaged, 70-year old body. Sigrid Nunez, a close friend, wrote of her relationship, “It’s about what can happen when you really get to know a writer, which is that you lose all sense of who or what it is you really know, including yourself.”

But the fact is that at many levels, you do know both the other person and yourself! Those who read my reflections will, out of the patchwork quilt of year-by-year, full notebooks, scheduling appointments and diaries I term my journals, gain an outline of who Marvin is. My years, as was said of Sontag, probed and evaluated thought, “which similarly dwells both within the walls of the skull and out in the collective sphere.”

The aforementioned writer of a journal, Ms. Nin, lived an adventure. Details of her artistic endeavors and participation, are beyond my detailing in brief comments. They need the exploration of interested persons in a large time span. An example of what might go into a journal is her statement under January 1945. “Heard about Henry’s marriage to Janina Lepska, and wrote him a warm letter of celebration. I met a friend of Lepska’s, Miriam Kreiselman, who told me a great deal about her. She has a doctorate in philosophy, is attractive, young, and very intelligent. Henry sent me a surprise gift of a check.”

Again, a look into Nin’s thinking, “what I leave out of my work, I leave out, discard, and overlook in life as well, because I do not think it is important. It weighs people down and kills vision and spiritual perceptions. Too much upholstery.”

The writing is a kind of marker for each of us. “I choose the extraordinary moments of life, the heightened ones, because they are moments of heightened revelations, of illuminations, of the greatest riches.”

The journals we write and, keep (maybe for a grandchild to read!) place history, certain events, a person’s feelings, an object, particular joys — maybe even defeats — in the reader’s frame of reference. Who was/is this person I care for and love?

Maybe I can apply some wisdom to my own life! In one of his speeches during Advent a year ago, Pope Francis spoke of Jesus and the manger. His invitation was an urge to contemplate. “Stop by the manger.”