An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days
A Note to the ReaderFor decades, it has been my habit to keep a journal, opening each new yearly record on January 2, my birthday. In these journals, I make notes about what's happening in my life, my work, the weather, the national news. The writing is not intentionally graceful, and I don't spend time making it pretty or lyrical. It's what I'm thinking, how I'm feeling, what's on my mind on any given day. I write for myself, as a witness to my life and to the world at large, a journalist who reports events, a recorder of words, thoughts, feelings, impressions.
When I began the journal for 2008, I was looking forward to recording another ordinary year of ordinary days in the life of a working writer. I expected to meet contractual obligations for two novels; do some personal and professional traveling; attend a high school reunion (momentous: my fiftieth!); connect daily with family and friends over the Internet; enjoy the company of my husband, Bill Albert; and spend quiet evenings reading, knitting, watching television and films. Although I didn't think about this in any conscious way, I expected to end the year with pretty much the same intellectual baggage that I carried into it. New ideas, yes. New ideas would be nice, and perhaps some new creative energy—but certainly not a paradigm shift. Not in the last third of my life, at sixty-nine.
But that's not what happened.
For one thing, the presidential race turned out to be not just interesting, but electrifying. From my perspective (I'm on the liberal side of the political spectrum), it was the best and brightest thing that had happened in a long, long time. Other good things were very good, of course, and welcome. The writing went well; my health stayed pretty much the same; the travel went as planned; and there were no family emergencies.
The worst...well, let's just say it was a challenging year. Midway through January, I began to discover (via the Internet, then books) the potential seriousness of the energy depletion situation, something that shouldn't have surprised me, I suppose, but did. I spent the rest of the year educating myself to its consequences. Climate change was not news to me, but new scientific evidence of its acceleration (suppressed during the eight years of the Republican administration) heightened my concerns. Under the influence of several popular authors writing for a general audience, and others less widely known and more technical, I began to think more about the impact of both energy depletion and climate change on our system of industrialized agriculture, and I woke up with a start to the realization that our food system is simply not sustainable. It was time for me to refocus my gardening energies from ornamentals and herbs and begin gardening seriously, with the intention of producing more of our food. I started that project in late spring, although the extraordinary, record-breaking heat and drought of 2008 here in Texas (perhaps itself an evidence of climate change) certainly made gardening difficult.
And there was more startling news, more unwelcome realizations. In February and March, the economic threat—home foreclosures, job losses, failures in the financial sector, tightening bank credit—began to impose itself on the country's awareness. As the summer wore on, the bleak national economic situation took on global dimensions and an intensely personal shape. By late fall, Bill's and my 401Ks had dwindled by 50 percent, and local real estate values were sinking rapidly.
We were in better shape than many. Friends and acquaintances lost jobs, homes, businesses, investments. People began trying to live off their paychecks again, instead of their credit cards, and for retailers, the change was calamitous. By December, pundits had taken to calling 2008 "The Great Disruption," "The Colossal Collapse," and "The Year of the Apocalypse." Harvard economics professor Kenneth Rogoff called it "a once-in-a-hundred-years meltdown." Whatever name you give to it—personally, nationally, globally—2008 was an extraordinary year.
And yet, as my journal records them, my days are very ordinary, filled with family obligations, work, play, and life in general. Like everyone else, I lived each day as it came, met the day's requirements, and then moved on.
Both the journal and the year are set in the context of my life, and since you and I haven't met (most likely), an introduction might be in order. I was born on January 2, 1940, on the cusp of the Second World War. I spent my childhood on a farm and in small towns in Illinois, very much a 1950s rural Midwestern girlhood. I married at eighteen and embarked on a new life as a wife, then a mother (of three, born close together, in 1959, 1961, 1962), then a college student. In 1968, I moved with my husband and young children from Urbana, Illinois, to Berkeley and began graduate study. I took my first academic position at the University of Texas in 1973 and worked as a teacher and administrator (at UT, Tulane/Newcomb, and Southwest Texas State) through 1985, when I left my academic career and began to work as a full-time writer.
I married Bill Albert the next year, and we moved to what is now a thirty-one-acre homestead we call Meadow Knoll, in the Texas Hill Country, some sixty miles northwest of Austin. For more than two decades, Bill and I have shared our lives with varying numbers and breeds of dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, geese, peacocks, cows, and sheep at the end of a rutted caliche lane, surrounded by hundreds of wild acres populated by deer, coyotes, mountain lions, armadillos, possums, raccoons, squirrels, skunks, and lovely, lovely birds. I've come to think of myself as that place, as Meadow Knoll, through all its changes of context and climate. And I am still that place, and still evolving, no matter where I am, no matter what other places I may become and in which I may evolve, before and since.
Living in the country has enabled me to craft a quiet, inward-turning life in a fully wired, hyperactive, entertainment-obsessed society where, as psychologist James Hillman once remarked, anything short of manic behavior is considered depression. And it has opened a daily window on the natural world, schooling me in the habit of observing our domestic animals and the wild animals that share the fields and woodlands with us. Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place (University of Texas Press, 2009) is my celebration of that life and the learning it has brought, and many of its themes are threaded through this journal.
In the past few years, there has been less solitude. My books (I have been writing mystery fiction since 1992, juvenile fiction before then) reach more readers than they did in earlier years, which means that I must do more of the things that authors are expected to do: travel on book tours, visit libraries and bookstores, give talks, participate in social media on the Internet. I am also an active volunteer in the Story Circle Network, an organization for women writers and readers that I founded in 1997. The 2008 journal chronicles these various outreaches.
The books have also permitted Bill and me to enjoy the wonderful privilege (truly a luxury) of having a second home—we call it Coyote Lodge—in a tiny mountain community in New Mexico. Being at home in two places means that we can each have time alone, which is welcome in a marriage in which we live and work together, twenty-four-seven. The 2008 journal records my weeks at Coyote in January, August, and December.
I use my journal to record things other than my immediate life events. Like you, like all of us, I am shaped (often in more ways than I'm willing to recognize) by what happens in the world beyond me, and I'm in the habit of recording short news summaries of events that have some significance to me at the time they occur—although I can't always say exactly what that significance is until I can see a developing pattern. Years ago, I had the naïve idea that I was relatively untouched by things that happened outside my personal sphere. That probably wasn't true then; it certainly isn't true now. The world is very small: what happens in Washington or London or Baghdad or Shanghai touches me—sooner and more deeply than I expect. The news summaries track some of these events—and in 2008, there were a great many.
I'm also in the habit of making notes on my reading, and I am an incorrigible collector of quotations, with the long-standing practice of adding other people's words to my journal pages. I almost always know the name of the author, but haven't always preserved the title of the book or article. If I am currently reading the writer's work, I list the title in the month's readings—you'll find it there.
Readings. I am a text person. I write every day, read every evening, and keep an annotated reading diary. I soak myself in words, sentences, paragraphs the way some people soak in a hot bath. For years, I read nothing but fiction; now, I read mostly nonfiction—not by intention, but by interest. If I care about what I'm reading, I am an energetic, recreative reader: I make notes in margins, rewrite sentences, argue with the writer's opinions, insert quotations from related texts, annotate the bibliography. Like a bloodhound, nose to the ground, I follow developing interests, and if something catches my attention, I'm likely to follow that trail as far as it takes me, searching bibliographies and using the Internet to actively seek out related works. Looking at my 2008 readings, however, I have to say that they are much more focused than usual. Many of the issues I encountered proved to be extraordinarily compelling, and I read more deeply and more energetically and with greater attentiveness than I have in many years.
A year in which Americans discovered the possibility of a new beginning, 2008 was a time of political change, of a new and optimistic hope, of expectations raised. It was also a year in which many were confronted by the stern reality of limited, diminishing resources we once thought unlimited and infinite. As I look back now over these pages and think about the tumultuous effect of these events on my life, on our lives, on everyone's lives, I am very glad that I have this personal record of what the year meant to me. I hope that as you read these entries, you will ask yourself, "What was I doing on this day, or that? How did I feel?" And most importantly, "What did it mean?"
For me, in my own life, eternal questions. What does it mean? And what ought I do about it?
Susan Wittig Albert