It’s a cliche to say that life is a journey. But it is. Sometimes the way ahead is straight and clear and well-traveled–plenty of mile markers and traffic signs. Sometimes we reach an intersection and we don’t know which road to take. And sometimes (like right now, for instance) the road just seems to disappear. If you feel that way, I understand. It happened to me.
For twenty years, I had been on one road, until I reached an intersection between my academic career and—what? I didn’t know. I had taken a year’s unpaid leave of absence from my university faculty position and had to decide whether to return. The week before my decision was due, I went camping alone in the Great Smoky Mountains. It was early November and the park was empty, the campgrounds closed to all but primitive camping, the water and electricity turned off in the restrooms. The afternoon air was chilly, the evening air, cold. The sun, when it shone, was a pale, water-color silver in a sky brushed with haze. I pitched my small tent in a deserted campground and watched autumn die into winter.
As I watched, I wrote in my journal about the distance I had traveled: from graduate school through the teaching years, the administrative appointments, the pushing, striving, achieving in what was then still a man’s profession. I had taken a leave because I had the feeling that it might be time to end that part of the journey. But was I ready to give up the exhileration of career success, the challenge of juggling dozens of tasks successfully, the reliable paychecks? If recognition and promotion no longer motivated me, what did? And practically: if I didn’t teach, how would I make a living? As I wrote in my journal, the questions became clearer and more stark. What lay ahead? A cold time, a desolate time, without the stimulation of work and career? A time of being lost, with no road map to any destination I could manage?
Unable to look ahead, I could only look around. At a brown squirrel eating an acorn as jauntily as a small boy enjoying corn on the cob. At a fat black bear stuffing berries into his mouth with both paws while I admired him from the safety of my car. At brown corduroy leaves, pewter-colored skies, the glaze of stream-spray on a granite rock. I wrote all this in my journal. I wrote about the world around me and the world inside me. I wrote about my fears, about being lost with no maps in an unknown territory. I wrote it so I would never forget how it felt to be lost.
And as I sat in the doorway of my tent, writing and watching the mountain ready itself for winter, I became aware that my own rhythms were changing. I was here in these mountains because I had arrived at a point in my journey when it was time to mark time, not spend it. When it was time to do one thing with attention—watch a squirrel, follow the fall of a leaf—rather than everything at once. What I saw around me—a withdrawal of energies, a turning from the bright exuberance of summer to the darker solitude of winter—was also inside me, and what was inside me was everywhere around me.
The next morning, I woke to the first snowfall, a blanket of unblemished brilliance covering the browns and grays, the fallen leaves, the skeletal trees. I started s fire and brewed coffee in my blue enamel pot. It was time to leave the mountains and go home. But the I who returned to Texas was not the I who had left. It had been that kind of a journey.
We are ordinary people, living through an extraordinary time. Each of us, individually and all of us, all together–we have reached an intersection. The world ahead of us is not the world we have left behind. What you are doing this month, this week, today, has never been done before. Staying home to keep yourself and your community healthy. Closing your business because the governor said you had to. Working from home because your employer closed the office. Keeping the kids home from school because there is no school. Separating yourself from friends and family but trying to stay connected via the internet, which may be more fragile than we like to think. It’s all new. New and different and frightening. It’s time to look around. And inside.
So at this remarkable intersection we have reached together, here is my suggestion to you. Find a journal you like to write in and a pen that fits your hand–or open a file on your computer. Open a page, look around, and write about what you see. Your home, a stack of books or a pile of laundry, a street or a green space, the clan you’re sharing your home with, or an animal companion. Write it down. Write what you did today and what you’ll do tomorrow. Write how you feel about it–hate it, love it, fear it, embrace it. Write how you’d like to change it, or keep it that way forever. It’s never been written before, not the way you’re writing it.
And as you write, remember this. What you’re writing is your story of an utterly unique and bewildering time for all of us. But it’s also our story, because we’re all in it together. Write it. Write it down, write it now, so you won’t forget.
P.S.You can find other thoughts about journaling and story making in Writing From Life. All of the proceeds from this book go directly to the Story Circle Network, a nonprofit support network for women who write about their lives and the lives of other women.
I am English but living in San Antonio, Texas to be near family. Your books about Beatrix Potter and the Lake District have been helping me keep in touch with things English and your descriptions of the countryside make my occasional home-sickness go away as I can so imagine the areas you write about. I do hope you’ll find the energy to write more about the amazing Beatrix Potter!
Thank you so much. Especially during these trying times. I’m in the “Stay-Home-Work – Safe” order in Houston and have been immersing myself in your books. What lovely “escapes” when the world is falling apart. AND I continue to journal. Thank you
I’m in the midst of yet another career change at 60. It’s freeing but also scary, and one of the new jobs is on hold because of the virus. It’s also time to finish up the books I write–some non-fiction, some mysteries, some other genres– which have been hiding on floppy disks or in boxes that have followed me all over Oregon and Arizona.
Thank you, Susan. Your beautiful writing gives us hope and peace. God bless. May you and yours stay well.
Thank you, very well said.
Thank you for this post and inspiring so many of us. I will start journaling again. Wonderful idea! Stay safe and well everyone.
What a wonderful read…wish I could write like that. I have enjoyed your China series these many years and look forward to reading the next one. I think I’ll start that journaling now in light of what’s going on in our world. From one Susan to another…thank you!
Thank you so much for your healing words. This time makes me think of the Darling Dahlias and how they survived and thrived overcoming much greater challenges that ours today. Thank you for being with us in this together. It means a lot. Hope you and yours are well!
Thank you so much for sharing. I have journaled for years – especially healing when my precious husband passed. I journaled things my granddaughter said when she was so young and innocent – re-reading those notes brings a smile to my face and my heart – and what fun to share those childhood sayings with her now that she is 1 month away from 18. Precious Memories!!!!
Thank you Susan. You write beautifully as always and you have expressed some of my feelings. This world is changing so quickly right now and it is sad to leave our old world behind. I have hope that our new world will be at least as good or maybe even better. Please take good care of yourself and stay safe and healthy. Everyone please stay safe and healthy.
Thank you! I still read China’s Book of Days every night and it is never boring because of repetition. Edie
I’m 75 and just started journaling last year when we had to leave our home of 42 years and move to an Over55 development which I do love. I started with a Max Lucado devotional/journal. Last December while looking for a gift for a friend I came across a devotional/journal recreated from a 100-year-old devotional with most of the original daily postings. It has become a wonderful read/writing journal.
Re-reading your books is helping me
What a very helpful, beautifully expressed perspective you share with us – a big hug of gratitude i send you Susan!
beautiful piece Susan, as usual. I have three journals – regular every-day thoughts, a gratitude journal and a prayer journal. After reading your thoughts, I’m going to be more regular with my every-day one. You’ve given me inspiration. Thank you!
Thank you for your encouraging words. I am blessed each time I read your writings. I have found writing down my thoughts very helpful. I will do so again today.
Thank you so much for writing as it’s such good advice for now, but also for any time at all. I love your books and have read so many. I’ll begin writing more often in my journal. Hoping our Great State of Texas can remain healthy.
I feel now as you did then. I have left the condo and the friends I had when I lived there with my husband who is now deceased and just before the coronavirus hit I moved into a place where there is independent living in your own apartment but among others who also live there. I have a former fellow teacher friend who also lives here and saw she was quite content and hope I will be,but I can see it will take some getting used to . I am away from a chance of becoming infected, I am warm, well fed or can cook for myself if I want to and have around me people of my own age group who have lived in this city for most of their lives as I have, and two of three daughters who live close by so I should consider myself much luckier than many people at my age and stage of life, but one can’t help missing what one had up till now.
I write this now to share with others who may perhaps be in a similar situation. There are probably a lot of us, and we must befriend new friends now as we go on. And read every one of your books Susan as they come out, you too are a connection with our pasts. And the library here has all your books up til now. I bet they would also enjoy getting copies of the ones you and Bill wrote together years ago. The address is Ohio Living Llanfair, Larchwood Library Cincinnati,Ohio., should this be possible. Best wishes for happy days in Texas!
A beautiful piece of writing—and sage advice. This is a time when future generations will ask us—“What was it like? What did you do? What did you think?” We’re witnesses to something new—now, and to whatever is birthed out of it.
I started writing 4 weeks ago and started stocking up my house….have been in isolation for 8 full days and will be going out to get curbside orders later….we must all stay safe because these are times like we have never known before….love to all
Thank you, I will write about today, tomorrow, etc