Some lessons never leave you.

Creative Writing is not usually a high point in one’s high school experience, and unsurprisingly it was not in mine. In fact, I believed I barely had a memory of it until I decided to wind up 2020 with a reading of my past journals…about 40 years worth. Though the teacher – Mrs. Campbell – was not mentioned by name in any journal, her creative writing assignments are likely the reason I had the journals in the first place. I was not a willing vessel, but Mrs. Campbell’s class provided me with two worthwhile lessons: The importance of proofreading, and the benefits of journaling.

I learned Lesson #1 when my first writing assignment came back with a C+ in red ink at the top. The grading policy included a zero-tolerance policy on misspellings. Even one resulted in a starting grade of C+, and the grade would decline from there based on the work’s merits. I paid little attention until the rubber met the road (or the red hit the paper). Ouch! I can practically still see the grade circled on the paper, and feel my self-righteous indignation welling up. Complaints to my parents that evening about the injustice of it all were met with no sympathy. I’d known the rules, and I should have proofread.

I thought it was stupid at the time. In truth, though, typos and misspellings are a distraction. However good a piece is, your message suffers when the reader is distracted. And on the rougher end of the spectrum, especially in business, those who would like to see your points dismissed can point to those errors as defects illustrative of the quality of your work, thoughts, or care. It may not be fair, but that’s how it goes down in the real world. So well done, Mrs. Campbell!

Lesson #2 came from an assignment to start and maintain a journal each day. The subject was undefined, but we were required to write for a minimum period of time to develop the habit. I was generally unstructured and impatient, and hated the assignment. Still, I found that when prompted by silence and the ticking of a clock, new thoughts would form, and words flowed. I’d tried to diary and journal at earlier times in my life but without “success”, or so I thought given my sporadic activity. The journaling assignment taught me that there could be value in the effort even if it wasn’t a daily event.

I took up journaling after the class continued, and kept journals through most of my years. Over the years, I’ve had mixed feelings about the journals. Near the 2020 holiday season, months after completing some estate planning, I began to wonder what would happen to the journals when my time expired. Would others read them? What would they find, how would they feel? If that wasn’t okay with me, should I just destroy them? If I did, would I live to regret it when I was old and wanting to remember the good…enough to read the bad?

Those questions became a challenge as I wondered whether I myself would ever be brave enough to read the journals. Serendipitously, a quote I’d cut out and placed on a memento board many years ago helped me out. It is the only quote on the sparsely populated board, and as it caught my eye it begged the question of whether there were small boldnesses hiding in those books, should I have the courage to look.

“In the cellars of the night, when the mind starts moving around old trunks of bad times, the pain of this and the shame of that, the memory of a small boldness is a hand to hold.”

John Leonard, Private Lives (1977) https://www.nytimes.com/1977/02/02/archives/private-lives.html

So I breathed deep, called up my strength, and spent the last months of 2020 reading those journals and their witness to 40 years worth of experiences. I approached with trepidation, opening each to the first and last passages to put them in chronological order. Even peeking that much caught my breath. As I touched the covers and bindings, felt the textures of paper and saw the colors of pages and scripts written, memories flooded in. I remembered squirreling them away at a friend’s house during a divorce when I worried their sanctity could be violated. It was good to have a friend I trusted enough to take the heavy box and store it knowing curiosity would not get the upper hand.

As I found gaps in dates, I remembered I’d stopped writing at some periods. In some cases I was having too much fun to stop and write, and at others the weight was too heavy to shift onto the page. Sadly, I’d failed to capture the development of the greatest romance of my life, for the former reason. I resumed writing at some point, but wished I’d done so sooner. I broke with it again as my children grew. I didn’t feel free to express myself knowing that at some point my boys might read Mom’s journals and see me in a different way. And if I’m honest with myself, I think maybe it was hard for me to bridge the person I was becoming with the person I had been.

Despite the strength it took to even begin reading, once I did, it was a true page-turner. Seeing yourself in your younger years, knowing how the story being told at any time actually turns out, knowing how you grew as time passed – it was all such a gift.

I could literally see the quality of my writing and the depth of thoughts change during the months I spent in Paris during a college semester abroad. Almost instantly the experience of being in another country, of being a fish in new water, an outsider instantly recognized as such by the locals, transformed me by years. Even the parts of the story I hadn’t written about flooded back to me as I relived that time through written words. I remembered how much I hoped to look like I belonged. My hair was styled in the latest French fashion at a high-end Paris salon; I dressed in clothing bought locally from head to toe – even down to the shoes and winter coat; I smoked French cigarettes and wore French perfume and used French toiletries. Even without opening my mouth, locals would walk up to me and begin speaking English. They could spot me as an American a mile away.

And I remembered that it was a round trip problem. When I came back to the states and rejoined my college, I no longer felt like I quite fit in there, either. Still, I was glad to be home. And my journal bore witness to my delayed flight home and my literal kissing-of-the-ground in the good ol’ USA upon deplaning.

Those journals brought back beautiful memories of everyday blessings that I’d failed to remember on my own. At parts I steeled myself, bracing for times and events I knew had been so hard. But I found that, though I wanted to hug the girl in those stories, I read them as a different woman seasoned by time and experience, stronger for the paths trod and choices made between then and now. It was comforting and healing seeing them from the other side, knowing I had made it through mostly better for the wear and that these events shaped the person I am today.

One of my journals began with entries that were simply excerpts of songs, poems, and other published works, as if my own words were insufficient to convey my thoughts and feelings. It included a quote I’ve considered many times over the years. It seemed oddly appropriate both to life and to this reading adventure.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot Little Gidding http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html

When I’d finished reading all of the journals, I had gained a new inner peace believing that my life was surely at least half over, but that it had been a life well spent. I mused about what the next half would bring, as if having reached the top of a mountain, I surveyed the descent before me understanding it better than I had on the way up. Indeed I knew the place for the first time.

I was reminded of Mrs. Campbell today. I told my now high-school-age son that something was serendipitous. He said I use that word a lot. I remembered the first time I’d heard it was in connection with a compendium of pieces from various students that Mrs. Campbell called “Serendipity”. She seemed delighted by the word. I do not recall what my contribution may have been. I do remember thinking in my then salty-as-a-sailor voice, “What the F—— is Serendipity”? Maybe serendipity is best seen from the perspective of an age and experience I didn’t have when I’d heard the word the first time. Certainly from where I am now, I can see that Mrs. Campbell’s assignments turned out to be serendipitous for me.

A drop of water in an endless sea is okay by me.

I’m a sucker for traditionally classical instruments in rock songs. Metallica’s “No Leaf Clover” played with a full symphony is probably my favorite example, but it’s not alone. This week I was transported by one of those songs, back to days long before I could put words to such preference. A song can do that. Take you back to a place and a time, the feeling of sun on your face, a breeze through a half-open car window, smelling like something close to home. You see the half-constructed jug-handle turn near the newly-built Pizza Hut…when Pan Pizza was a new thing. Your eyes stop seeing what’s in front of you for a second, a moment from years past so close you might be there now.

That’s what happened when “Dust in the Wind” – the original Kansas version – shuffled up in my playlist this week. I’ve heard it plenty of times, but in this second my eyes glazed and I was a 10-year-old in the back seat of my parent’s car. I was telling my mom how beautiful I thought this song was. The premise made sense to me, and the violin lifted my soul. She disagreed, the thought of our mortality being horrifying. But I liked everything about the song.

I close my eyes
Only for a moment, and the moment’s gone
All my dreams
Pass before my eyes, a curiosity

Dust in the wind
All they are is dust in the wind

Same old song
Just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do
Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see

Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind

Now, decades later, I can understand how a mom might not appreciate the thought of us being mere dust in the wind with quite as much relish as her 10-year-old. But when I heard it this week, a different line grabbed me, and for a different reason. “Just a drop of water in an endless sea.”

You see, just before the song played, I’d gotten a notification that a high school friend had accepted an old Facebook invitation I’d sent. I felt instant joy at the memory of her smiling face, and felt we were connected again despite years of being out of touch. We had gotten to know each other in classes in high school, and connected only briefly after graduation. A few letters and calls here and there. Even during high school we’d seen each other mostly during school days. But seeing that Facebook notification I thought how much better my high school years had been having had Deb in them.

I mouthed a “thank you”, grateful for her bubbly personality, and the many laughs we’d shared. Some were predictable – like when she would arrive at the cafeteria and ask me if I’d remembered that we had a vocab quiz in English in about 25 minutes. I’d always forgotten, and would frantically grab the word list just in time, thanks to her. I can still hear her saying, “Dohhnnnaaaa, not again?!” It’s beautifully ironic that I became an English major in college, but that’s probably thanks to Deb, as well. Those reminders helped me place out of entry level English classes in my first college year. I’d replaced them with a literature class I loved so much. It inspired me to switch majors. The choice served me well.

Perhaps we are just drops of water in an endless sea. But each drop ripples, and our effects on those we touch are significant. If our voices and actions reverberate and resound, I’m glad the sea is endless. It just means our impact is that much greater.

While I still love the violin solo, the music, and the vocals of “Dust in the Wind”, I now disagree with most of its other lyrics. It’s not that they are horrible to think of, but that I no longer believe in their truth. I’m lucky enough to have crossed paths with so many who impact other people and our world in positive ways. Buildings we build may crumble, but the good we do for others remains. We are not specs of dust. We are remarkable. We are drops of water, water we all desperately need.