How Journaling Propels Me Forward

Every morning, after rising and making coffee, I sit on my couch with a 6" x 8" spiral notebook and a Pilot Razor Point Extra Fine pen. For at least a half hour, I record a diary of what I did the day before, dreams and nightmares, wounds and applause, plus tasks due that day. As of this writing, I'm up to page 10,380.

            While that number may sound impressive, it doesn't travel far enough back. I wish the innocent little girl I once was would've grabbed pen and paper as soon as she learned to print. If I had started then, writing my memoir, "The Division Street Princess," might have required less tunneling. To fill in, I had to rely on microfiche pages of Chicago newspapers, tales told by relatives, memories that had been bolted to my brain, and my imagination.

            For my second book, a slight e-novel called "She's Not The Type,"  I had some journal pages, but not the guts. The first half of that book is a roman e clef, somewhat based on my first marriage -- our secret romance, wedding, birth and upbringing of two daughters, and our eventual somber divorce after 30 years. The second half is pure fiction -- a wistful dream where the protagonist becomes a journalist and her mother, rather than dying young while in a pathetic second marriage, moves to Hawaii and finds true love.

            In this current period of my life, with my morning journaling as sacred as a religious rite, I also read a page taken from past years. I do this because I want to learn my patterns -- worries that never came to pass, prophetic musings, and other buried gold.

            Recently, I've been in 2012, reliving my husband Tommy's last weeks. Although my heart beats as I read about the emergency room visit when he became dehydrated, the astonishing discovery that it was throat cancer rather than dementia blocking his ability to swallow, ten harrowing days at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and twelve at home in hospice, the most surprising take-away was my eerie calm.

            When I discussed this odd composure with others who had experienced similar journeys, one friend said, "You did what you had to do." I'll accept that, but I have another theory: Because of my daily journaling and the The Rookie Caregiver blog I was writing at the time, I had been able to release most of the shadows, fear, and grief.

            Remarkably, on the entry I wrote November 4, 2012, just two days after Tommy died, I wrote: Plan to start post for TRC about his death. Then, keep up until I have enough pages for a book. After that, get a fee for editing and self-publishing, do a cloud fundraising, and try to get book completed by May 2013. Goal.

            I'm a year late, but thanks to 112 backers on a Kickstarter campaign, it is happening.  She Writes Press will publish "Green Nails and Other Acts of Rebellion: Life After Loss" September 2014.

            It turns out it's not only starry-eyed goals that plump my journals, but other musings that bear repeating. On November 9, 2012, one week after Tommy's death, I wrote: Bank turned me down for a Home Equity Line of Credit, not enough income. Not surprised. Think I will eventually sell as house is way too big for one person & do I want hassle of roommates or borders? May be better for me to rent new apt. that can make my life easier and not have to depend on others. All options open.

            Those words turned into several posts on The Rookie Widow - a prophecy that took less time to accomplish than my third book. In a little over five months, I was settled into my new River North apartment.

            Because I'm tech savvy, it's surprising I've resisted typing my daily words into a computer. But for me, there's something about pen and paper that better stirs my brain and soul.  I'm grateful to journaling for buffing my writing voice, while also serving as memory chip, repository, therapist, best friend, cheerleader, and crystal ball. And coupled with that first cup of coffee in the morning -- for this writer, it has been the most nourishing way to start a new day.


Ink Fades; Memories Linger


I glanced at the biceps on my left arm to follow the pointing hand of a trainer at my health club.

"Oh, you mean my tattoo?"

"Yeah, what does it say?"

I stretched my neck and pulled my arm closer to read it for him. But as I searched for the words, I made an unhappy discovery. "It's faded," I said. How had I not noticed that before?

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," I said, "it was inked 15 years ago, for my 60th birthday."

"Wow," he said. Was he doing the math to get my current age, or stuck at wondering why a 60-year-old would've considered her first-time tattoo back then?

Our chat inspired me to cut my exercise routine and revisit the occasion of my tattoo. I stretched out on a bench and it all came back:

When that 60th birthday was nearing, friends and loved ones queried: How do you plan to celebrate? Expecting news of a gala party, European trip, or expensive jewelry, they learned instead: “I’m getting a tattoo.”  

 “Are you nuts?” my brother Ron had asked. “When I was in the army, any woman with a tattoo was considered a hooker.”

My husband, Tommy, whom I had wed a mere seven month's earlier, offered a gentler response: “It’s not my arm, but if that’s what you want, go ahead.” Even in that short wedlock, it's likely my spouse realized his wife could be unpredictable and not easily dissuaded.

Daughters’ Faith and Jill -- a musician and writer -- pronounced the plan “terrific.”

The next question was: “Why?” To me, achieving age 60 was a chance to thumb my nose at society, a don’t-give-a-damn-what-anyone-thinks time to stray from conformity. So there’ll be critics; who cares? After many in my age group have endured the collapse of a long marriage, kids who grow up and leave, and loved ones who die too soon, we get our priorities straight, and a barb tossed our way is harmless.

Deciding on a design was difficult, considering it would be my companion till dust do us part.  Because my marriage was so fresh, I decided not to jinx it with Tommy's name splayed on my arm. I settled on a tattoo with a heart that would contain two banners, each bearing a daughter’s name. And it would be joyful, a tribute to my talented daughters, honoring them for our solid relationship and their own free spirits.

Finding my tattoo artist was easier. From referrals, I settled on Jon. “It must be fun, carnival-like,” I instructed, “with symbols of my daughters’ personalities.” He quickly sketched a chubby heart, musical notes, rays of sun, and roses emanating from all sides. Across the center were two banners: Faith, the eldest, on the upper, Jill, 18 months younger, the lower.

The second appointment produced the finished product on translucent paper: my puffy heart in psychedelic colors of crimson, yellow, turquoise, and emerald with my daughters’ names emblazoned on its front.

After two hours, the tattoo was complete. I stared into the mirror, praying for satisfaction, and saw my badge of courage: a 4-3/4 inch wide by 3-inch high, wildly colored tattoo, with my cherished daughters forever engraved on my arm. 

"Keep it covered until morning," Jon said as he protected it with Saran Wrap™.  

At home that afternoon Tommy was eager to view the results, but I pleaded, “Wait till morning,” preferring to keep my raw portrait protected in its plastic bunting.

I couldn’t sleep at all that night. Visions of regrets, onlookers’ gasps, and lifelong pain prohibited repose. I prayed for the hours to race by. In the morning, I ran to the bathroom, and was ecstatic to find my gorgeous tattoo intact. It was bright, fun, and, well, tough!

Today, with Tommy gone, but still brighter in my memory than my fading tattoo, I recall his response: "I love it!" he had said. "It's sexy."

Rather than refreshing the ink on my 15-year-old tattoo, as I first considered, I think I'll leave it as is. Somehow, the soft colors seem more appropriate to a widow. But, who knows how I'll feel at 80; perhaps a brand new one?

Note: This essay is part of my new memoir, "Green Nails And Other Acts of Rebellion: Life After Loss," which is to be published September 2014. To join the book's crowd-funding campaign, please click on Elaine Soloway's Kickstarter Campaign. Thanks!