I’m a messy writer. I don’t think it’s evident in published works. I juggle multiple stories/ essays, and my handwritten first drafts include scribbles, side-notes. Sketched illustrations in margins, between paragraphs, and sometimes in the middle of sentences. But the messiness really shows up in my personal time machines (yes, plural): diaries, journals.
As I tackle a nonfiction project, I’ve been digging through my time machines. There are gaps. A couple of journals succumbed to fire; floods turned a few nonsequential diaries turned into papier mache blocks. Sporadic rather than regular entries in those remaining, they chronicle trials & triumphs, questions & revelations, the state of my psyche or my hangnail. True to what I knew & thought at the times.
No clue what triggered a few entries or what they were about. (She did it again! Now in the top 10 stupidest things to come out of a grown-up’s mouth! Who was “She”? What did she say?) Others prompt vivid recalls of things left behind, forgotten. Some show what a double-life I had at times.
In a few entries, I must’ve dodged rants or interrogations from a grandparent, aunt, or uncle about why I didn’t date in high school. My reply—“They like football and cars; I like books and animals. What are we supposed to talk about?”—apparently satisfied them enough to shut up or change the subject.
Although publicly true, the double-life reason was this: I had no idea who I was or wasn’t related to in my parents’ hometown. When my folks moved back there, I’d pieced together partial genealogies, local gossip, & enough surname connections to realize that by blood or marriage I was related to at least a fifth (possibly a fourth) of that small farming community. There were already plenty of odd trials with my folks and mystifying tensions with the closest relatives. Challenging. Confounding.
Because some relatives got along like slightly civilized Hatfields & McCoys sans shotguns, and because some were considered longtime pillars of the community, the façade of everything being glitch-free was absolutely required. Cheerfully peachy amid their hostilities & meltdowns. Without a doubt, I knew I’d draw the combined wrath of known & unknown relatives down on me if I even accidentally stepped a toe out of line. I had more than enough to handle without adding to it.
Off & on entries puzzle over training a 13 y.o. terrier the Sit & Heel command. Along with feisty stubbornness hardwired in her breed’s brain, she was also, of course, too old for such adolescent nonsense. Ultimately, it was an exercise in frustration. Not until my family moved from the small town was I around anyone who could show me what to do. By then that terrier had died, but my parents got a young dog. I had a fresh chance at learning something I’d so much wanted to do.
And since my concept of journals meant everything should be written on their pages, my first short story— an attempt at a Western—was there. A Western fan in general & a Louis L’Amour fan in particular, I was sure I could work that Old West magic. Every possible cliché appeared in the story, & every one of them rode off into the sunset to die of embarrassment.
Music was another facet of double-life. Secretly, I thought most popular bubble-gum rock of the day sucked. With somewhat guilty glee, the first LPs I bought myself were Irish ballads by The Clancy Brothers & the flamenco guitar of Carlos Montoya. Played over & over, they swept me away, elated. My singing voice has always constituted audio assault, but I could brogue along with “Jug of Punch” & “O’Donnell Abou” just fine. I tried but never could master more than the opening notes of Montoya’s “Malaguena”.
Around the same time, I was discovering science fiction. I knew nothing about amputations, prosthetics, or phantom pain. Precious little about space travel beyond what I’d seen on Star Trek, The Outer Limits, & late-late night B-movie reruns (when I was supposed to be asleep). Yet another entry records a dream so haunting that, some 20+ years later, it grew into the world of my cybernetic navigators. Hindsight may be 20/20 but it can be nonetheless mystifying.
Versions of a frequent social media question appear in my newsfeed. “What advice would you give your childhood/teenage/younger you?”
Navigating a double-life, the teen me could’ve used a bit of reality check: you’ll never solve or understand all the family mysteries.
A bit of hope for a smidgen of resolution: a major puzzle piece hidden from you will come to light in 40-some years.
A bit of patience counsel: you’ll learn to train your dogs, you’ll find your genre(s), hit your stride—it just takes time.
A bit of encouragement: it’ll be okay—chin up, kiddo.
On the other hand, the last wouldn’t have been necessary. According to my time-machines, I did it anyway.