15,706 Days, and Counting

What’s in a journal? Everything.

I had to ask my assistant for help; I’ve never been good at math.

“Hey Google!” I shouted. “How many days has it been since October 12, 1978?”

She thought about it: the lights on top of her hockey-puck home were pulsating.

“It has been 15,706 days since October 12, 1978.”

On that date, I was sitting in my dorm room at the Alliance Française, 101 Boulevard Raspail, in Paris, France. I put my pen to a blank page in an empty journal, and began writing my life into existence. And I have done so every day since.

  • I wrote a journal entry on the day my dad died, suddenly, on his morning run.
  • And on the day my first son was born. The second son, too. OK, I wasn’t recovering from childbirth either time. But still, I did have other things on my mind, like where I was going to get a half million dollars to put them through college.
  • I wrote about the first time I walked into an office to begin my magazine career, and about being laid off from an editing job I had held for twenty years.
  • I wrote about the afternoon of my wedding day, when I stepped into the shower and thought I was having a stroke, because my vision suddenly became blurry. Actually, I’d just forgotten to take my glasses off.

“Hey Google! What is four hundred times 15,706?” Four hundred being my estimated words-per-day, for the last 43 years.

Pause. Pulsations.

“Four hundred times 15,706 is 6,282,400,” she said, in her Australian accent (Google home>settings>manage all assistant settings>assistant voice>Sydney Harbour Blue).

Pause. More pulsations.

“Crikey,” she follows up, mocking me from Sydney Harbour Bridge. “Are you really that self-obsessed?”

Answer #1: Of course I am! Aren’t you?

Answer #2: Self-obsession doesn’t entirely account for the six million words, however. Even I’m bored with me, at that length. But amidst the forgettable days and details, there’s a story. My story, but without an ending. And that’s as it will remain: I won’t be around to pen a few words about my own last breath, after all.

Which is weird to think about, so let me divert attention to Bruno Bettelheim, who has been thoroughly dead since 1990. The children’s head-shrinker lives on through his book The Uses of Enchantment, and its focus on fairy tales.

“The unrealistic nature of these tales,” wrote Bettelheim, “is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.”

Yes, my life is a certain kind of fairy tale, only without witches or ogres. It began, as the Sondheim musical Into the Woods did, with mostly upbeat themes and tunes. But then I wandered off into act two, during which I would have to find my own path through the gloomy pines, past the monsters.

Bettelheim, again: “Even more than at the times fairy tales were invented, it is important to provide the modern child with images of heroes who have to go out into the world all by themselves and who, although originally ignorant of the ultimate things, find secure places in the world by following their right way with deep inner confidence.”

Like, for instance, juvenile me, stepping off an airplane in Orly Airport, and making my way to the center of Paris. I was indeed launched on a quest, and I felt the need to document it, stumble by stumble.

“Stories have to be told or they die,” wrote Sue Monk Kidd, when she wasn’t chronicling The Secret Life of Bees. “And when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”

I felt that yearning to remember from the moment I realized I could do stuff worth remembering. It was kind of like that episode of The Little Rascals, when Spanky begins keeping a diary, and then starts doing crazy stuff, just to have stories to tell.

The novelist Robert Olen Butler put Spanky’s (and my) dilemma this way: “Story is a yearning meeting an obstacle.”

Oh, did Spanky and I have yearnings, and the obstacles to meet them.

“You may have a success in life, but then just think of it — what kind of life was it?” said the comparative mythology professor Joseph Campbell, who had a few things to teach me, along with his students at Sarah Lawrence College. “What good was it — you’ve never done the thing you wanted to do in all your life. I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off. The way to find out about your happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you really are happy — not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what I call ‘following your bliss’.”

I have in fact tracked exactly that, through 15,000-odd journal entries, some of them odder than others. Through it all — the yearnings, the obstacles — I have indeed found my bliss.

And — oops — lost it. Then found it again!

As I did on October 17, 1978, five days after the journal record began, and six weeks into my stay in Paris. “Ah yes!” I wrote. “This afternoon was a tremendous pleasure. I thirstily wandered over the Shakespeare & Company, for I had been nearly fourteen hours without a book to read. I came away with David Copperfield. As I left the bookstore I saw my favorite low black clouds being driven by a northwest wind, and I ran toward the Samaritaine department store to discover the city in the midst of a great storm. When I reached the terrasse on the top of the building, the full force of the rain had hit, and my umbrella nearly leapt from my hands in the wind. The city was gleaming gray in the rain, but the circular map on the observation deck was painted in sunshine colors, bearing no resemblance to the cityscape around me. I remember the people on the street — or perhaps only their umbrellas — moving in bottlenecks like the traffic, all stooped forward, burdened by wind and rain. The Seine rose with the storm, its surface chaffed into serrated waves.”

Since that time, I have actually had a career. But none of my “accomplishments” have surpassed that sensation of being lashed by wind and rain while looking out over a mythical landscape made real. Re-reading the words, I can still sense the rain on my face, feel the umbrella tugging at my hands, see Paris gleaming below me, all these years later.

There is my bliss.

“Where are the snows of yesteryear?” asks the French poet François Villon. Give me a minute, I can find them in my journal, somewhere.

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Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

Road 2 Where, Exactly? Hope you’ll join me for this picnic.