Samara O'Shea


In the Beginning

In the beginning was the Word. . .
—John 1:1

I think we all know or know someone who knows that person—the person who keeps a daily, very meticulous diary. They end each day with a cup of tea or perhaps a scotch on the rocks. They sit in a large velvet armchair and pull out a black leather hardcover journal with their name imprinted on it—very Masterpiece Theatre. Then with a majestic black fountain pen poised over a blank page, they relax and write. They record the day’s events in the order that they happened, and they do this devotedly each night before bed.

I don’t mean to criticize daily diarists. I envy them—I wish I had that sort of self-discipline, and I also wish I could drink straight scotch. However, it’s the knowledge of this methodical type of journaling that often prevents the rest of us from even attempting to keep a journal. I tried to start several journals as an adolescent and I would get so frustrated with myself if I (1) didn’t write every day and (2) left out anything that happened during the day. None of these journals ever got off the ground. I finally got the journal thing going when I took both of those pressures off myself. I changed the rules: Write when you want and write what ever you want. I was fifteen at the time, and I now have eleven journals to show for lifting that lid of ridiculous expectation off myself.

A journal is one of the only places where no one can judge you, and it should also be a place where you are not judging yourself. It’s difficult to do that when you’re already criticizing yourself for falling short of the process, so I invite you to dismiss everything you think a journal should be from your mind. Your journal is an extension of you, and therefore it can be what ever you want it to be. You can write every day or once a year. It can be a place to write one word to describe a feeling or event, a place where you emote in endless paragraphs without any punctuation, a place where you write upside down and backward, a place where you start your own language. Whether it’s all of the above or none of the above, the purpose of your journal is to serve as a mirror for your mind. You are your own universe. Your mind is vast, and even you can’t know of all the passions, insights, fears, and troubles that dwell within. A journal is an effective way to peel back the fleshy onion layers and get to the center of yourself—bear in mind that there can be tears involved when handling an onion. You may be thinking, But I’m not a writer! If you’re a thinker, then you’re a writer, for writing is simply thoughts making their way to paper. Don’t be self-conscious about your style or your approach. Remember, the point of the journal is to temporarily eliminate self-consciousness. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or the morality factor of your words and deeds. Put what ever is swirling around in the back of your brain on the page and see what it looks like. Or don’t. Maybe you’ll write it and throw it away immediately. But if a thought is begging to breath the fresh air, then it’s best to open the door and let it out. I have watched my thoughts—some mundane, others vibrant and strange—make their way to paper countless times and in a variety of ways. My journal has been the looking glass I’ve held up to myself on numerous occasions; some days I like the reflection and other days I am certain that a more hideous, uninteresting ogre has never existed. My diary has helped me gain an understanding of who I am, what I want out of life, and how to apply superglue when things don’t go my way. I put forth the disclaimer that life is an onward, upward climb and I am far from knowing everything—even about myself. I have learned, however, that life may not be about knowing everything, but it is about taking the limited knowledge and experience that we have and making that work for us. It’s being able to live our lives in such a way that we don’t feel we’re missing out on anything and also being able to stand still and strong in the middle of unexpected storms. I gladly share with you the methods of my journal madness. Please know that everything I offer is a suggestion, and that there is no right or wrong way to keep a journal.

The First Page
I’ve always felt a pressure to be profound on the first page of a new journal. I won’t say that I always achieve profundity, but I do try. Since there is no obvious outside source creating this pressure, I imagine it’s one I put on myself: Say something smart to look back on later! I prefer to think it’s nothing like that, but more like the beginning of anything. A new year. A new job. A new relationship. All of these, essentially, are the start of new seasons in our lives, and we want them to be as fresh as clean linens drying in the path of a friendly breeze. So we show off a bit in the beginning—doing everything as diligently as possible. Going to the gym every day, showing up a half hour early for work, or tending to a new lover as if he or she were royalty. In the same vein, we start our journals off on a semi- philosophical note, or at least we acknowledge the fresh start we feel we’re making with our words and the act of journaling itself. There is also the possibility that “that future person,” as my mother refers to the unknown individual who might read through all of one’s journals someday, is putting the pressure on me from a date that has yet to come. Most of us can’t help but think it’s possible that a curious passerby will someday indulge in our journals (in my mother’s case, that person will mostly likely be me). This idea thrills many, while others wouldn’t mind only as long as they were dead, and still others are horrified at the thought and would burn their journals before they allowed them to fall into wayward hands. I clearly don’t mind opening my journal for outside eyes to see, and the reason is that, in a way, I am dead. Well, I’m not dead, but these written versions of me are. They came (I’m glad they did), had their great moments, made their great mistakes, and went away. All that’s left of them now are these journal entries and plenty of bad photos. In some cases, I have things in common with the girls who wrote these entries, while in others, I don’t identify at all.

Not everyone suffers from “first-page pressure”; my mother had no idea what I was talking about when I asked her if she’d ever felt it. She says she just picks up a new journal and starts where she left off with the old one. Alas, I do suffer from it, and just as New Year’s resolutions slip away, a new job becomes routine, and relationships hit a brick wall of banality, I eventually stop writing my journal for that future person and write just for me.

My handwriting eventually starts to slip as well. Yet with every new blank book I purchase, I circle back and enjoy a fresh start all over again. The following are a few of my first- page entries from over the years. I realized as I put them side by side (a notably odd experience) that most of them were written for that future person. In almost all of them, I felt the need to state my age (as if I couldn’t figure it out by the date) or declare something I’m sure I thought was wise at the time. There is a different event driving each entry—a fear I had to have my life together the day I graduated college, the death of my grandmom, an early inclination toward love—but for the most part, a “new beginning” or “here’s where my life is” theme permeates.

At Sixteen
November 10, 1995
I’ve never suffered from apathy. My problem is that my emotions are too strong and uncontrollable. I’m sixteen years old but I feel about eight. The world around me is foreign and I’ll never understand it. People and their actions are so weird. At this point in time I do in fact have a boyfriend. The best part is I actually like him. I’m not yet completely infatuated but I hope that’ll change. He’s unlike anyone I’ve ever been attracted to before. He’s smart enough to be an honor student but he settles for second best. He’s an excellent artist (I have this thing for artists). He’s a Christian but in a different way. Revelation is his favorite book [in the Bible] and he analyzes every detail. He’s done every drug except for crack and heroin. That excites me so much because I know I’ll never do any drug so he’s my link to an unknown world. He’s been clean for three months now. I want to know what goes on in his head. I pray the Lord’s hand will be upon this relationship and everything will work out.

At Nineteen
March 27, 1999
I adore the smell of a blank book—so many stories waiting for their turn to be written. I’ve started at least six journals in my life and each time I do I feel the same array of sickening emotions. Will my words ever matter to others? Will I ever be an accomplished individual? My 2nd year of college but first year at Duquesne is closing in on me. I enjoy the warm weather immensely but the warmer it becomes the more I fear. Because that means graduation is upon us. Well, upon the seniors. I’ve met a handful of seniors this year and I know some will go, never to be seen again by me. I fear good-byes and life is filled with constant good-byes. Once the seniors have left then that leaves me with only two years to get my life together. All these thoughts make me anxious and my passions stir as if in a baker’s vat. I am hoping to compose myself and live out the remainder of the semester with attractive dignity. I have gotten myself into a great deal of trouble this semester. Trouble with boys and feelings. But I suppose this is normal for a naïve college girl. I hope to take these troubles and turn them into lessons. I hope to take these lessons and live an optimistic but aware lifestyle. I hope to discern myself with the beauty of kindness, language, and human passions. I let go of 16 faster than I should have. I’m determined to hold on to 19, but I’m not sure how. Can I make the days last longer than they do? Can I wrap minutes around me like a homemade quilt? Can I leave a lasting impression on those I meet? Can I allow them to make a lasting impression on me?

At Twenty-one
January 20, 2001
This inclination is strong.* As strong as the wind waking up the ocean water. It hasn’t been this strong in almost a year. My God! A Year! Another year has gone by, and at the anxious age of 21 I’m starting to feel the years. The years haven’t gotten to me yet, but I feel them nonetheless. Perhaps it was my grandmom who whispered to me that I couldn’t stop writing. I don’t remember her saying anything of the sort but perhaps she did. I saw her to night. I saw her for what may very well be the last time. At the wrinkled age of 86 she is the victim of a very aggressive liver cancer. Looking at her today was strange. She was tethered in 1,000 tubes and her soft, toothless mouth could barely bring thought to the surface. I kept thinking, “All human things are subject to decay.”** Not the most respectful thought, I know. But I thanked her for taking such good care of me. She took my hand and raised it to her raisin- wrinkled mouth and kissed it. Probably the nicest moment we’ve shared in years. I tried to cry softly enough so she couldn’t tell. Then I told her how proud I was and how in love with her I was. Now, I hope to hold that moment close. Forever.

January 21, 2001
[This is actually a second- page entry, but it captures the fascination that sometimes comes with a new journal.]
A new journal requires the same mindless yet constant passion of a new lover. It’s my guess that I’ll pull this little darling out every 3 hours for the next two weeks. Well, maybe not, but I’ll think about it.

At Twenty-four
December 1, 2003
Fascinating, beautiful blank pages, I have come to fill you! I finished my last journal yesterday and was anxious to begin a new one even then. Today—after a fun lunch with Zazel and Lisa—I stopped by the church to pick up a pie I bought from the boys’ choir. The sky was a gorgeous gray and the wind was in upheaval. My hair must have looked like the snakes of Medusa as it twirled about, and I couldn’t seem to situate myself, the pie box, and my purse into adequate walking positions. I made it to the corner of 17th and Irving when my thoughts set sail. I thought of Tyler and the ways in which he’s elated me and I had given myself an assignment yesterday—to record with utmost accuracy the dealings involved when falling in love. I can say with a buttery tingle in my stomach that I am going to fall in love with Tyler. If he doesn’t push me away and interrupt the procedure then I’m his. I adore him with a childish fervor. There is unprecedented plea sure in sex with him and riding beside him in the car. Getting to know him is sweet and savory. He is both a precious memory and a current issue. I can feel it coming and I want to document the fall. From leap to plunge or push to plunge. I want to write all of it. Anyway, I decided this on the corner of 17th and Irving so I went right to Barnes & Noble to purchase this journal. I wanted to begin. I want to define the “you just know” feeling. My first find is comfort. In Tyler’s presence I am nervous but the comfort rises and I know through his tender gestures I can relax.

FYI: Unfortunately, he does interrupt the process (stupid boy!). In my very next journal entry (December 3), I lament that I hadn’t heard from him in two days. By December 14, my heart was good and broken. For the continuing saga, see Chapter 3, “Hearts that Hurt,” on page 32.

At Twenty-five
September 24, 2004
My sweet Elise gave me this journal today so that I could begin my 25th year armed with a pen and a book in which to tell my story. New beginnings never get old. I’ve had a wonderful week celebrating my birthday with friends. I am now in Penn Station waiting for my darling cousin Kate so that we may go home and have one final celebration with my family. The fall equinox came as scheduled and brought with her the velvet weather. The sounds and smells of a new season. A new beginning.

* I’m talking about the inclination to write.

**This is the opening line from a John Dryden (1621–1700) poem entitled “Mac Flecknoe”: “All human things are subject to decay, / And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey.”