I don’t feel guilty about leaving a journal only half finished because I believe in energy. I believe that chapters of our lives carry huge surges of energy and holding on to those surges, if only through ink and paper, may not always be the smartest thing to do. Though clearly, facing your shit may not always be the prettiest thing, sometimes you have to set it aside, walk away from it. Sometimes, journals exude the very energy you have put in them. It doesn’t mean you’ll never go back, flip through the pages, cringe….cringe harder. It just means, you need to shed some energy to create more.
Today, I changed my journal. It takes me awhile to connect with a journal. I have a whole box full of blank ones to choose from (most, beautifully enough, have been gifted to me), but the process takes some time. I don’t sit and ponder them. I grab one, carry it with me for some time and see how it”fits.” Sometimes, it doesn’t. Like the recent butterfly decorated one I used post-breakup and then post-breakup-breakup. There was a whole lot of energy in that fucker, let me tell you, and it was high time to shed that shit. So this weekend, suffering from sinus headaches and chills, I opened the box full of opportunity and decided on a wide pink faux leather one with gold lettering that reads, “Live Each Day with Grace, Love, and Laughter.” I like the brand of journal because I like the thin lines and wide pages, the way the journal lies flat when I write so I don’t have to use my other hand to keep it open or worry about metal spirals coming undone. I’ve used the brand before. I had a mint-green one that read, “Make Things Happen” in gold lettering that has begun to wear off. That’s packed away somewhere with the others. Now, the writing has to happen. I plan on collaging these essays into the journal. This is a chapter after all, is it not?
I think I own every journal I have ever written in. I keep them in their own labeled section of my writing stuff, each one dirtied from purses and handling, sparkling still with some form of embellishment as if they were jewels in a treasure box. Wait. I lied. There’s a small part of my life missing in my journals. My teenage years. I don’t have those.
I bought the journal when Columbus Circle was an open air market, before it became this shiny and marbled shopping and dining monstrosity for the privileged in the area. Okay, it’s pretty but I liked it better as an open air market and now it’s all shiny glass windows and has this aura of privilege and consumerism that stinks up the place. It took something away from that area when construction started there. It doesn’t even look like at one point, it was indeed an open air market, the one where I found that journal. I bought it at the start of my sophomore year in high school. I connected with it immediately. It looked like a heavy chapter book and it was covered in this gorgeous red fabric that reminded me of kimonos. The lines were thin and it was just so fucking pretty. I even bought a new pen, I think, just to use in it.
I wrote the first line on the very first page, “Today it has been a month since I lost my virginity.” I stopped writing and then kept going. And going. I carried that thing with me everywhere. I wrote things that really happened at school or at home. I wrote things that didn’t happen or kind of happened and made up names of characters and told stories. It was my closest confidant.
I wrote about the neighborhood boy who I had “done it” with, who I loved with such ardor it seared the pages. I wrote about the things going on in my family, a mess since we were all reeling in the grief of recent losses, about death, about my brothers getting on my nerves, Dad leaving, the anger and pain that hung from us like anchors, rooted in the same place. I wrote about Lucy, my mother’s best friend, who died in the winter I was 15, and I wrote about how when the EMTs took her out of her apartment on a stretcher, her eyes looked at me but didn’t see me. I wrote about how I ran to a friend’s house and cried raindrop tears while she stood holding her apartment door, unsure of how to comfort me. I wrote about leaving in shame and running back to my apartment building around the corner and running up the stairs to find my brother Justin, who rarely cries, his head leaning against his arm, his eyes swollen red and watery, telling me she was dead. I wrote about the yell that brought my oldest brother and his best friend up the stairs and all the neighbors heads poked out of their doors. I wrote about punching him in the chest until he gripped my wrists and yelled at me to stop. I wrote about knowing what this would do to us. To me, to Mami, to my brothers and father and to Cynthia, my best childhood friend and Lucy’s daughter. I wrote about meeting a boy, an older boy, who held me sometimes when I cried and who used closed fists on my arms and legs and didn’t care if it hurt. I wrote about my sadness because there was so much sadness around me I felt I didn’t need to give people more. I kept those secrets and stories in there.
My mother didn’t read that though. She read the first sentence. And that was that.
I can’t really tell you why I eventually threw that journal out or the others from back then. I know I felt ashamed. I know I felt disgusted with myself. I felt like an idiot. I felt like a liar. I felt I was too emotional in the pages. I threw it out in my early twenties, at a stage in my life, where money was flowing and a good time involved sky high heels and tits out and lots of drunk dancing and flirting. I was having a blast and I didn’t like the person on those pages. I thought she was weak. I thought I was better than her.
I was always her though. Sometimes, I still am.
It was the first hot night of the summer, late June, I think. I had just turned sixteen years old. I was outside with some neighbor girls from the building and we were devouring a huge bag of David sunflower seeds, spitting the shells into one huge gross pile on the sidewalk as we sat on the trunks of cars in front of the building. No one does that now. Sit on cars. We were laughing over something when I heard my mother’s whistle. It is a whistle I will never forget and a whistle that to to this day makes me turn my head when I hear it. It’s a whistle that uses the gap in her teeth, the gap I inherited, sucking in air until the sound pierces the air. I cringed. I was the youngest of the crew of girls and was always the first to have to go upstairs.
“Yeah, mami?” I looked up to our fourth floor window. It was early, the sun just set, the purple of the sky still tinged with coral. Why did she want me to go upstairs?
“Imani, come upstairs I have to talk to you.”
I stomped towards the building with my best this-is-so-fucked-up-you-never-let-me-do-anything face, eyes rolled already. When I got to our floor, she was standing by the door. That was weird. Uh-oh. What the hell did I do?
“Imani, close the door.”
I locked the door and then walked to my bedroom where my mother was waiting for me. When I see her, she is standing with all of my secrets in her hand. The red-fabric wrapped secrets I had left right on my bed, right there for her to open. She held the book up so that the light caught the red of the cover and left my face.
“So, you lost your virginity?”
“Uhhhh…ummmm….uhhhh..” I expected a smack in the face. I expected yelling. She dropped the book on the bed.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, Imani. How can you not tell me this? I’m your mother,” she said and I could see the hurt shimmering under the rage in her eyes.
“Why did you read my journal? Why?” I was crying. I was crying because I knew there was more in that journal than that first line. I knew what that journal was. Sure, I felt guilty about not sharing that I had lost my virginity with her, but I felt more guilty about what I knew was in there, what I was scared she had read. The stories of us. The stories I made up and the ones that were real. About my kind-of-sort-of boyfriend who I spent some evenings with throughout the school week instead of studying like I told her, who left bruises on my arms so my brothers wouldn’t see. The ones about Lucy. Her best friend. About that day and about Dad and about roses that never grew in the neighbor’s yard and how I wondered if that was a sign that I should have paid attention to. I knew what that would do to her.
“I thought it was stories. I thought you were writing your stories,” she said, her own tears rimming her eyes.
In hindsight, I can say that I’m sure that is exactly what she thought. I wrote chapter books in composition notebooks all throughout middle school, inspired by my avid reading of R.L. Stine. I still have some of those composition notebooks. I giggle at that girl. She was cute. Knowing this, I know that when she opened it, she did so with the intentions of sneaking a read of her daughter’s storytelling and found something real and uncomfortable to read. And in that reading, she gave me my shame. She still tells me all the time, “We both learned lessons that night, Imani.”
We argued for the rest of the night, I think. I don’t remember. I remember putting it in a drawer and not writing in a journal for months before buying a new one and writing in fourteen pages and then buying another and writing in it for fifty. I changed journals and hid them because I was hiding.
I was making sure no one would see it all in one place again.
I don’t think I am hiding anymore when I change journals so abruptly. I don’t feel shame about what I write in my journals any more though I am fiercely protective of them and will leave a relationship or end a friendship if that line is ever crossed. My journals remain my vault of deepest secrets and thoughts. But, I do lament chucking that red-fabric little nugget of teenage secrets because I could learn so much from her. I could forgive her by reading her words. I think about my mother and finding out that one secret and how I told myself for years, “At least she didn’t read the rest of it.”
Honestly, I don’t know if she did.
Now she doesn’t have to.
I stared at the page when I opened my chosen journal today and wrote in blue ink, “I’m hoping that I can use this journal for cultivating better energy, better intentions. I’m hoping there is some healing in here.”
When it comes to my journals, changing often means growing.