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The Distance Between our Public and Private Selves • Aine Greaney

Brett Rawson


December 21, 2015
This morning, I ate some oatmeal, drank some coffee and penned the last page of my personal journal. I flip back to the first page: June 30,  2015. Inside this bound book are almost eight months' worth of thoughts, uncertainties, musings and arguments.

I don't write in my journal every day, but on those weekday mornings when I do, when I set the alarm to get up extra early, reflective writing makes the rest of my working day happier. On the weekends, journaling acts as my transition from working me to creative me—and believe me when I tell you that the latter is the more authentic version. In fact, journaling has taught me this: The shorter the distance between our public and private selves, the happier we are. Stephen King may have been referring to an entirely different type or genre of writing, but he was really on to something when he declared that writing is about “getting happy.”  

I started keeping a journal in my teenage years while I was attending a small-town convent day school in my native Ireland. Some days, I can still shut my eyes and see myself back there, still dressed in my navy-blue school uniform, sitting inside my bedroom window, my geography and math texts pushed aside as I scribbled in an old composition notebook.

We were the first generation to benefit from a 1967 law that granted free, secondary-level (high school) education to every child in the Irish nation. So I was supposed to be grateful for that school uniform and those textbooks that had been denied my mother and my grandmother. I was grateful. Still, I recall those school days and nights as being full of square-peg-round-hole malaise and anxiety. In public, I sang with the choir in the school assembly room. In private, I wanted, desperately, to raise my own, individual voice. Journaling was the only place where this was possible. 

However, when I emigrated to America at age twenty-four, I abandoned all but one of those notebooks. I think I believed that, in my bright, new country, in a nation founded on the notion of deleted pasts and new beginnings, that that melancholy, soul-searching me was best left behind, left where it belonged.

I did bring one hard-cover notebook into which I had transcribed some of those writings from my late teens and early 20s. In the flyleaf of this little red notebook, I grandly wrote,  “Collected poems, rhymes and thoughts.” Now, when I re-read those hand-written pages, I see just how wrong I was to believe that our past has ever really passed. I am shocked at how well those “assorted rhymes” still describe the middle-aged me.

For example, here’s one of those entries that I remember writing as I sat propped against the pillows in my twin bed in my parents' house:

My books stand orderly on the shelf
Masks for that hidden self
Hoping they can quench the flame
Of numberless passions with no name.
I talk and talk; I make my stance
‘You’re such good company,’ he said.
But what would he say if, perchance
He saw me sobbing in my bed?

I find it comforting to read this unchanged part of me, this struggle between the private and public self. I like that we have certain personality traits that are in-born or immutable, and that there is, at all of our cores, a perpetual and lifelong mystery.

In the basement of my house in Massachusetts, I keep boxes of my completed journals, each one chronicling six to twelve months over the course of my twenty-nine years living here. My arrival day at JFK Airport, New York. That hot, AugustSunday when my American husband and I said, “I do” before a town judge. The day an editor wrote to say she was going to publish my first short story. I remember these. But, if it weren't for those journals,  many or most of the less auspicious occasions, the ordinary mornings or afternoons, would be gone from memory recall. For example, in the journal I just completed, on August 18, 2015, I wrote that “I am here alone, finally, and the internet has made me vain and distracted, and these two things (vain and distracted) are very connected.” I cannot remember feeling that—not without re-reading my own handwriting on that page.

Without all of these hand-written journal pages, how much of the past two seasons would I actually remember? How well could I evoke the sounds or feelings or atmosphere of one ordinary hour or afternoon in July or August or September? What summertime walks did I take? When did the cherry blossoms drop their pink? When did the marsh grasses near my house turn dry and brown with summer heat?   Now that our garden is under snow, I find it hard to close my eyes and re-see that garden when it was lush and colorful with summer perennials.

Some days, I feel as if I am on a Japanese bullet train ride through a fast-disappearing landscape, where, by the time I sit up and look out the window, everything is already gliding out of eye view.  

Then there are those days when I’m driving home from work, my head still buzzing with deadlines or with snippets of workplace conversations, and I look out my car windshield at the roadside pine trees, a flock of geese flying south through the paling sky and I think, This evening, this moment in time will never come again. So I’d better shush my mind to look---really look--around me.  How many of these afternoons are left in my life? I don’t know. None of us do.  Morbid?   I don’t think so.  These moments of mindfulness are how we hit the pause button, how we behold our own joy. When we write down those moments, when we record them in a journal, we are creating the narrative—the only half-way reliable narrative—of our precious and finite days.

Henry David Thoreau said that he traded his comfortable town home for a rustic woodland cabin because he wished to live deliberately.

At least in the abstract, some of us covet this concept of unplugging and retreating from our hectic and digitized lives. Who wouldn't like to slow down time so we can feel the heft and length of each passing hour?

But nowadays, how many of us would adapt this as a permanent and year-round lifestyle choice?  The woodland WiFi and cell phone connections would be spotty at best. And, as someone who grew up in a thatch-roof farmhouse without indoor plumbing or central heating, the discomforts and inconveniences of that bare-bones cabin life would, sooner or later, override the joy or mindfulness.

So in my cozy and well-heated writing studio I keep a set of ballpoint pens and write in my notebooks to record the ephemera of my life. Without these journals, without this writing, most of the past seven months would be gone.

This morning I closed my completed journal and crossed to my studio bookshelves to stash it there until, during one of my sudden and always overdue clean-outs, it will end up with all the others in those basement boxes. 

I know there will come a future day when I will go to the basement to search through the shelves for an old photo or a lost gadget and the journal box will call to me, as it has before.  I will open today’s completed journal at a random page and sit there under the basement’s Florescent strip light in the company of my previous self, reliving a day from 2015.  In all my past journals, I see recurring themes: the yearning for solitude;  the immigrant’s search for an existential home; and my almost lifelong struggle and vacillation between my public and private personae (as in the 1983 piece above).

When I read them, I’m also struck by how prophetic some of my past writings turn out to be.  It seems, in retrospect, that the writing knew much more than I did.  Too often, I see that I should have listened to or acted upon my own observations.

Today, I select a new book to set on my desk underneath the east-facing window of my writer’s studio.  The new blank journal sits here, empty and waiting for tomorrow.