Monday, July 11, 2011

The Journal Keeper by Phyllis Theroux

I borrowed The Journal Keeper: a Memoir (Atlantic Monthly, 2010) by Phyllis Theroux from the library, but halfway through it I knew I better order my own copy; there were just too many passages worth keeping. In other words, this is a book of uncommon substance, rich and thought-provoking. The author is very much a reader and thinker, peppering her memoir with brief excerpts from a wide range of writers. Theroux skillfully relates their wisdom to whatever is going on in her life. She dips into Ralph Waldo Emerson, Karen Armstrong, Lao-Tzu, Eckhart Tolle and Gary Zukav, to name a few.

Theroux is a journalist, novelist and creative writing teacher based in Ashland, Virginia. To hear her tell it, Ashland is a small town laced with colorful characters and charmed views. But it doesn't much matter where Theroux lives because wherever she goes, her writer's eye for detail paints a vibrant picture. During the course of the five years presented here, Theroux loses her mother, who she had been lovingly sharing her house with. Suddenly, the writer is alone. Her three children are grown and gone. Matters of mortality, aging, independence, home maintenance, faith, finance, love and family are given careful consideration.

In Theroux's contemplative search for what matters most, her journal is the perfect stomping ground. As per Ralph Waldo Emerson, "There is guidance for each of us and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word." Such "lowly listening" is presented as her own inner voice, the one she searches out so carefully. And here is her angle on the process of keeping journal that I most loved: that journals are a place "to collect the light" and can function as a personal cheering section. Journals can also be a ragbag of impressions, later laid out into a beautifully embellished quilt, and that indeed, is what I found in Theroux's insightful book.

Here is one passage that exemplifies her substantial way with words:
Yesterday was a perfect summer day. All the earth was perfectly moist, the weeds came up easily, the grass glistened, and I spent nearly all day outside planting flowers, pulling up lamb's-quarter, and reclaiming the garden. It is beginning to have a luxuriant cared-for look. And even though, at various times during the day, I realized I was alone and should perhaps be uneasy over this, I dismissed the thought as unworthy of the day itself.

Perhaps this book can be most enjoyed by those in midlife or beyond. Enlightenment and wonder sure to follow!

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