Monday, November 15, 2010

Book review: 'Journal Keeper' a compelling meditation on life, love and death

The Journal Keeper:‭ ‬A Memoir, by Phyllis Theroux
(Atlantic Monthly Press,‭ ‬279‭ ‬pp.,‭ ‬$24)

By Bill Williams

Phyllis Theroux offers readers a gift by letting us peek into the journals she kept during six years of her life beginning at age‭ ‬61.

The Journal Keeper excels on several levels‭ – ‬for the pure enjoyment of Theroux’s evocative writing,‭ ‬as a tribute to the art of journal writing,‭ ‬and as a meditation on life,‭ ‬love and death.

Aspiring writers would do well to study Theroux.‭ ‬Her gorgeous prose seduces the reader,‭ ‬who may feel compelled to grab a friend and read passages aloud.‭ ‬She describes writing as‭ “‬laboring long hours to buckle words around an idea and make a sentence slide across the page like Fred Astaire across a dance floor.‭”

The book consists of six chapters covering the years‭ ‬2000‭ ‬to‭ ‬2005,‭ ‬and includes background notes to give context to the entries.

Like most polished writers,‭ ‬Theroux is a voracious reader.‭ ‬She savors books by Thomas Merton,‭ ‬Harper Lee,‭ ‬Karen Armstrong and especially the poet Mary Oliver.‭ ‬Reading Mary Oliver‭ “‬enables me to write a few good lines from a place I hadn’t found before.‭ ‬Poetry excavates,‭ ‬blasts,‭ ‬cuts through the flab.‭”

Theroux has a poet’s eye for detail.‭ ‬Sitting in a friend’s kitchen,‭ “‬I was aware of how the air in her house has the thick flavor of dust,‭ ‬sunlight,‭ ‬old books,‭ ‬fried chicken,‭ ‬and furniture polish.‭”

We learn at the start that Theroux is divorced and lives in Virginia with her aging mother,‭ ‬a‭ “‬high school dropout Buddhist transcendentalist‭” ‬who listens to spiritual tapes,‭ ‬meditates and does yoga exercises.‭ ‬When her mother dies suddenly,‭ ‬Theroux experiences mixed feelings‭ “‬but primarily gratitude that she had been with me for so long.‭”

The author worries about aging,‭ ‬meditates on impermanence and wonders if she is a good enough writer:‭ “‬I feel at the age of‭ ‬61‭ ‬that I should be a sage,‭ ‬not a novice.‭ ‬It is embarrassing to be so shallow.‭”

But there is nothing shallow about Theroux’s writing and wisdom.‭ ‬Consider this nugget about humility.‭ “‬It suddenly struck me that true enlightenment consists in being empty,‭ ‬not full,‭ ‬of answers,‭ ‬that people who are full of answers must drag them around all day like an over-packed suitcase,‭ ‬with no room for anything new.‭”

Theroux wonders if she is captive to writing and imagines‭ “‬how it would be to let go of writing,‭ ‬to lose my grip on the chain of words that leads me through the darkness.‭ ‬Am I not a prisoner of words,‭ ‬dependent on them in a way that tethers me to my own intellect‭?”

When friends die,‭ ‬Theroux reflects deeply on life and death,‭ ‬finding that‭ “‬a funeral is like a train station waiting room.‭ ‬We’re all going to board the train someday.‭” Occasionally,‭ ‬Theroux longs‭ “‬to be‭ ‬30‭ ‬again,‭ ‬surrounded by other‭ ‬30-year-olds who are so bright,‭ ‬clever and beautiful.‭”

After the death of her mother,‭ ‬the author cherishes her life alone,‭ ‬while conceding that she misses the affections of a male lover.‭ ‬Dealing with ambiguity,‭ ‬she reminds herself that‭ “‬one’s happiness and worth must come from within.‭”

And yet out of curiosity she decides to sign up with‭ ‬After her initial matches do not go well,‭ ‬she is‭ “‬faced with the truth that I am not a sex object.‭” ‬But then she meets Ragan Phillips,‭ ‬who is‭ “‬tall,‭ ‬bubbly and smart,‭” ‬and three years older.‭ ‬They fall in love,‭ ‬then break it off,‭ ‬and finally get back together and marry.

“‬The unfamiliar,‭ ‬unexpected security of having a partner washes over me,‭ ‬changes the landscape the way flowers do,‭” ‬she writes.‭ “‬After being alone for most of my life,‭ ‬I cannot quite believe that I’m being given a companion with whom to end my days.‭”

Those who keep a journal may be inspired anew by this book,‭ ‬and those unfamiliar with the practice may want to begin.‭ ‬Theroux has filled at least three dozen journals over the years.‭ ‬She includes a couple of pages of advice at the end of‭ ‬The Journal Keeper.‭ ‬I wish she had said more.

‭“‬Your journal,‭” ‬she writes,‭ “‬should be a wise friend who helps you create your own enlightenment.‭ ‬Chose what you think has some merit or lasting value,‭ ‬so that when you reread your journal in years to come,‭ ‬it continues to nourish you.‭”

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford,‭ ‬Conn.,‭ ‬and a former editorial writer for‭ ‬The Hartford Courant.‭ ‬He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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