Making Meaning Through Journal Writing: A Meditation on Simplicity

Simplicity. The word conjures up images of ease, a sense of effortlessness, a lightness of being. It implies leaving things in their natural states, decorating sparsely, and having furniture with clean, straight lines. It yearns for straightforward communication.

My life has never been simple, though I’ve often longed for it to be so. Family, friendships, work, avocations of music, photography, writing, and studies have always kept me busy. Life is hard work. It’s a body of water—an ocean, a river or a lake—in which I am always swimming, working to keep afloat.

I’ve created my complicated life, though I’ve sighed for the kind of clean simplicity one sees in magazines. But that kind of simplicity costs a lot of money, and I’ve rarely had that. Perhaps simplicity is really a state of mind, an attitude, an approach to life. A person who approaches life simply, lies on her back, arms out, back slightly arched, and allows the river to take her where it will. She flows through life, looking at the sky, content to be where she is without thrashing about or trying to swim upstream or make it to the nearest rock.

Contentment and simplicity are closely linked.

Once cannot lead a simple life without being content with simple things: the clouds in the sky, the occasional bird overhead, a glimpse of autumn-tinted leaves in an overhanging tree, the sunset and sunrise. These things all give pleasure. One must be ready to receive to live a simple life. And not make everything into work.

I know these things,
yet I can’t think of a simple time in my life, except perhaps when I was a very young child. And that image, the image of me, dancing on a hill feeling the wind on my skin, is such a fleeting, long-ago thing. It’s an image I manufactured. I know, because I can see myself from the outside as though in a movie. How can I do that, if it’s truly my own experience? I can remember the feelings, the sensations, the joy. But I can also see myself from the outside. I don’t think one can really do that. That’s not a memory; it’s a story of a memory.

Perhaps that’s what journaling and other forms of memoir writing is about: memories as examined from the outside, externalized, so that they become a fixed part of one’s stories about life, about one’s experience and development. I could have chosen anything as a hallmark of my young childhood. I could have chosen the time my brother Michael spray painted my favorite bear yellow and threw it in the bushes for me to find months later. Yes, I remember that quite clearly. I was heartbroken when I found it. But the poster child of memories, for me, is that dance on the hill. Really more a mound in the lawn. Not a hill. But to me, a height I had conquered so that I could feel the sky.

In that moment, life was simple. Not an ocean, a river, or a lake. Not a thing at all. Not even a process. Perhaps simplicity is simply a moment in time, fully experienced and fully appreciated.

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