December 6, 2017 by Jean
Several weeks ago, I began work on a new creative writing project, a journal to document my daily experience of living alone and aging alone. I began thinking about this project when I noticed that some members of the Elder Orphans Facebook group I belong to and some recent widows of my acquaintance who had not lived alone earlier in their lives were struggling with the experience of living alone. I thought a view into the daily life of someone who has lived alone for forty years might be helpful. My plan is to keep the journal for a year.
I have long wanted to write a journal for possible publication, since I was in my thirties and fell in love with the journals of May Sarton – especially Journal of a Solitude (W.W. Norton, 1973) and The House By the Sea (W.W. Norton, 1977). Since I’ve decided to keep my own journal during the year of my seventieth birthday, I reread another of May Sarton’s journals, At Seventy (W.W. Norton, 1984), for inspiration. Sarton kept this particular journal for a year, beginning on her seventieth birthday, and in the first entry (May 3rd, 1982), she writes,
What is it like to be seventy? If someone else had lived so long and could remember things sixty years ago with great clarity, she would seem very old to me. But I do not feel old at all, not as much a survivor as a person still on her way. (pp. 9-10)
Words that resonate; the amount of personal growth happening at this stage of my life continually surprises me.
Having made a decision to keep my journal for a year, I puzzled over when to begin. Perhaps on January 1? That idea didn’t appeal to me; I want the journal to be inspiring and upbeat, and I don’t think ending it as we are coming into the depths of winter would do that. Like Sarton, I could begin and end on my birthday (in March), which would make the promise of spring the frame. I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait that long to begin, however, and I wondered if fall (my favorite season) might be a better option. That way, the challenges of winter would come early in the journal, followed by the joys of spring and summer. I still hadn’t made a decision when the power went out in the early morning hours of October 30. As it became clear that the outage would last for days, I realized that documenting how I dealt with this challenge would be a perfect way to begin my account of aging alone.
I have been writing now for almost six weeks. My working title for the journal is “A Year of Living Independently.” I usually write for about an hour after breakfast. I don’t necessarily write daily, but I do try to write five or six days a week. (I think it’s important to capture the dailiness of a life alone.) I’m not worrying about revising as I go. Right now, I am focused on capturing thoughts, feelings and experiences as they happen; I will re-read and revise later.
Of course, reflecting on one’s experience changes that experience. I generally find that being mindful of my life experiences and taking time to reflect on them enhances those experiences. This kind of awareness is an important source of joy in my life. But I’m also finding that journal-keeping is changing my experience in a different way. I am generally a very positive person; I prefer to approach life by emphasizing the positive and minimizing the negative. But I think it’s important not to present an excessively rosy picture of aging alone, so I’ve made a commitment to be honest about the problems as well as the joys. This means that I’ve been spending more time reflecting on the sources of stress and anxiety in my life than I normally would, and I wonder if this is making me a more anxious person – not an outcome I welcome. It’s possible that this period of coming into winter with all its challenges is always a more anxious time of year for me, and that writing is just making me more aware of that fact. As I continue to work on this project in the months to come, I will need to negotiate the tension between an honest portrayal and making sure the impact of this creative project in my own life is a positive one.