What’s in your suitcase?

I’ve been a sporadic journal-keeper for most of my life. My most prolific period was during my angst-ridden teen years when I wrote about everything from bad luck with boyfriends, to concerts I attended, to books I was reading. Some people destroy their youthful writings, mostly because they’re so cringe-inducing. I don’t know if it’s vanity, voyeurism or something else, but I haven’t done that yet.

Recently, when I was looking for something else in my attic, I came across some of my old journals and brought them down to read. Surprisingly, the cringing was minimal. I was mostly intrigued by my younger self, as if she was from some foreign land.  And I found this poem in a collage on one journal cover:

Poets and true pathfinders have

Traveled like this: tires

Stripping pavement have been

Music to ears far finer

Than my own, but

Still I grow gladly

Into my vagabond self. I

Have died sometimes; I have left bolts and

Scraps of my life in unguarded

Corners and have smiled

In apology at my scattered,

Misstated thoughts. I am

Collected now, into one worn

Suitcase and the healing conviction

That everything left

With me is absolutely relevant.

I don’t know who wrote it, but the poem still resonates, even though I’ve been anything but a vagabond.The idea that we can boil down the true necessities of life to what would fit, metaphorically speaking, into a suitcase, rings true. The poet sounds weary, as if it took a long journey to reach that point, and maybe it does.image

Especially at this time of year, when there is such a temptation to indulge in excess holiday buying, it seems wise to remember what is really relevant and valuable in life. To love and be loved, to be safe and secure, to do or create something meaningful, to learn new things, to feel healthy in body, mind and spirit — those are the most important things in my suitcase. Do I really need anything more?

A recent article by Stacey Colino in Bethesda Magazine talked about why people in our affluent area, with money, physical health and great educations, could still be so unhappy and dissatisfied. One possible reason is the constant comparing of ourselves to others. Psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal was quoted as saying, “To compare up is to invite envy; to compare down is to invite gratitude…When we compare and find ourselves wanting, we make ourselves unhappy.”

If I pack my suitcase with the true essentials of my life, I can only feel gratitude, knowing that for many others, things like love and security are elusive. But even if I had to fill a suitcase with the material possessions that matter to me, I don’t think I would have too much trouble fitting them in. A few pictures of my kids, my wedding ring, a special book or two, and I feel rich.

When I was eighteen, I saved that poem because it was romantic to think of myself as a vagabond and because I already felt that I was leaving a little bit of myself behind with each new experience. I share it now for completely different reasons. I hope that the scraps I’ve left behind have touched someone along the way, and the scattered thoughts have gathered themselves into a more focused path forward. Have I learned to compare myself only with the younger version of me?

What do you have to say?

There are times when writing is a struggle as I search for ideas and the right words to convey them.  Other times, when I have a compelling story I want to tell, the words just flow and the entire process seems so easy. Having a chance to tell our stories can be incredibly cathartic, even if we don’t share them with anyone else.

I thought of this when I read a story by Chris Richards in the Washington Post this week about a program to help veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan write songs. The veterans work with professional songwriters in a workshop setting. They tell their stories, pulling together images and memories of their experiences, and the songwriters create a melody and work it into a song. The veterans find the experience to be very healing, giving them an outlet for expression that is hard to find anywhere else.

About 20 years ago, the writer Maxine Hong Kingston started a similar project in California for Vietnam War veterans (see her book, The Fifth Book of Peace). Theirs was strictly a writing workshop, not music, but the purpose was the same – giving the vets an opportunity to tell their stories, in a safe place, without judgment. Kingston began the process as a way of working out a loss of her own, and together with the veterans, found some peace along the way.

Some people keep diaries throughout their lives. Many of us had them as teenagers – an outlet for our angst, emotional ups and downs, and rants against our parents. But a journal devoted to a specific topic or purpose can be a helpful tool in dealing with stress, whether it’s everyday stress or the more intense stress caused by wartime experiences.

James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas, is a leading researcher and proponent of the idea of “writing to heal”. He believes that expressing our emotions makes us healthier and helps prevent many of the chronic diseases that befall so many people in modern society. For a lot of people, writing is the best (maybe the only) way that they can do that. Dr. Pennebaker has written a book about this process (Writing to Heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval) and conducts workshops (one will be held at the Duke Integrative Medicine Center in March).

Gratitude journals are another, somewhat more indirect, way to help relieve stress. I’ve written before about the research showing that people who regularly remind themselves of what they are grateful for tend to be more satisfied with their lives and to experience less stress. Gratitude journals have also been used with veterans and others who experience Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, with promising results.

Whether or not you have had a traumatic experience, writing can still benefit you. In this age of truncated communications like email, Twitter and Facebook, it can be quite satisfying to sit down and express your thoughts and feelings without anyone cutting you off or limiting your characters. A journal can be a place to try out ideas, explore emotions and practice that difficult conversation you need to have with someone. Often, writing can be as mood-lightening as talking with a close friend. I suspect this is the reason why the memoir has become such a popular genre in recent years. Everyone has a story to tell, and wants to tell it if given an opportunity. But we are not very good at remembering emotions accurately after time has gone by, so it’s important to write down how you feel now. Start telling your story  – your audience can be as wide as the Internet or as small as a little notebook sitting by your bed.