Journal Writing: An Experience in Owning One’s Life

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Pen and paper
08 Nov 2007
Arts & Media

My best writing is in my journal. Closed to the world, but completely open for my eyes and Hashem’s. A place for dreams, visions, dialogues, regrets, memories, remorse, resuscitations, conflict resolutions, agendas, lists, letters written—mailed—and received without leaving the page. Chaotic garden of tall weeds and blossoms hidden in the undergrowth.

If it weren’t for my journals, whole blocks of the past would be consigned to oblivion. The question of what really happened can never be finally answered, but layers of interpretation remain. In rereading them, I keep finding valuable clues to futures I am in the process of mapping.

I began to journal at the age of l6. Out of desperation. I needed to tell a story that would otherwise remain embedded in my psyche as “trauma,” a roadblock to my feeling anything again. I stumbled on the idea of writing out the story in order to hear it resonate and find its meaning. The writing in my new journal book gave me comfort when nothing else could. So the practice of journal writing stayed, not only to record the unpleasant, but also to celebrate the beauty I found everywhere I looked. And I discovered that the more I wrote down, the more beauty there was to write about.

The journal served as both microscope and telescope. It was a lens for the near and the far. I saw, and as I saw, I centered myself as the see-er.

I open a journal from a summer I spent in Dublin. Attached to the page with scotch tape is a wildflower. Thirty years have passed, and the color purple remains. On the next page is a self- portrait of me with my hair blowing in the wind at the top of Glencolumbkille, a sheer cliff of gigantic proportions on the Irish coast. I had inched to the edge and peered down.

In my journal, I repeatedly inch to the edge and peer down. Depending on the day, I am either exhilarated or terrified. Many years ago, our Rebbe Rabbi Shloime Twerski, Zatzal, spoke to us about our experience of life—in a nutshell, he said that it is not what happens to us that counts. But rather it’s how we choose to see it. Our own perception of events is crucial in defining the reality we experience.

When I open the journal and open myself to the page, I draw up from underground wellsprings. There is nothing to stop me from going off the trodden path and wandering between the trees. There is no one standing behind my shoulder and telling me that I am crazy or childish or outrageous. Because my journal book is exempt from the standards of Right Appropriate Behavior and Appropriate Conclusions, and therefore Appropriate Writing. And because I am safe from all this “appropriateness,” I find new paths and new ways of seeing old problems, and I am able to climb out of my box and into the fresh air of new visions.

I did go a long period of time without my journals, a period of denial that I needed them or even wanted them around to remind me of the past. It was after I turned over my whole life and started again as a frum Jew. Before going to Israel, I put all the journals in a big cardboard box. And then a year later, when I went to look for them, the box had disappeared. The explanation was that someone had taken them to the garbage by mistake.

The discovery that the journals were lost, probably forever, made me feel relieved. I would not have to burn them, as I had burned other pages of my writing that I felt ashamed for writing. During the next 15 years, I don’t think I regretted their disappearance for more than a few moments. But after the passage of these years when I hardly scribbled down a line or two, my feelings began to change.

Now I wanted back my past. I wanted to see the imprint of my footsteps in all my many journeys. I wanted to see the Hand of Hashem in my life even before I hardly knew Him. I wanted to know what I was thinking when I sat on a park bench in Milford, New Jersey waiting for my brother to arrive. I wanted to see the words on the page still saturated with sunlight.

I felt that buried in all those pages and burned into all those words was an essential identity that I needed back.

I had surgically removed myself from my past, and now it was time to remember, reclaim, and heal. I began to do the healing without the help of the journals and their monumental recording of all my pasts and all my past lives. I bought a proper journal with unlined pages and started keeping my journal from scratch.

As I worked on the healing, I felt myself being filled in and restored. It was Rabbi Twerski’s words speaking to me again, even though he had passed away twenty years earlier. I remember him saying that a frum Jew has to first of all be a person, a real person in touch with her own reality. The frumkeit can’t just be pasted on to a caricature of a person whose own past and identity are inaccessible.

And then, out of nowhere, my sister calls me and says quite nonchalantly that a box of my journals showed up in the eaves of the attic where she lives in Maine. Without her knowing, she has dropped a bombshell. With the same kind of determination I had applied to forgetting them, I now apply my efforts to getting them back in my hands. After hearing the story, my brother generously offers to take the carton of journals to the post office in Bar Harbor, Maine and mail them.

And so, on a morning not long after that phone call, they are delivered to my door in Jerusalem. I take the box from the postman, close the door, make my way to the nearest chair, sit down, and cry with the box in my lap.

I feel that I have just received a message straight from Heaven, and the message reads: “I love you. I love all of you, past, present, and future. I created you. I put you there in all those places. I sent you down into the family to which you were born and into all those circles where you wandered. And I know that you tried your best, sometimes blindly to make your way back to Me. I love you, and I cherish every step that you took.”

Varda Branfman leads virtual writing retreats by e-mail to help people achieve clarity, self-understanding, and healing. She is the author of I REMEMBERED IN THE NIGHT YOUR NAME and the soon-to-be-released e-book BLUEBERRY FIELDS FOR BREAKFAST: A COOKING COMPANION FOR CREATIVE SOULS. To order her books or for more information about the virtual retreats, write to her at For more of her articles, visit her blog,

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.