Friday, September 23, 2011

My world in 17 syllables

I’m almost three months into an odd little creative project, writing a daily on-line haiku about some aspect of the day that stands out for me.
I’ve since discovered I’m just one of many people out there using haiku in creative, unusual ways.
Maybe it’s a trend. Or maybe a tightly constrained form of writing that forces you to cut to the chase is simply a relief in a time of too much blah-blah-blah.
Traditional haiku are, of course, exquisite jewels of 17 carefully chosen syllables, organized in three lines of five, seven and five syllables. They’re most often about nature and the seasons.
My goal was to use the form for journaling rather than to strive for high- quality haiku. So while I follow the five-seven-five syllable rule, my haiku are less like poetry and more like something you’d write on a Post-it note to remind yourself about the day.
It has been an interesting exercise. Having to come up with a haiku every night means I have to think about what was distinctive about the day. It makes me dig deep for the 17 syllables that I hope will still summon the feel of a day decades later.
I’ve been a hot-and-cold journal writer for much of my adult life, alternating between months of pouring out the intimate details of my life and years of not writing a single word.
I’m better when I travel, when every day tends to feel like a rich new experience that you want to make note of. I was flipping through one such travel diary of mine when it struck me that I wanted to work harder at identifying those same moments in my daily life.
Growing older unsettles me with the way it compresses time. Each day rolls past just a little faster, often so similar to the previous day in its routines that it’s hard to tell one from the other. I feel the need to make each day stand out.
What is it that distinguishes a day for me from the other 19,950 days that went before it? That’s the question I reflect on every night as I try to pull together that day’s haiku. It’s definitely making me much more aware that even an ordinary day is unique.
My mother has long kept a journal, of the kind that scrupulously notes weird weather, special occasions, unusual family illnesses and unprecedented sports scores. If ever there’s dissent in the family about what the weather was like in the summer of 1982 or which year Dad came down with pneumonia, out comes the journal.  
She encouraged me from a young age to follow suit, but the largely empty Barbie diary from my girlhood speaks to my early history of sporadic record-keeping.
Still, there’s something very special about seeing the inane declarations of your 11-year-old self, or the angst-ridden entries from your various periods of torment. Your life, in your own words - it’s compelling.
Doing haiku-style journaling came to me while I was flipping through an old daytimer that I had maintained off and on as a bare-bones diary for three years in the 1970s.
As an actual journal, it’s fairly worthless. My habit was to write one or two sentences in fairly random fashion, never with much consistency.
But when the book surfaced during a recent housecleaning, a browse through it reminded me of the value of even scant observations from your own past. It’s all personal history.
July 14, 1975, for instance: The start of a long, painful strike at the mill where my then-husband worked. August 15, 1977: My first cable-car ride in San Francisco. December 14, 1978: The doctor extracts a huge piece of mouldering bread from the nose of my two-year-old.
They’re not exactly the major events of my life. But they call up a lot for me in a few words. The haiku form is ideal for doing that, as it leaves room for nothing but the essence of a day.
And making the journal public forces me to write a haiku even on the nights when I’d really rather not. I’m leaving for China with my mom tomorrow so won’t post those haiku until our return Oct. 10, but I’ve got my travel scribbler packed and remain committed to the discipline.
“We do not remember days, we remember moments,” Italian poet Cesare Pavese once said. I’ll hold onto mine syllable by syllable.

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