What’s Your Reason for Getting Up in the Morning?

When I was a young kid, my reason for getting up was to play with my four younger sisters. Then in my tweens and teens, it was to hang out with my friends. In college, it was to get to my classes; in my early 20s, it was to get to work.

Then, in my early 40s, after the untimely deaths of my parents–my dad after a year-long battle with cancer, my mom in an instant after a stroke—it was to distract myself from my grief. Every morning I woke up, got dressed and walked to my neighborhood coffee shop where I followed Julia Cameron’s advice from The Artist’s Way and wrote morning pages. Doing so was definitely my lifeline, one thing I could control and a way of coming to terms with my grief and guilt, as well as my fears.

Eighteen months later, once my grief had ebbed, work once again became my reason for getting up. Somedays I was so driven to get started that I turned on my computer on my way to the bathroom.

But now that I no longer work full-time, I’ve been pondering my reason for getting up. Pre-pandemic it might have been to attend a board meeting, enjoy a cup of coffee with a friend or, pre-hip pain, walk the Stone Arch bridge across the Mississippi—all activities that connected me to others and the world in which we live.

Now, my reasons rarely involve connecting with others or the outside world, especially because COVID means doing it in front of a screen rather than in person. It’s hard to get excited about more screen time. As a result, getting up can sometimes be the most challenging part of my day.

That’s why, while writing my recent Aging with Gusto post, I was excited to discover the concept of ikigai (ee-kee-gahy). According to the authors of the book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, ikigai is a Japanese concept that combines the terms iki, meaning “alive” or “life,” and gai, meaning “benefit” or “worth.” When combined, the term means “that which gives your life purpose, meaning or worth.”

Minnesotan Dan Buettner talks a lot about purpose in his book, The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons From the World’s Happiest People. So does fellow Minnesotan Richard Leider whose newest book is Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old?: The Path of Purposeful Aging.

While I’ve been tempted to pooh-pooh the power of purpose, data shows that having one can make a difference, not only to the quality of our lives, but also their length.

So, now that I’m of a certain age (only six years away from the age both my parents were when they died, I’ve become determined to do all I can to extend not only the length of my life but also the quality of it.  

That’s meant turning inward by once again writing morning pages. At first, they were filled with recriminations, accusations, reprimands and wouldas, couldas and shouldas, all of which undermined my ability to identify—and perhaps more importantly—fulfill my purpose.

But slowly, over the past 18 months, my pages have begun to fill with more positive thoughts (the sun shining on the bright white snow is beautiful) and simple delights (this cup of coffee tastes great). And while COVID is still interfering with many of my hopes and dreams, I am—morning by morning and page by page—finding new reasons to get up each day.

The Magic of Keeping a Journal

Recently, a request for volunteers to decorate personal journals caught my eye. The organization requesting help—The Family Partnership—says journaling is helpful to their counseling clients. I’ve kept a personal journal off and on since I was a teenager, and it certainly improves my mental health. Journaling also provides useful material for my writing projects.

Writers are always advised to keep journals. In high school, when I first realized I wanted to be a writer, I drafted poems and stories in spiral-bound stenographer’s notebooks. In graduate school, I made notes about some of the encounters I had as an ER clerk.

One of my early journals

One of my early journals

From the beginning, my journals also included impassioned blurts—here’s what’s bothering me and why. Finding words for my surging feelings made them concrete and more manageable. The process of writing calmed me. Often I felt like, “There. Now I understand what upset me and I feel better, so I can move on.” I thought the insights might be useful someday. If I ever feel so concerned about XYZ again, I can return to this hard-won insight and get feeling better, faster.

That’s funny now. I’m never going to be 19 again. Why would I need to look up the entry about fighting with my parents?

 

The journals became historical as well as therapeutic.

Journaling reminds me about how I got to this place in life, and that’s useful. I’m not still a heartbroken 24-year-old graduate student or an overwhelmed 34-year-old mother. Seeing that I’ve grown and changed is reassuring. I do figure things out. Things do get better.

Asking why and wondering about the meaning of certain events, comes naturally to me and is central to the essays, memoirs, and blogs that I write. I’m making sense of the big world as well as my own world.

A friend hand made this journal, which I used while teaching at UMM

A friend hand made this journal, which I used while teaching at UMM

When I was in my late 30’s and early 40’s, I began writing essays and memoir in earnest. Then the old journals offered valuable documentation about what happened when I was 24 or 27 and what I thought of it.

Rereading passages from old journals can be cringe-inducing. When skimming old journals, I understand why some people view them as the height of self-involved navel-gazing. Who is that whiny awful person? But that’s the magic of keeping a journal—within its pages, I can be my worst self on my worst day and spare the rest of the world a lot of my angst, anger, depression, and tedious analysis.

That’s also the danger of keeping a journal. The words and feelings included there would necessarily be taken out of context by anyone reading them. I journal when I’m confused or distressed. Good times don’t require explanation and analysis. I want to keep the journals for my use, but at some point I will need to get rid of them, since I won’t always be around to say, “I was having a bad day when I wrote that. I don’t still think that.”

My recent journals are much smaller-- 5x7, in this case

My recent journals are much smaller– 5×7, in this case

But the writer and philosopher in me resists. I’ve been writing about my life for 20 years. There might be some good material in there. I hate to dump it now!

If you keep a journal, how do you use it? Will you get rid of them at some point?