Readings — From the December 2014 issue

Keeping Time

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By Sarah Manguso, from Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, out in March from Graywolf Press. Manguso is the author of several books, including The Guardians and The Two Kinds of Decay.

I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago. It’s 800,000 words long.

I didn’t want to lose anything. That was my main problem. I couldn’t face the end of a day without a record of everything that had ever happened.

I wrote about myself so I wouldn’t become paralyzed by rumination — so I could stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it.

More than that, I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.

Imagining life without the diary, even one week without it, spurred a panic that I might as well be dead.

The trouble was that there was so much I failed to record.

I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time — there was too much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, which I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.

Despite my continuous effort — in public, in private, in the middle of the night, in moving vehicles — I knew I couldn’t replicate my whole life in language. I knew that most of it would follow my body into oblivion.

From the beginning, I knew the diary wasn’t working, but I couldn’t stop writing. I couldn’t think of any other way to avoid getting lost in time.

Like many girls, I was given a diary. The book bore pictures of teddy bears on every page. I wrote in it every now and then out of a sense of duty.

When I was nine I brought the diary to the beach where I went with my parents every summer. My mother reminded me to write in it night after night. I didn’t enjoy the task and remember her dictating lines such as “In the old town center, the shops keep their doors open for all to see.”

I didn’t need a diary then. I wasn’t yet aware of how much I was forgetting.

I started keeping the diary in earnest when I started finding myself in moments that were too full.

At an art opening in the late Eighties, I held a plastic cup of wine and stood in front of a painting, next to a friend I loved. It was all too much.

I stayed partly contained in the moment until that night, when I wrote down everything that had happened and everything I remembered thinking while it had happened and everything I thought while recording what I remembered had happened.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had to do that, but as I wrote about the art opening I realized that my self-documentation would have to become a daily (more than daily?) practice.

Today was very full, but the problem isn’t today. It’s tomorrow. I’d be able to recover from today if it weren’t for tomorrow. There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.

If I allowed myself to drift through unrecorded time for more than a day, I feared, I’d be swept up, no longer able to remember the purpose of continuing.

Twenty-five years later, the practice is an essential component of my daily hygiene. I’d sooner go unbathed.

The first volume, a yellow spiral-bound notebook, was disguised as my math notebook, the word “Trigonometry” printed in black on the cover. On every notebook thereafter, I wrote the name of my current math course. During my first semester of college, I created a digital document called Differential Equations. During my second semester, after I had not enrolled in linear algebra as planned (I got a C+ in Differential Equations), I started a new file, Differential Equations 1993. Every year since then I’ve created a new one, hiding everything I thought was important in a file named after a branch of higher math, where, as only a C+ student would, I imagine no one will ever look for it.

I still write in little notebooks in diners and on trains, and, after a vigorous editing on the page, I transcribe the remains into Differential Equations 2014.

The first time anyone else read the diary was 1992. On the day I moved into my freshman dormitory in college, I reached into the big box of sweaters and diaries and found . . . sweaters.

“We didn’t think you’d be needing those,” my father said. My two new roommates and their parents were there. I didn’t say anything. At the time, my diary was mostly about hating my mother.

Two years later, I lent my laptop to my boyfriend, who needed to write five papers in one night. In the morning, he returned the computer with a little Word icon right in the middle of my otherwise empty desktop. Please Read Me, Sarah, he’d called it. The document began, “I just read your diary. All 75 pages of it.” I don’t remember how it went after that, except that he not only failed to apologize but represented the act as a gesture of compassion, since I so clearly needed his expert help in evolving into a better person.

He’d just learned, among other things, that I could barely feel him inside me.

During the first few years of my marriage, I was highly susceptible to the events of the previous day. I was convinced the marriage would soon be over, but it wasn’t over. The problem was my inability to experience it as ongoing.

Another friend wrote, “Marriage isn’t like having a boyfriend or girlfriend but a little more so any more than gold is helium but a little more so. The inner shell of electrons fills, and then the next electron goes into the next shell, changing everything.”

For most of my life I claimed that my earliest memory took place in a corner of the kitchen. I stood at the counter, knowing I’d be scolded for having taken cookies from the cookie jar. But of course that wasn’t the first thing my brain learned and kept.

If I’m to believe the child-care books, the first thing I learned and kept was the identity of my mother.

When I was twelve I realized that photographs were ruining my memory. I’d study the photos from an event and gradually forget everything that had happened between shutter openings. I couldn’t tolerate so much lost memory, and I didn’t want to spectate my life through a viewfinder, so I stopped taking photographs. All the snapshots of my life for the next twenty years were shot by someone else. There aren’t many, but there are enough.

When I was twenty-three I began seeing a psychotherapist because I couldn’t bear the idea that, after the end of an affair, all our shared memories might be expunged from the mind of the other, that they might no longer exist outside my own belief they’d happened.

I couldn’t accept the possibility of being the only one who would remember everything about those moments as carefully as I tried to remember them.

My life, which exists mostly in the memories of the people I’ve known, is deteriorating at the rate of physiological decay. A color, a sensation, the way someone said a single word — soon it will all be gone. In 150 years no one alive will ever have known me.

During my pregnancy I couldn’t remember anything. Information seemed to enter my memory and dissolve.

The diary was of no help.

I developed the amnesia that some people call pregnancy brain.

Heavily pregnant when I heard that my friend’s father had died two years earlier, I sent condolences at once. My friend wrote back. I’d sent a letter two years earlier. I didn’t remember sending it.

Another friend told me his apartment had been burgled. “How lucky that the dog wasn’t hurt!” I wrote back. He’d put the dog down months earlier. I hadn’t remembered that either.

I scrambled to remember the dead in order — of course an eighteenth-century composer was dead, and all the people who died before I was born. My grandparents were all dead. Recent deaths of those I knew only by their work — a novelist, a monologuist. I remembered which of my friends were dead. Another friend’s stepmother, in a coma for years, had died earlier that year. Good, I thought, I haven’t forgotten them all.

Then I became a mother. I began to inhabit time differently. It had something to do with mortality. I kept writing the diary, but my worry about the lost memories began to subside.

Nursing an infant creates so much lost, empty time. Of the baby’s nighttime feeds I remember nothing. Of his daytime feeds I remember almost nothing.

It was a different nothing from the unrecorded nothing of the years before; this new nothing was absent of subjective experience. I was either asleep or almost asleep at all times.

Day and night consisted of the input and output of milk, often in an emergency, but the emergencies all resembled one another. At dawn I noticed a pile of tiny damp blankets and tiny damp clothes on the nursery floor, but I never remembered replacing the green shirt with the yellow one.

In my experience nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time.

I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and the milk that were always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.

My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.

In my twenties I stopped to write every time I happened upon beauty. It was an old-fashioned project. Romances were examined in detail. Each one was new.

My thirties were filled not with romance but with other writing. In the diary I logged the words I wrote and the light or heavy passes I took through existing manuscripts. Virtuous activities such as exercise and housekeeping were also logged. The rhapsodies of the previous decade thinned out.

Toward the end of my thirties, and into my forties, my entries became further abbreviated. Most of the sentences started with verbs. I was omitted from as many sentences as possible, and appeared only for emphasis. I logged work and health — symptoms, medications, side effects. Housekeeping was no longer noted. If I read or looked at or heard something extraordinary, I named it, but as one ages, fewer things fall into this category. Reflection disappeared almost completely.

Of a concert by a band I’ve liked for almost twenty years, which I had listened to most recently about five years ago but had never seen live until this week, I wrote only, “Still know every word.” Twenty years ago, the sentence would have been twenty sentences.

Though I try to log only the first time he does yet another extraordinary thing, the diary is now mostly about my son.

Another friend wrote to ask all the desperate questions I used to ask before I became a mother. “How old were you? How long were you married? How long did it take?”

I wrote back, “One of the great solaces of my life is that I no longer need to wonder whether I’ll have children.”

My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it.

I used to value the truth of whether this student or that one would achieve the desired thing. Now I don’t value that truth as much as I value their untested hope. I don’t care that 1 in 200 of them will ever become what they feel they must become. I care only that I am able to witness their faith in what’s coming next.

I no longer believe in anything other than the middle, but my students still believe in beginnings. Ask them, and they will tell you that everything is about to start in just a moment, just one more moment.

That beginner’s hope, the hope that ends with the first failure — when I was with the baby I felt that hope all the time.

In a dream my tiny toothless son had all his teeth. I’d looked away long enough for all the teeth to emerge, even the back molars, the teeth beating time in months, in years, his full jaws a pink-and-white timepiece.

In the next dream his downy hair had grown very long and I needed to cut it off with dull scissors. Again his body had recorded time passing, time that had escaped my notice.

For months the baby woke at seven, fed, fell asleep at eight thirty, woke at ten, fed, fell asleep at eleven thirty, and so on, for the rest of the day. I’d made him into a milk clock.

Every hour was part of a ritualized ceremony of adding or subtracting milk. A river of milk flowed in and out and around him. He floated down the milk river toward the rest of his life.

I remember from childhood that, from the point of view of a child, a mother is a fixed entity, a monolith, not a changing, evolving human organism who is qualitatively similar, in many ways, to a young person.

Recently I became not quantifiably old but qualitatively old. Old as a state of being. As an acceptance that I’ve more or less become the person I had a chance to become.

I’ve been basically the same person since I had my son. I know this isn’t true for all new mothers, especially those who are younger than I am (and most of them are). But I feel like a monolith now. I’ve emerged from a gauntlet, and it has something to do with having become a mother, and it has something to do with having become qualitatively old, and it has something to do with having run out of time and life to perceive and ruminate and record its minutes and days in the diary.

What I’m saying is that I have become, in a way, inured to the passage of time. I’m not really paying attention to what’s happening to me anymore — no longer observing steadfastly the things that have changed since yesterday.

The essential problem of ongoingness is that one can contemplate time only as that time, the very subject of one’s contemplation, disappears.

My prose began to judge or summarize its subject before it took any time to observe that subject. I couldn’t help attaching that tendency to the subject itself: the wild velocity of motherhood, an enforced momentum forbidding contemplation.

The tendency to summarize rather than to observe and describe — would taking that time to observe and describe be selfish, wasteful, nonmaternal time?

Is it possible to truly observe one’s own child, as a writer must, while also simultaneously loving him? Does a mother have something like writer’s block — perceiver’s block?

Since the baby was born I still occasionally wonder whether I should have a baby, whether I should get married, whether I should move to some city I’ve already moved to, already left. All the large questions still float about me, and in its sleep-deprived, dampened awareness of the present moment, my memory treats these past moments as if they’re all still happening.

I’ve never understood so clearly that linear time is a summary of actual time, of All Time, of the forever that has always been happening.

The best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know. No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing that time will go on without me.

Often I believe I’m working toward a result, but always, once I reach the result, I realize that all the pleasure was in planning and executing the path to it.

It comforts me that endings are thus formally unappealing to me — that more than beginning or ending, I enjoy continuing.

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