Ellen Blum Barish

Ellen Blum Barish

I have been blessed with thoughtful and supportive friends and family members with whom I have shared personal and private pieces of my life.

But bearing my soul? Only to my journal.

Actually many journals that have been piled into numerous plastic containers and boxes and stuffed into every available closet. Black cardboard sketchbooks. Lined composition books. Leather, fabric and water-mark covered. Spiral bound. Soft backed. Hard backed. I was never particular, except that they remained private.

That’s why, when I returned home from a weekend out of town in the late 90s, I went ballistic when I lost one of my journals. I had placed my journal on my bed along with my clothes, toiletries and a book. When I returned not having found the time to write, the journal wasn’t in my suitcase. It wasn’t in my backpack. It wasn’t in my car. Had I taken it out, meaning to write and accidentally left it? Could it have fallen out unnoticed when I shuffled through my things during my stay? Worse; could someone have picked it up somewhere along the way?

I had been staying at the beach home of a friend’s parents. My mind raced with possibilities. Could my friend have picked it up? Her parents? Someone else? If they had, would they have recognized it as mine?

I did a quick mental scan of what I had been mulling on. What if someone read that desperate, overworked, sleep-deprived entry about leaving my family for the life of solitary writer? Or the letters I’d written but would never send to family members in which I offered up a piece of my mind? Or that fantasy I had about that guy from work?

Funny about the timing of things. A few months before this experience I had been thinking about throwing my journals out.

I had been thinking that with my children getting older and more curious, it might be time to protect my privacy. Did I really want certain adventures from the 70s and 80s to be so readily available?

Second, the journals were taking up an enormous amount of space in the house.

And third, most of the content was fleeting. They were feelings of the moment, feelings that ultimately passed. Did I want these momentary musings to be left to speak about who I was when I’m gone?

I deliberated over these questions and decided to consult a few wise women, some who did, and did not, keep a journal.

My cousin, who is a poet, suggested that I review them and highlight the parts that had meaning with yellow marker. My friend, a writer with a place of her own and no children, offered to store them. Another friend, a body worker, thought a ritual burning would be a good way to honor what they had done for me. I seriously considered each of these options when I lost my journal.

In the days that it took for me to reach my friend so she could contact her parents to get in touch with someone at the house, I imagined every worst-case scenario possible. That heart-wrenching scene from Harriet the Spy when her friends find her diary, read about themselves and then completely reject her came to mind.

After a few anxiety-filled days, my friend reported that her parents had not found the book anywhere on the premises.

The book hadn’t turned up at home, either. I finally cracked open a new journal and wrote pages mourning the loss of my diary. How I had no control in over whose hands my words might be sitting. How it stung to possibly have my privacy invaded.

Then, during a cleaning frenzy three months after my journal was missing, I moved the bed to vacuum in a tight spot. There, in the dust balls under the bed lay my spiral bound hardback journal on the floor.

The book had never even left the room.

In the relieved days that followed, I began to wonder if I might have lost my journal so that I would know how it felt to be without it. My journals have always been the primary source material to which I frequently return when I’m mining my memories for personal narrative.

So without it, I was miserable.

Discovering this moved me into action. I took my cousin’s advice and reviewed some of the earlier content and highlighted them in yellow. I took my friend up on her offer to store my containers of journals. When I became an empty nester, I collected them and set up an entire wall of shelves so that they would always have a prominent place in my life.

There they stayed until something shifted in 2013.

I was ready to let them go.

Ashes to Ashes

What We Keep

Then in 2016, I took the remaining covers and turned them into art.

Making Room

And then, just last week, I found myself digging around in the few journals that I did keep, searching for a specific passage. And I found it! Ever so grateful that it was there, waiting for me to find.

It was a reminder of how loyal the page has always been.

Such an exquisite listener.

Such a trustworthy friend.


“Setting the Pace” Story Studio Chicago, Monday, November 16 at 6:30 pm

“What Makes a Memoir Spiritual?” Story Studio Chicago, Winter 2021 (dates to come)

Leave a comment

Your name
Your email address
Website URL