The Ritard of Journaling

What I missed most while I was away from home were my dictionaries. They don’t travel well, my Webster’s Third New International, my two-volume Shorter Oxford English, and my American Heritage 4th edition. Not to mention their companion tomes, The Columbia Encyclopedia, Benet’s Reader’s Encylopedia, Roget’s Thesaurus, and Bartlett’s Quotations.

I also left a long-time favorite writing-hour-starter book at home, The Journals of John Cheever, and today was my first chance to sample again the bittersweet delights of his intimate entries. He didn’t disappoint, and he gave me an excuse to play with my dictionaries. Praising Katherine Anne Porter, Cheever wrote, “In some of the emotional scenes she strikes with exceptional accuracy that balance between the ritard of observation and the flow of feeling.” (p. 164) I found that “ritard” is short for “ritardando,” an Italian musical term. What an elegant way to evoke how one has to slow down to observe things. Cheever’s journal contains veiled and not-so-veiled references to his homosexuality, as well as the wild mood swings that accompanied his alcoholism. But the writing is always taut, masterly.

I began keeping journals when I was seven years old. For some time now I’ve felt a strong yearning to type up my old journals, and in the continuing disorientation of reentry from France, today seemed like a good day to begin. I carefully opened my first journal, a drying volume titled “Daily Diary.” The year is 1958. I am preserving line breaks and spelling, which make the entries appear like small cummings-like poems. Here are a few samples:

January 1, 1958

today Mother went
to the Eemmens
Briftas. I was
sik dad was too

January 2, 1958

today I am still
sik. Gramie
gave me a cow
boy set with two
guns. Dad stayed Home
the doctor came to.o.

January 8, 1958

the fog horn blew
so I stayed Home.
got a new frind.
It snowed today.

Back in the States, I continue to keep a separate journal in French, the red leather volume I bought at the Montblanc store in Cannes. If the leather did not feel so soft to my fingers, I might abandon writing in French, which seems strange here in Denver. But there is no way I will abandon mon journal rouge without filling every page. I notice the same obsessiveness in the author of the blue Daily Diary, who for a year filled in every single half-page space with at least a mark, in one case, two big Xs where something was written in pencil and then erased.

I am in need of someone to correct my recent French entries, a task ably performed by Jean Segarra, my professor at the Institute while I was there. Here is a raw sample from today:

Pour la première fois depuis trois mois, j’ai trouvé un mot dans une de mes grandes dictionnaires ici à mon bureau. John Cheever a utilisé le mot « ritard, » qui est une petite forme de ritardando, un mot italien que Larousse explique ainsi : « Terme d’interprétation indiquant qu’il faut retenir le movement. » Webster’s dit : « with a gradual slackening in tempo, used as a direction in music. » Et maintenant, il faut que je retiens mes movements. Être chez moi veut dire il y a trop de choses que je veux faire. Écoutez-moi : mon travail dans cet epoch c’est écrire dans ce journal rouge, en français, tous les jours. Après ça, nous voyons ce qu’arrivera.

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