Ongoingness: Sarah Manguso on Time, Memory, Beginnings and Endings, and the True Measure of Aliveness
By Maria Popova
Some of humanity’s most celebrated writers and artists have reaped, and extolled, the creative benefits of keeping a diary. For John Steinbeck, journaling was a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt; for Virginia Woolf, a way to “loosen the ligaments” of creativity; for André Gide, a conduit to “spiritual evolution”; for Anaïs Nin, who remains history’s most dedicated diarist, the best way to “capture the living moments.”
Joining the canon of insightful meta-diarists is Sarah Manguso with Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (public library) — a collection of fragmentary, piercing meditations on time, memory, the nature of the self, and the sometimes glorious, sometimes harrowing endeavor of filling each moment with maximum aliveness while simultaneously celebrating its presence and grieving its passage.
Looking back on the 800,000 words she produced over a quarter-century of journaling, Manguso offers an unusual meta-reflection exuding the concise sagacity of Zen teachings and the penetrating insight of Marshall McLuhan’s “probes.” She becomes, in fact, a kind of McLuhan of the self, probing not the collective conscience but the individual psyche, yet extracting widely resonant human truth and transmuting it into enormously expansive wisdom.
Manguso traces the roots of her diaristic journey, which began as an almost compulsive hedge against forgetting, against becoming an absentee in her own life, against the anguishing anxiety that time was slipping from her grip:
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.
The trouble was that I failed to record so much.
I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time — there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.
I tried to record each moment, but time isn’t made of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.
So I tried to pay close attention to what seemed like empty time.
I wanted to comprehend my own position in time so I could use my evolving self as completely and as usefully as possible. I didn’t want to go lurching around, half-awake, unaware of the work I owed the world, work I didn’t want to live without doing.
And yet this process of chronicling her orientation to the moment soon revealed that the recording itself was an editorial act — choosing which moments to record and which to omit is, as Susan Sontag observed of the fiction writer’s task to choose which story to tell from among all the ones that could be told, about becoming a storyteller of one’s own life; synthesizing the robust fact of time into a fragmentary selection of moments invariably produces a work of fiction. As Manguso puts it, the diary becomes “a series of choices about what to omit, what to forget.”
But alongside this pursuit of the fullness of the moment Manguso found a dark underbelly — a kind of leaning forward into the next moment before this one has come to completion. This particularly Western affliction has immensely varied symptoms, but Manguso found that it her own life its most perilous manifestation was the tendency to hop from one romantic relationship to another, oscillating between beginnings and endings, unable to inhabit the stillness of the middles. She writes:
I’d become intolerant of waiting. My forward momentum barely stopped for the length of the touch.
I thought my momentum led to the next person, but in fact it only led away from the last person.
My behavior was an attempt to stop time before it swept me up. It was an attempt to stay safe, free to detach before life and time became too intertwined for me to write down, as a detached observer, what had happened.
Once I understood what I was doing, with each commitment I wakened slightly more from my dream of pure potential.
It was a failure of my imagination that made me keep leaving people. All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget.
I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the ends of things.
As her relationship to these markers of time changed, she became interested not in the “short tragic love stories” that had once bewitched her but in “the kind of love to which the person dedicates herself for so long, she no longer remembers quite how it began.” Eventually, she got married. Echoing Wendell Berry’s memorable meditation on marriage and freedom, she writes:
Marriage isn’t a fixed experience. It’s a continuous one. It changes form but is still always there, a rivulet under a frozen stream. Now, when I feel a break in the continuity of till death do us part, I think to myself, Get back in the river.
In a significant way, the stability of time inherent to such continuity was an experience foreign to Manguso and counter to the flow of impermanence that her diary recorded. This was a whole new way of measuring life not by its constant changes but by its unchanging constants:
In my diary I recorded what had changed since the previous day, but sometimes I wondered: What if I recorded only what hadn’t changed? Weather still fair. Cat still sweet. Cook oats in same pot. Continue reading same book. Make bed in same way, put on same blue jeans, water garden in same order … Would that be a better, truer record?
The record-keeping of truth, of course, is the domain of memory — and yet our memory is not an accurate recording device but, as legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks has pointed out over and over, a perpetually self-revising dossier. Manguso considers what full attentiveness to the present might look like when unimpeded by the tyranny of memory:
The least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia — in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it. With each recollection, the memory of it further degrades. The memory and maybe the fact of every kiss start disappearing the moment the two mouths part.
Looking back on her own childhood, Manguso echoes Susan Sontag’s memorable protestation against the mnemonic violence of photography and writes:
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 the 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.
For Manguso, memory and its resulting record became stubborn self-defense not only against forgetting but also against being forgotten — a special case of our general lifelong confrontation with mortality:
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 a hundred and fifty years no one alive will ever have known me.
Being forgotten like that, entering that great and ongoing blank, seems more like death than death.
I assumed that maximizing the breadth and depth of my autobiographical memory would be good for me, force me to write and live with greater care, but in the last thing one writer ever published, when he was almost ninety years old, he wrote a terrible warning.
He said he’d liked remembering almost as much as he’d liked living but that in his old age, if he indulged in certain nostalgias, he would get lost in his memories. He’d have to wander them all night until morning.
He responded to my fan letter when he was ninety. When he was ninety-one, he died.
I just wanted to retain the whole memory of my life, to control the itinerary of my visitations, and to forget what I wanted to forget.
Good luck with that, whispered the dead.
Upon arriving at a view of death reminiscent of Alan Watts’s, Manguso revisits the limiting fragmentation of life’s ongoingness into beginnings and endings:
The experiences that demanded I yield control to a force greater than my will — diagnoses, deaths, unbreakable vows — weren’t the beginnings or the ends of anything. They were the moments when I was forced to admit that beginnings and ends are illusory. That history doesn’t begin or end, but it continues.
For just a moment, with great effort, I could imagine my will as a force that would not disappear but redistribute when I died, and that all life contained the same force, and that I needn’t worry about my impending death because the great responsibility of my life was to contain the force for a while and then relinquish it.
Then something happened — something utterly ordinary in the grand human scheme that had an extraordinary impact on Manguso’s private dance with memory and mortality: she became a mother. She writes:
I began to inhabit time differently.
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 milk that was 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.
Time kept reminding me that I merely inhabit it, but it began reminding me more gently.
As she awoke to this immutable continuity of life, Manguso became more acutely aware of those bewitched by beginnings. There is, of course, a certain beauty — necessity, even — to that beginner’s refusal to determine what is impossible before it is even possible. She writes:
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. I don’t value that truth anymore as much as I value their untested hope. I don’t care that one in two hundred 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.
But even that enlivening “untested hope” is a dialogic function of time and impermanence. Manguso captures the central challenge of memory, of attentiveness to life, of the diary itself:
The essential problem of ongoingness is that one must contemplate time as that very time, that very subject of one’s contemplation, disappears.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s assertion that “attention without feeling … is merely a report,” Manguso considers “the tendency to summarize rather than to observe and describe” and adds:
Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries. The originals become almost irretrievable.
Occasionally, a memory retains its stark original reality. Manguso recalls one particular incident from her son’s early childhood:
One day the baby gently sat his little blue dog in his booster seat and offered it a piece of pancake.
The memory should already be fading, but when I bring it up I almost choke on it — an incapacitating sweetness.
The memory throbs. Left alone in time, it is growing stronger.
The baby had never seen anyone feed a toy a pancake. He invented it. Think of the love necessary to invent that… An unbearable sweetness.
The feeling strengthens the more I remember it. It isn’t wearing smooth. It’s getting bigger, an outgrowth of new love.
Perhaps there is an element of “untested hope” in journaling itself — we are drawn to the practice because we hope that the diary would safe-keep precisely such throbbing, self-strengthening memories; that, in recording the unfolding ways in which we invent ourselves into personhood, it would become a constant reassurance of our own realness, a grownup version of The Velveteen Rabbit, reminding us that “real isn’t how you are made [but] a thing that happens to you.” Bearing witness to the happening itself, without trying to fragment it into beginnings and endings, is both the task of living and the anguish of the liver.
Manguso captures this elegantly:
Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.
Echoing philosopher Joanna Macy’s recipe for dialing up the magic of the moment by befriending our mortality, Manguso adds:
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 time will go on without me.
Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.
She revisits her original tussle with time, memory, beginnings, and endings:
How ridiculous to believe myself powerful enough to stop time just by thinking.
Often I believe I’m working toward a result, but always, once I reach the result, I realize all the pleasure was in planning and executing the path to that result.
It comforts me that endings are thus formally unappealing to me — that more than beginning or ending, I enjoy continuing.
Seen in this way, the diary becomes not a bastion of memory but a white flag to forgetting, extended not in resignation but in celebration. Manguso writes:
I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.
Now I consider the diary a compilation of moments I’ll forget, their record finished in language as well as I could finish it — which is to say imperfectly.
Someday I might read about some of the moments I’ve forgotten, moments I’ve allowed myself to forget, that my brain was designed to forget, that I’ll be glad to have forgotten and be glad to rediscover as writing. The experience is no longer experience. It is writing. I am still writing.
And I’m forgetting everything. My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death. Just the vaguest memory of love, of participation in the great unity.
Time punishes us by taking everything, but it also saves us — by taking everything.
Published March 31, 2015