As I continue to share my great aunt Hattie’s diaries, every so often an entry stays with me, and today is one of those days:
1934 Feb. 25 Sunday
Was only 6 above near noon and some snow fell and in p.m. rose to 9 above and sun set bright. Fritz helped chore, gave the cattle a load of hay off the east end of the big stack, then he went to Lattimore’s, via the store on his saddle horse and back before dark. Will chored then Wm Whiting came and after we had dinner, we played rummy and pitch. Wm went on to Boyd’s, he came from Ed’s on his saddle horse and led Boyd’s horse. Maggie got meals and the necessary work and swept floors. I played solitaire and read stories and my cold and throat is better. Noble Moore Jr went by to store on horse-back. [emphases added]
This is just another day’s entry in many ways, but notice the detail with which she describes feeding the cattle off the east end of the big stack. It’s not just that Hattie paid an extraordinary level of attention to what she saw, which she did. She also had to have spent deliberate energy asking and learning what her family and neighbors did each day. You see, the previous Memorial Day weekend she broke her leg in a fall, and nine months later she still cannot walk well and most certainly would not have been feeding cattle with Fritz, a neighbor who was doing work for them.
Feb. 11, 1934: I played solitaire, said my prayers, for mass was at 8:30 a.m. and I no go on account of my bum leg but I hope to walk soon so I can get there.
She had fewer of her own activities to record these months, but she made sure to find ways to stay active in her world, to pay attention even when she could not be physically present to do so.
Being Present to History
Another interesting aspect of the February 25, 1934 entry is the frequency with which she mentions horse travel. This was not just a way to fill the page. The previous January she wrote about how, during these Depression years (and perhaps in part because of South Dakota’s “Cowboy Governor“), “horse traveling is coming back”:
1933 Jan. 3rd Tuesday
Bright, nice day. Yesterday was S.W. breeze and to-day N.W. but not too windy to put hay in barn for Will & Roy put 5 loads hay and one of oats not threshed. Wm looked at traps, took stock to field and got same in eve and worked at hog shed in garden. I got meals, baked a walnut-cocoa cake, started to make apple-jell but no thick. John Sloss of Crazy Hole here to see if he could get Red Cross Flour, he came horse-back and it is all of 10 miles or more down there, so horse traveling is coming back this winter for Berry is now our Governor. I cooked dried-corn and pork bones for dinner also made some sauce this day. I feel bum so rested in p.m. and gathered cobs in eve. The stock enjoy feeding in the field but are beginning to destroy oats in stack so must haul it in. [Note: This diary entry also played a role in the Flash Narrative "Horse Traveling Is Coming Back."]
Below is a U.S. National Archives photo by Lewis Hine from the same era (November 11, 1933), showing “Gaines McGlothin, R. F. D. #2, Kingsport, Tennessee, with his two mules. McGlothin has two cows and sells milk and butter. He also raises hogs and chickens and cattle for beef.” Notice the haystacks in the background.
Just as Monet saw the significance and beauty in painting a haystack over and over and over again, Hattie never tired of attending to the details of daily life.
Or, if she did tire of it, she pushed on, understanding at some level the importance of, in the words of the late novelist David Foster Wallace, of staying “alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.” In his now famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, Wallace spoke of how hard it can be simply to get out of ourselves and to turn away from our default self-centeredness, if only for a few moments:
“[E]verything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”
You can read the full speech transcript and listen to Wallace deliver the speech in its entirety (why I am not sharing the wildly popular video adaptation, which you can still find easily on your own).
Keeping a journal or diary might be thought of as solipsistic or, even worse, narcissistic, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be an exercise in waking up to the world around us.