Yellow Notebook by Helen Garner


Because I loved her book of essays Everywhere I Look so much, I didn’t hesitate to read this book of Helen Garner’s diaries from 1978 to 1987. Many of the personal stories were pretty mysterious to me; everyone is referred to by a single initial. While she records her emotional reactions the end of her second marriage, F didn’t become much more than an initial to me. M was clearly her daughter and it was a pleasure to read about her life as she grew up over this time (she was nine in 1987). As I did when writing about her book of essays, I will focus on quotes I want to remember. Many of these stand completely by themselves with no context, so you will see them just as I did.

  • Memo:  do not drink coffee. It makes me uselessly nervy, even trembly, and engenders baseless optimism about my powers of creation.
  • How we fight, tooth and nail, against gaining real insight. Against letting go of what makes us suffer.
  • As I approached the back gate, I could hear The Police, very loud. I expected to see M and her friend dance, but when I got to the kitchen door I saw two neat little lassies sitting opposite each other at the table, doing their homework.
  • In Paris Review, an interview with James Thurber. He talked about a bulldog he once had, which used to drag rails around, six, eight, twelve feet long. He loved to get the enormous thing by the middle and try to haul it through the garden gate–‘everything finely balanced, then crash, he’d come up against the gate posts’. This, said Thurber, was the feeling he got when reading Henry James.
  • Throughout the diaries she makes reference to her “Mighty Force.” She describes a climb, which I assume is Uluru and then, she writes, “You can’t write about this stuff. I met my Mighty Force on top of the rock and it played with me.”
  • I am a forty-three-year-old woman, a mother, healthy, reasonable-looking; I am in my own city; I am able to make a living; I am sometimes sad or frightened, and recently I have been hurt; but I am also learning to examine myself and my crimes less defensively; the Mighty Force has not lately come to me in the form I was expecting; but it does not abandon people, and it won’t abandon me.
  • Last night I turned out the light and lay on my bed. Warm night. I was awake. I remember now that I said out loud, ‘People need to be loved.’ I found that my hands were near each other, and clasped them. Then I said the Lord’s Prayer, very slowly, not sure after each line that I would remember the next. And when I got to the end I felt better, so I went back to the beginning and said it again. I tried to think, with each phrase, of the practical application to my life. ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ I thought of F, of my anger and harshness. I thought it would be better to be firm, and not to try to save myself by hatred. This morning, having remembered the prayer, I feel as if I’ve stumbled on something useful. A technique.

Helen Garner, Yellow Notebook:  Diaries, Volume I, 1978-1987, Text Publishing, 2019, 288 pages (I read the kindle version). Available through Amazon.

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