One journal is striped, slightly water-stained, and held together with a hair tie. Another is sturdy and black with “Carpe Fucking Diem” printed on the front. One is covered in bright orange bunnies, and another is thick, college-ruled, green, and filled with graphite threatening to disappear.
On the occasional lazy day when I’m back home in California, I’ll lug the 19 of them down from the top shelf of my closet, all 10 pounds threatening to concuss me, and flip through them. Every time a forest fire rips through the state, I think about what I would grab if a firefighter showed up at my door with an evacuation order: my baby blanket, which my mom says she regrets not taking away from me at 3 years old, my 10th grade English essays, which are covered with the scrawling red ink of my uncle’s correcting pen, and these journals.
As I sit in bed and write every night, I think about the role these journals play in a world where so much is impermanent. I send texts of the inane variety (“Sorry, just got out of the shower, be there in 15!”) and of the holy (“You are loved, you are my favorite person, and never let yourself forget that”). But with time, they disappear. No one will find old text messages while cleaning out their attic. I take photos of the sunset in Florence, Italy, and of friends making silly faces, kilobytes and gigabytes that hold incalculable significance. But one phone glitch or technology upgrade and these tokens are gone, leaving just the memories they sought to capture. Instead, I can hold these journals in my hands and reread them as I please. And, save fire or flood, they’re safe with me.
I know exactly when I first decided to put pen to paper and write about my life: May 25, 2011. A retired teacher came to impart some wisdom to my class that day, and he told us that one of his best habits is writing down a memorable moment each night. As an anxious seventh grader, that seemed like a smart way to center myself. I wrote about walks to Starbucks with friends, silly things my teachers said, and making chicken pot pie with my dad. One day, in the summer of 2011, I am embarrassed to say I wrote, “My new jeans! My booty looks GOOD!” I remember those jeans, and 13-year-old me felt like a million bucks in that denim.
It wasn’t until a few months later, when one line wasn’t enough to fit the emotions I was feeling, that my entries began to resemble the long, rambling paragraphs I write today. My cabin mate at sleep-away camp was struggling for reasons I still don’t know and had to go home. At the time, I was confused and sad and wanted to know what was going on. I remember the experience of writing this entry, by the light of my headlamp, as cathartic, part conjectures and part feelings. It was my first glimpse of the darker side of life, of mental health issues and parents dying and divorce, themes that began to show up in my journals more and more as the years passed. Writing each night was a way for me to piece through it all.
Reading through the journals from my junior year of high school takes me back to the overwhelming and exciting feelings that defined being 17. I felt a sense of freedom I’d never felt before and an unbridled anticipation for the life ahead of me. One night, my friends and I drove down to Dockweiler Beach and roasted corn and hot dogs over a fire, and I wrote, “I love being 17 and alive with my friends around me.”
Seventeen was the age when I first felt what it was like to be mesmerized by someone’s presence. One day in Spanish class, I absentmindedly wrote his name on my worksheet, only to be awkwardly caught by him, and told, with a teasing smile, that my subconscious must be telling me something. A few days later I wrote, “I’m feeling super, I really think he likes me … it’s a cool feeling, a nice feeling … really nice.” And then the next, “So confused, so confused, god can’t there just be a handbook for this stuff?” Reading these pages, I am transported to a time before I knew how terrifying it is when your feelings are at the mercy of another, and that two people liking each other isn’t always enough to make a relationship work.
I often think about who I am writing these entries for. Undoubtedly, I am writing for my current self, or I would have given it up at some point in the past seven years. I think the act of sitting down each night, even for just five minutes at times, continues to be an invaluable habit. I’m at a moment where I’m starting to define my life, the kind of people I want to surround me, and how I want to spend my time. My entries make it so that I’m consistently checking in on what is going well and not so well, instead of letting my days in college blur into one another. Decisions these past few years have felt a bit more weighty, and I find myself writing out the pros and cons of whether to go home for the summer or stay in D.C. or what kind of job I want to apply for after graduation. And often I write down a few things I’m grateful for, which is sometimes the kick in the pants I need to realize that I’m doing a bit better than I think I am.
As much as I write for my current self, I’m realizing more and more how much I write for my future self, a self that is determined to remember. When reading my high school journals, it strikes me that I didn’t know at the time how much of a gift I am giving myself. It’s the gift of remembering the little moments that get lost in the consolidation of memories; that one afternoon I came home to find my best friend sitting at my kitchen table, having just shown up because she’d lost her phone but wanted to see me; or the night freshman year that a friend and I had plans to go to our first college party but ended up sitting on the Henle steps talking for two hours. But more specifically, it’s the gift of being taken back to a feeling.
When I write in my journal today, I’m leaving a record of my life’s missteps and surprises. Each time I open a fresh journal, I feel a rush of excitement, because who knows what stories the blank pages in my hands will soon hold.
Image Credits: Julia Pinney