My very first diary was tiny. It fit in the palm of my hand. But it was fat. It had a ton of pages for my second-grade hand to fill with stories of my friends and of my family. The entries often began “Dear Diary,” they they were often detailed in a way that is purely hilarious. Case in point, this one dated 8-30-93, which was a Monday:
Dear Diary, Hi! Today was my first (full) day of school. We get to wear our gym uniforms the rest of the week excet for fri. We have churce. My mom has walking nmonia. Bye!
And I signed it with my first, middle and last name.
By sixth and seventh grades, my diary entries were all about boys. I had initials scribbled in every margin and lists of cutie pies. I had my name paired with various last names (OK, just one last name — I dated the same boy on and off from sixth grade until we were 19), and all kinds of XX + XX = TLA, where XX were our initials and TLA was “true love always.”
In my 20s. I will often go on spurts where I write multiple times a week. But over the past two years, there is just less to say, and I know exactly why: I’m happy. It’s so much easier to write when your life sucks. Hearts want to pour out their miseries, but they want to retain the happiness for themselves, holding tight for fear the glee might flee.
I recently started a new journal (as an adult, “journal” just sounds less … “Dear Diary, Jeff is soooOooOoooOOOoo cute!” ya know?). It was my aunt Nancy’s. She died of breast cancer in 2005, and when her husband died a year or so ago, my mom found herself with many of Aunt Nancy’s belongings. Knowing that I wrote in them, Mom gave me a diary she found. She didn’t bother to open the book, which has the following inscription. It absolutely brought me to tears the first time I read it. I do not know who Gayle is:
Nancy — This is to celebrate your life this year — & to many more to come. Love, Gayle
I can’t help but feel sometimes that I’m writing to Aunt Nancy, that she’s on the other end of the pen instead of a blank page. It’s a little reminiscent of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” where Ginny writes in the diary she finds and the soul of Voldemort responds. Granted, my aunt was not the most evil wizard to ever walk the planet, nor has she ever possessed me, but you get what I’m saying.
As I write in those pages, I feel as though I’m writing to her — and yet I do not censor my thoughts. I wondered if I would, if feeling like I’m writing to a person would have me second guess what I tell this person. Alas, part of the beauty of a journal is the ability to say whatever the frack you want.
I had a conversation about this very topic with friend recently. He’s been married about 10 years and has two small children. He has journaled for years and, he says, he regularly censors what he writes. One day when he dies, or if his wife ever got curious, he doesn’t want anyone to know what he really thought. So instead of using his pages to pour out the problems and miseries of his soul, he holds a little of it in, so no one finds out those problems and miseries.
This amazed me. I look at my journal as the one place where I can be completely self-indulgent, utterly selfish. I can write about whatever lameass problem is on my mind and not worry about what anyone else thinks.
Because when it comes to snoopers, I have a slightly different take on it than my friend. I have had three different people pick up my journal at various times in my life, and in each of those times, the person read something he or she wishes had gone unread. I did not apologize for a single one of those instances, because shame on them for invading my privacy. If you snoop and find out something you wish you hadn’t found out, it serves you right.
I read a New York Times column today that brought up an entirely new question. In “Burning your Diaries,” author Dominqiue Browning tells us that she recently burned all her diaries. My immediate reaction: “OhMyGosh WHY?” My journals, especially my older ones, act as my memories. I have the recollection of an Alzheimer’s patient, and it’s so fantastic to open a book and have it remind me that on my 16th birthday, my best friend organized a little parade for me. I walked out my front door, and she and her family and some of my friends were marching down my street with cake and balloons. Had my journal not reminded me of that, I’d have forever forgotten it had happened.
But what happens when I die? Is there any chance someone won’t pick them up? Of course not. Diaries beckon to those who should not read them like honey beckons a bee: It’s just too sweet to resist.
About a year ago, I interviewed a family whose 15-year-old daughter died in a vehicle accident a year earlier. One thing they clung to was something they called Chelsea’s “Life Lessons.” After she died, her father went to her bedroom and sat on her bed. He looked down and saw a spiral notebook, Chelsea’s journal. He read through it, and he came across a list of four lessons, things that dealt with issues like letting go of problems, the importance of smiling, doing the right thing, God and never making one person your everything. Her parents printed up those lessons on keychains, and on the other side is a picture of their daughter, a girl who is unspeakably beautiful. I have that keychain hanging at my desk, and I often look at it and smile.
But something nagged me as he told me about finding the diary. This means … he read Chelsea’s diary. He opened the book and leafed through his dead daughter’s private thoughts. Heck, I read her diary. Her mother let me look through it for my story. It added indescribably amazing color — but it also made me feel as though I was violating this teenage girl. Was there anything super embarrassing in there? No, but there were private thoughts.
Would Chelsea have wanted to burn the notebook if she’d have known what was going to happen? That she would die way before her time and her parents would find the book? Maybe. But but what if she knew that they would draw comfort and courage from her words? Would she have wanted to take that from them?
When those we love die, we want to hold close to anything we can of them. I think it’s why Facebook pages will become almost a shrine to a lost friend, a place where loved ones can leave notes to a memory and almost feel as though someone is on the other end, reading our message.
So I understand why Browning burned her diaries. I have no idea if one day, I’ll do the same. But I hope I don’t. I hope they stay in tact and when people I love read them, they realize that those memories and thoughts were mine, and they were mine then. And that they don’t judge me for feeling what I felt, but that they feel a little closer to me and my memory because they were let in on a little secret.