On diaries and journaling

3 Oct

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.

The very first entry in here is dated 4-21-91. I had turned 8 a week before. The final entry was 1-26-96. I was a few months shy of 13.

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

Aunt Nancy's journal, which I started to write in at the end of August.

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.

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3 Responses to “On diaries and journaling”

  1. Missa Lee October 3, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

    This reminds me of this lady I met my senior year of high school. I was taking a creative writing class at the community college, getting dual credit. It was mostly college freshman in my class, except this older lady (and geez, she was probably only 30, but it was old to me at the time ;). She had said that she was taking the class because she wanted to write a book. Then she told us why; her mother had been killed. Poisoned they believed. They tried to blame it on suicide but her daughter, my fellow student, just didn’t buy it. She went to her house looking for any evidence she could. Tore apart the house. And sure enough, she found a collection of diaries hidden in the middle of her mattress. In the diaries her mother had expressed fear of the man she was dating. Went so far as to say, if anything happens to me, it was him. The daughter knew the relationship wasn’t great, but never suspected. So, she wanted to write a book about her mother’s story, and how she basically became a detective trying to solve her mother’s case through her diaries. So, you just never know what can come of your personal thoughts.

    I also had a friend pass away my senior year, and at our graduation, her parents were given an honorary diploma. Her mother came up to me afterwards and said that in her journal, she had written me a letter, a letter about how much she missed my friendship (we had drifted apart of the years). She told me to come over and get it, but I just couldn’t. I kind of regret it now, because I think she would have wanted me to read it, no matter how personal, because I needed to know.

    wow- sorry this is so long….

  2. Jeff Bonty October 5, 2011 at 12:05 am #

    If you take the time to write your thoughts in a journal, some where in the future you want people to read it and see how you were at a point in your life.

    Having lost a brother growing up, I can relate to the family you write about Jac. Mike did not leave a journal. But, how calming and soothing other things he had done and we did not know until after his death.

    You have been blessed as a writer as well as a wonderful person, who I call friend. Your aunt’s diary is now a map you can draw in for her, you and us …

  3. rainb0wbubbles November 27, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    I came across this post, when I wrote something very similar to yours on my blog (im still new so I’m getting used to this place).

    I totally agree with you about it being easier to write when your life sucks rather than when things are going fantastically. I usually stick notes and receipts and all that to my diary on the good days.

    As for burning them, I don’t think I ever will, even though I have some pretty dangerous stuff in them right now. But your attitude of people who get offended by something should blame themselves makes alot of sense.

    Great Writing 🙂

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