Last weekend, Dominique Browning, former editor of the now defunct House and Garden magazine and author of “Slow Love,” a memoir about losing her job and finding herself, wrote a piece that appeared in my favorite creampuff, the New York Times Sunday Style section.
She wrote about the fact that she has kept journals – better known as diaries when we were young – her entire sentient life. First in pretty little pink books that were locked shut with a key (and which of course could be picked by any enterprising brother or parent,) then onto notebooks and the more adult journals of today. She has kept it all – notes about lovers and loves, children, parents and work, life and death.
Her shocking revelation? She decided to burn them. All of them. Rather than have her emerging adult sons ever find her barest soul confessions, she burned her past. She justified her actions by noting that her journals were never, ever meant for anyone to read.
Now, I am not and have never been a true journaler (if there is indeed such a word. It’s certainly not journalist – that would be my husband. And it’s not journalista – although maybe it should be.) But I love having some kind of recorded history of my life.
I kept a few diaries when I was a young teen. A few more in college and beyond. Every couple of years I get inspired and troll the aisles of my local book store to find the most perfect, most beautiful book in which I can release all my thoughts. Sometimes it's moleskine. Sometime's it's unlined. No matter what, it never works. First, I have the most atrocious handwriting, and so anything that goes down in a book has but a 50-50 chance of ever being understood again – and so the computer is much more of a tool for me for writing even my most luminous secrets.
Second, I bore myself. Who wants to write down all their trials and tribulations on a daily basis? So I use my notebooks, as any good writer will, as a placeholder for ideas for the more extensive writing I will do … in the future and on the computer. I note down words that intrigue me, ideas for blogs and short stories, snippets of conversations I overhear (because as a writer, I AM a spy.) I jot down interesting quotes from books, from magazines, from subway ads. I muse about work issues, and try to work out my neuroses and agita, but in a terribly truncated manner. Really not even enough for a good psychotherapy session.
In the end, I do love my journals, but they certainly don’t tell the story of my life. At least not the full story. So I have very little anxiety about someone finding them and reading them. In fact, I have just enough writer’s ego to hope that someone will, simply because they find me and my life so utterly fascinating.
Several weeks ago I went digging in some boxes in search of an old photo. The photo in question was at last found at the bottom of a box of old letters, postcards, photographs, notes and yes, journals – starting from junior high school, moving through high school, college and the first few years out of college. The piles essentially stopped with love notes from my now-husband from the first year we were dating (which was a sweet revelation in and of itself.)
What a trove of treasure this was! First, to be reminded of people from my past, some of whom are still part of my present (thank you, Facebook!), and all the others in between. People I have loved, who loved me, who were a part of my life in some of its most formative moments. Those who knew me when.
Second, to remember that I have always been a writer, and to believe that I must have inspired others to do the same – so many letters, so many notes, so many words exchanged. I kept a few 8 and 10 page letters that were never sent to their intended recipients (a good decision, in hindsight.) I have postcards from friends’ travels, and long, long letters from close friends who left me behind when they chose to leave the place we were in together to explore another path.
Finally, I found a pile of diaries and journals. All half written, yes, but filled nevertheless with pain and passion and the deep adolescent yearning to untangle the affairs of the heart.
I never want to lose these words. I would never burn or destroy any of them, not my journals, not my friends’ letters, not my parents missives from the summers I went to camp, not my former beaux’s love notes, not even the raging diatribe from someone whose heart I broke. They are brilliant little gems representing times in my life, and reading through them made me feel sparkly and special.
I am here. I have loved and have been loved, in a way far different (and far more emotionally unsettling) from the sweet and relatively serene family life I enjoy in my middle age. Seeing the words from my past steeped me in the me who once was.
In the end, Dominique Browning may regret her impetuous act of arson. For who wants to lose the voices of their past? Who wants to lose the anchor of personal history? I like having the words of those friends and loves follow me into new phases of my life. They sit up in my attic, stored, keeping guard, wisely overseeing my transitions from the person I once was to the person I am today and who I will be tomorrow.
photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr