Recently, I embarked on a project to read my old journals. I have been keeping these since the early 1970s when I was 20 years old, so you can imagine that I was confronted by quite a stack of them. Part diary, part lists of things — like movies seen, books read — they are also travel memoirs, self-analysis and editorials on the events of the day (what we did before blogs were invented).
The act of journal keeping is part of many people’s lives. The question, though, is why? We write these things, but if you’re anything like me, you never (until a moment like now) actually read them.
My ostensible motivation was that I needed to vet my dusty stack before something happens to me. Do I really want my children and grandchildren seeing them? Had my own grandparents left journals behind, I assure you I would have welcomed them. One of my aunts kept a diary filled with a richness of minutiae, including what she ate for dinner and what the weather was like on almost every day of the 20th century. Yet you can never be sure about your own work; is there not an argument for making a bonfire?
I ploughed into them and before long was astonished to find great slices of my life that I had almost completely forgotten. People and events emerged that I would never have recalled were it not for the prompting of the journal. We believe we have the narrative of our past safely locked into memory until we go and do some checking.
I became so sentimental about some rediscovered people that they started showing up in my dreams. I got busy Googling others to see if I could track them down and possibly reunite. I was reminded — to my shame — that people I’ve not talked to in years were once dear friends showing up on almost every page.
Frequently, I found the material familiar but hardly recognized the writer. Who was this person, this younger me? As you might expect, there was no shortage of pomposity and overblown seriousness, especially early on when I was trying to figure out who I was, or as I sounded off about world events like the Vietnam War and Watergate. It was sometimes dismaying to rediscover what, over the years, had obsessed me. The pages were peppered with lengthy quotes from the likes of Frantz Fanon, Herbert Marcuse and Father Daniel Berrigan — leftist writers I’ve not given a thought to in decades.
What use is all this writing? Was there an original purpose? If the volumes were to be a help to me in my later life, they have hardly done that because I have never consulted them. It made me want to hear from other journal keepers who can perhaps shed light on this act of writing everything down and then letting decades pass without looking at it.
In the end, I decided to let these volumes survive. If my children and grandchildren want to look at them some distant day, they are welcome to — though I certainly will not require them to. Further, I would issue the warning that there is nothing there that is definitive. There are only the musings and recordings of a moment. Treat them seriously but also with a grain of salt. Having made that decision, I got out my current journal and penned a new entry.
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