Diaries are Work

The box had been next to my desk for a few weeks, still sealed with copious amounts of packing tape. Glancing down, I decided it was time to see exactly what was inside.

My sister shipped the box to me after asking a deceptively simple question. "Do you want Dad's journals?" It seemed unkind to say no, but I don't think anyone really knows what to do with someone else's journals. Are you honoring their memory or violating their privacy? How will it change the way you remember them?

Inside was a large stack of spiral notebooks in a variety of colors. He had numbered them and added a date range to each cover. I sorted them into piles until I found number one.

The very first entry, written when I was a year old, began with this: "Diaries are work."

How true. I've made many attempts at keeping a journal over the years and none has lasted longer than a few weeks. I've sought the perfect Moleskine and pen and experimented with innumerable apps. In recent years, I stopped trying. We document our lives so thoroughly—every thought, photo, location, steps total, and restaurant review—that it feels like there isn't much left.

A personal journal is something else entirely, of course. It's a chance for more honesty and reflection than we allow ourselves elsewhere. When Jack wrote about his experience, I was newly inspired. The revelation for me was the five-year journal.

In a five-year diary each day (i.e. November 29) has its own page. The page is divided into fifths—one for each year—and when you write in it at the end of the day, you can see what you wrote the previous years.

There's always the question in my mind about whether the effort is worth it. What will I do with this? Will I ever read it again? It's unlikely that I will stop and revisit a journal in the future and the idea of someone else reading it years from now isn't particularly motivating at midnight.

The five-year journal helps enormously with that. I know I'll read what I wrote today a year from now. I'll be able to see patterns. I'll be reminded of disappointments that appear smaller in retrospect, wishes that were granted, and kindnesses I might have forgotten.

There's much to be gained through writing day after day, too. There's something about setting aside devices, taking a deep breath, and thinking through the day. The limited space surfaces the things that truly matter. I've already had the experience of thinking a day was unpleasant and then, after recapping it in a few sentences, realizing how much there was to be grateful for amidst the rather insignificant frustrations.

My dad's first entry continued (inspired by his love of Mark Twain, I suspect):

Bob and I go to talking at lunch one day about how interesting it would be to see our own diaries of 10 or 20  years ago or to read a diary kept by our dads or their dads, so then he says how's your diary coming and I say hrumpth, it ain't. His was and I'm better than him so I got in the '69 Chevy pick-up and stopped at Patterson's Drugs and got 2 notebooks. [One was for my 8-year old sister.] What if what if what if I had kept up from age 8 to 33.

He might have missed 8 to 33, but he kept a diary for the rest of his life. He went so far as to try paying me and my siblings for each entry we did in our own journals when we were kids. Even that, sadly, did not overcome my indifference, though my sisters embraced the habit.

Intimidated by the pile of journals spread across the floor, I started skipping around, quickly flipping through one and skimming another. One opened to a page that had something stapled to it. When I realized what it was, I was dumbfounded.

I've written about the time I accidentally dropped baseball tickets in the mailbox on the night of the game. We eventually called the box office, who agreed to let us in after I provided the section, row, and seat details, which I had memorized in anticipation.

Stapled to that page in this random journal was the envelope that was waiting for us at the stadium. Written on the outside was the following:

The boy dropped his tix in mail by mistake — let them in side gate. 114 6 17,18

Diaries are work, but it's deeply rewarding work. I understand that now.

Last month, I bought two five-year journals. I gave the second one to my son.