“Read at your own risk” is the inscription on the inside cover of my personal journals. When I started writing on loose-leaf paper in my late twenties, little could I have imagined that almost forty years later I would have accumulated so many notebooks. The early writing is sparse. I was in my first marriage and the relationship was not going well. My husband accidentally let it slip that he had “snooped.” It no longer safe to record my true thoughts, feelings, and even some activities. Before my marriage ended, I became so desperate to have this place of complete honesty that I bought a steel box in which to lock the pages.
These first entries were set in a binder. I progressed to lined notebooks. In the mid nineteen-eighties a friend gave me a book titled “Journeying Through the Days 1985.” Each day of the year was allotted a half a page of blank space. Under the day and time was a short scripture verse. Sunday was given a full page, and opposite was a beautiful picture from nature. Through the four years I used these journals, I stapled in extra pages. I needed more space. I went back to notebooks, finding I preferred the ones with spiral spines. The motley collection now rests in two large cardboard boxes in my basement storage.
So why have I kept a journal all these years? I quickly discovered that I could write exactly what I was feeling and thinking. Putting painful, hurt feelings on the page diminished their intensity within me. This was particularly helpful through challenging major life changes such as divorce, remarriage, and step-family life. While in therapy and at other times, I have recorded dreams that encourage deeper reflection. I wrote about important details of events that I did not want to forget, and this helped me to process them.
My journals became a place of solace, and, I would like to think, emotional, spiritual, and psychological growth. They may have prevented me from ever becoming a “mental health patient”, needing psychotropic drugs to manage my life. I discovered that the things that had upset me even as recently as the prior week or month, were of less importance than the energy I had poured out on them at the time. I could see patterns in responses and behaviours that I was not always proud of. I could see that I let situations or other people have more power over me than was warranted.
Over the years I have periodically picked up a journal from ten or so years earlier, and read my life as I had expressed it then. I began to see how easy it is to forget details of not just painful but also of joyous things. I recently re-read the scant but important notation following the birth of my daughter. I had forgotten the precise times, and quick succession of events. The memory flooded me with pleasure. I copied it and sent it to her. I can also acknowledge that I have learned a few things about myself, how I relate to others, and who I am in the world. It is a humbling reminder that I continue to be a “work in progress.”
Professionally, I have recommended journaling to others as a spiritual practice. Inevitably two concerns arise: Some feel they cannot trust others not to peek – hence my opening line, but tucking it away in a safe non-tempting place can also help. Early in my second marriage, my husband also started keeping a journal. Fortunately we have sufficient trust that I know he would not look at mine. Besides, being my closet confidant, he has heard much of what is there.
So why write at all when you have the opportunity to express the story to another? Sometimes I need to repeat things, if only to myself. Or perhaps I wish, or need, to say them first to myself before sharing with another. At four in the morning when sleep is elusive and anxiety or fears have invaded the treadmill of my mind, there is no one else who can listen. Other times I write to hear myself think, or to express feelings over and over until they dissipate.
Most importantly, my journal never talks back to me or tells me it’s bored or has had enough. It’s just there to accept all of me, all the bumps, bruises, joys, and sorrows, without judgment. It doesn’t say “you should do this or that,” rather it asks me to listen to myself, to my heart, and to clarify what it is I want or need to do in a particular situation.
The other repeated concern with keeping a journal is what to do with them when you die or can no longer keep track of them. Several years ago my husband went away with his notebooks, had a final look, and then burned them. I thought I might do the same. However, while recently reviewing some from the nineteen-eighties, I realized I couldn’t destroy them. They are the most honest witness to my life through all the years. I’m not keeping them so that anyone else will ever read them. I am keeping them so that from time to time over the rest of my life, I can see and remember details I have forgotten and will again forget. All of my life matters – at least to me.
I am less worried about someone reading them after my death. No one else will have the time, patience or interest. I can only take them ten pages at a time. Some pages are not worth the read. In places I can’t read my own writing. In parts the ink has faded. Even I get bored after a short time, and want to get on with my life now. Maybe I need to change the inscription inside the front cover to say “reading may put you to sleep.”
Regardless, I will keep writing with the beautiful fountain pen my husband gave me the first year of our marriage, as long as I have the strength in my hands, heart and mind.