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A Personal Look at Journaling

Author | Laurie Whelden

Seven months ago, my husband and I bought our first home. Though having a toddler running around made it a bit difficult, we slowly but surely unpacked our boxes and found new homes for (almost) everything. (Little plug here: Morgan was a big help!)

Seven months later, however, there’s one box that still sits unpacked. We have a corner of our master bathroom that would otherwise be empty - so now it is occupied by The Box. I have a theory that everyone has a box, the box that moves from house to house and often never finds a home. For me, that is my box of journals.

I started keeping a journal when I was in elementary school. Since then, I have almost always had a notebook that in some way tracks my life: day to day musings, my newest crush, strange dreams, and most of the larger rites of passage. When I revisit my journals of childhood, the entries range from silly - another fight with my big sister, and debates about whether someone was or wasn’t my best friend - to serious: processing my parents’ divorce. In my adolescence I pined over many boys and confessed my deepest yearnings for a more exciting life. During college I delved into love and heartbreak, fights with friends, and wondered what my future held. In my 20s, my writings detailed falling in love with my now husband, my anticipation as we neared our wedding, and the ups and downs of trying to start our family.

When I look back at the journals now, I’m riveted. They take me away to another version of myself, one that suddenly feels real again - like an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time.

Sometimes the cliched teenage entries are unbearably funny - I try to read them out loud to my husband but I laugh so hard I can’t. But there are darker entries, too. Times when I come off as desperate, insecure, selfish. I am embarrassed to know this person - to have once been her. I made mistakes. I self-loathed. I kept a count of all the calories I ate some days. I wrote some cringeworthy poetry.

In Joan Didion’s beautiful essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” she delves into why some of us are compelled to write down our life. And in terms of revisiting the entries, she articulates: “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” I want to say this is why I keep the journals - so that I can better understand myself. But in truth, I wonder if I keep them for other reasons. Is it self-indulgence? Is it to share with my children, assuming they will be as fascinated to read them as I would be to read my own parents’ thoughts? Do I want to keep some kind of record that I was here?

In a survey, a few Humble Home readers chimed in on their reasons for keeping a journal. Many stated their reason for keeping one was part of self-care and good mental health. In that way, a journal serves its purpose at the moment we write in it. In theory, we can part with it when its pages are filled, ready to move on. However, 73% of those surveyed said that they keep their journals to revisit. Doing so can provide us with clarity on the past, as we return to big moments and emotions with new eyes. It can make the past feel more tangible, too. Reading my mother’s entries in my baby journal makes her time as a young mom come to life for me (though, funny enough, she has no interest in rereading those pages).

Part of me envies my friends who don’t journal. People who can just live their life and let it pass, undocumented. And yet, when I uncover a notebook I haven’t seen in ages, I feel so grateful to have something that encapsulates a time that could have just been forgotten. Like a photograph from our past, it can never be created in the present. It’s a kind of gift to unwrap, over and over. But at times, still a burden.

Where does this leave us with unpacking the box? I don’t feel comfortable leaving the journals on our living room shelf, where photo albums and yearbooks have a home. The idea of someone browsing through them leaves me uneasy. So for now, they’ll stay in our bedroom. Rather than hidden in a box, I may unpack them on our small bookshelf there. Hopefully I will learn to look back on my past selves with endearment and empathy. Not tucking them away in the bathroom may be the first step.

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