The Diary and the Lens

I. The Diary

I was listening to an old playlist over the weekend, and on it were a few songs that reminded me of my college days. Those days are a quarter century in the past, but the songs drew forth memories like a rod draws lightning. Some of those memories were surprisingly specific. I sat listening to the songs, and thought about my college days, but with few exceptions, all I could were the vaguest of memories, nothing like what the songs could elicit.

For a long time afterward, I thought about those lost memories, and thought about other times in my life where my memories are equally vague. Part of the reason I started to keep a diary back in 1996 was to aid what I imagined would be an aging memory. But there was something else, too. I can remember, quite clearly, laying in my bed as a boy of eight or nine, and saying to myself, “Today is Wednesday, June 19, 19xx…” (the specific date doesn’t matter, it was as arbitrary as the thought) “…Twenty years from now, I wonder if I will remember that I was thinking this, laying here in bed?”

Of course, I can’t remember what the date was, only that I had thoughts like that. Since 1996, I have diaries that I can refer to as an aid to memory. They bring some events into sharper view, but still not as clearly as I’d like. I’ve always been impressed by dedicated diarists like those of the Adams family. What I have seen and read from their diaries seems different from my own. My own entries often begin with, “Up at 6:30 am, my day to take the kids to school, and then started working…” or some variant thereof. Reading through it, I find a good accounting of the day, which helps in knowing what happened when, but isn’t much of an aid in producing clear pictures of the past in my mind.

As David McCullough wrote of John Adams:

Determined to understand human nature, fascinated by nearly everyone he encountered, [Adams] devoted large portions of his diary to recording their stories, their views on life, how they stood, talked, their facial expressions, how their minds worked. In the way that his literary commonplace book served as a notebook on his reading, his diary became his notebook on people. “Let me search for the clue which led great Shakespeare into the labyrinth of human nature. Let me examine how men think.”

My diary is more of a journal in the sense that it is an accounting of events, places, people, without much color, like columns of numbers in an ledger. It makes me confident in timelines, but does little to paint of picture of my life on a given day.

II. The Lens

Thinking about this over the weekend, it occurred to me that a diary was like a telescope lens for human memory. Without a lens, a telescope is nothing more than an empty tube, showing the world as it is today. But add a lens and point it to the heavens and you can see back in time. The better the lens, the clearer the image.

Our house is in utter disarray at the moment. Contractors have been at the walls, slapping on new coats of paint. They’ve pounded the floors, replacing the old carpets with new ones. Shelves have been cleared, books backed into 40 boxes and crammed into our Harry Potter closet (i.e. our “closet under the stairs”). Our living room is crammed with boxes that need to get put into storage. As I write this, my home office is empty, save for a desk, and this laptop. The stress and turmoil of preparing to sell a house and buy a new one has played tempest with my emotions: stress, exhilaration, sadness.

My diary entries for these days are mostly the same as they have always been. I’ve been using a very weak lens, one that allows me to see what happened on a given day, but the image is blurry to the point of uselessness. From the entries I’ve written about the recent contractor chaos, the future me would only know that work was done around the house; he’d have no idea of the mess, the stress, the constant running up and down stairs with armfuls of boxes. So I have decided to create a better lens.

Using 25-years as a guidepost, I ask myself, “How can I recreate the scene in our house these last few weeks in a way that will convey a clear picture to myself 25 years hence? What would have made my college days 25 years past more clear in my head than they are today?

I’ve found that, writer though I am, this is a difficult task, at least at first. I am so used to writing entries the way I do that it is difficult to change. Also, it means writing more, and I am often weary at the end of the day. But I am fighting these difficulties in an effort to produce a better lens through which to view my life.

Why it should be that I am so caught by this desire to document I can’t properly explain. I’m not sure I know myself. Part of it is imitation. People I’ve admired have done the same. Part of it is utility: that “when did such-and-such take place?” thing. Since my kids were born, part of it is a desire to show them what my life was like (and theirs) when they are older. Part of it is the pure joy of writing. But a stronger lens, I think, will help to banish some of the melancholy I feel when thinking of the passage of time.

As McCullough wrote,

They must keep diaries, Adams told [his grandchildren] as once he had told their father. Without a diary, their travels would “be no better than a flight of birds through the air,” leaving no trace.

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