Smoke curled up from the driveway as soon as my childhood home came into view, once I rounded the last curve on our neighborhood.
When I pulled into the driveway, my dad was crouching next to a pile of brush, kindling a small flame with clumps of dried grass. He was in jeans and black work boots. When my mother and I opened the car doors, he turned over his shoulder. He hadn’t known I was coming.
I scanned the pile of branches that he’d pulled from around the property, the collected trimmings of all the tree maintenance we’d had done when we still lived there. Most of the brush was wet from the rain, spotted with multicolored mold or lichens, but it was burning.
I looked up to the house. After we’d moved out, six months passed before my parents decided to sell the house and started cleaning it.
While I was away for my freshman year of college, my mother told me about the schedule she’d arranged for the cleanup. There was a lot to do—tear up the rugs, repaint the ceilings, sort through the boxes, burn the unsightly piles of brush in the yard—so they tackled the overwhelming list one week at a time. My parents started spending each Sunday there, throwing out the unsalvageable, picking out the antiques and estimating their market value. The tasks for this particular Sunday had already been set: burn the brush and several boxes of old documents, move our collection of neglected garden ornaments from the back deck to the dumpster, and inventory all remaining furniture to prepare it for divvying among the siblings.
Going through our possessions with the intent to give or throw most of them away was more difficult for my mother than for my father. She was, after all, the one who kept her children’s first-grade artwork eternally affixed to the kitchen walls, refusing to throw any of it out even when the construction paper and watercolors all faded to the same sun-aged shade of brown. She thinks hard before she throws anything out—because last season’s catalogue might still have a coupon, that old t-shirt would make a fine dust rag, the stuffed animals in my closet are the only physical reminder of the times I spent playing with them. As I got older and purged some relics of girlhood from my bedroom, my mother inspected each item I put into black plastic bags and labeled for the trash. She keeps the items that she’s not ready to part with, even if I am.
This is why I hear a teary edge to her voice when I call her on Sunday afternoons.
This is why, each time I visit my parents, I see a new collection of vaguely familiar lawn ornaments and holiday decorations collected unseasonably on their front porch—shaded from the summer heat, smiling behind snow, still smiling their painted-on smiles.
* * *
I began keeping a journal on July 17, 2006. I was six years old and not quite able to spell. The two-sentence entry sprawls across an entire page, reading: Today is the 1st day thath I am writeing in this book. Tomorrow I am going camping at Eestrn Slop’s. It will be fun.
I have kept journals ever since that day with varying regularity. My collection, when stacked, is over two feet high. There are 15 in all.
These journals have been the friend who never rolls her eyes, a boyfriend when I didn’t have one, the arms of my mother when she is far away. They have been a place to spill without needing to clean up. In the smooth, lined spread of two blank pages, I am the only person who can criticize me. Inside their covers, anger turns into nothing more than memory as soon as I write it down. It might cramp the muscles of my hand on the way out, but then, just as quick as I can scrawl it in my wide, unruly cursive, it’s out. It’s on paper, which is another way of knowing that whatever troubled me has passed. Through me and out of me like vomit, a sneeze, a glitch in the picture.
The fortunate byproduct of these journals has been a detailed (at some points daily) record of my life. This record is an interesting thing to possess, because even though I treasure it, it’s very boring. Many entries are addressed to Winnie the Pooh. Several pages were set aside to practice my signature and construct pro-and-con charts for sorting through problems. Most all of them discuss the trivialities of an untroubled upbringing—rejection from boys, punishment from parents, an unsatisfied craving for ice cream, a feud with a friend, successes and failures in school.
In the journals I rarely situate my life in a greater context, whether cultural, historical, or political. I failed to document some of the most newsworthy days I’ve lived through: the death of Princess Diana, Bill Clinton’s fall from presidential grace, New Year’s Eve 1999 and the arrival of the new millennium, the installation of dial-up internet for our first home computer, September 11, 2001, the capture of Sadam Hussein and the night Osama Bin Laden was killed, the nights I stayed up reading the latest Harry Potter books until I could see by sunrise instead of a flashlight, Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti or any natural disaster other than the snow that piled in my own front yard. I left all this out.
This realization came fast and hard at the very end of my sophomore year of college. I had been working through Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, adulating every sentence until I reached the essay “On Keeping a Notebook.”
“At no point have I ever been able to successfully keep a diary,” she writes. “On those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best… In fact I have abandoned altogether that kind of pointless entry.”
Pointless was the word that stung the hardest. How could the trials of my sixth-grade romance with freckle-faced Liam O’Sullivan have been pointless? Surely the tear stains dotting the entries on temporary heartbreaks and stomachaches weren’t pointless. I turned immediately to my journal at the time—cream-colored pages bound in red imitation leather—and wrote an entry to express my indignation.
I read Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook” while I ate my salad for dinner today, and it made me think. Why do I keep this book? Why do I record the mundane details of my life? Didion denounces diary-style records of each day as pointless. I feel very much to the contrary.
But the more I paged through that journal, the more pointlessness I saw.
February 3, 2011: It has been snowing, literally, every other day.
March 4, 2011: I just ate my only snack and am still super hungry.
June 10, 2011: This week really has been completely uneventful, thus rendering this entry completely pointless.
I was discouraged to find that Didion was right. At the time, I didn’t understand my compulsion to write about my life inside books that no one would ever care to read. But the habit seems obvious when I consider the way my mother amassed hundreds of scrapbooks and my sister’s shriveled prom corsages. It’s not the objects that we have in common—it’s the keeping of them. It seems that I was predisposed to be a keeper, too.
A few months after my encounter with Didion’s essay, I came across an interview with E.B. White, published in a 1969 issue of The Paris Review. The interviewer asked White whether or not he’d like to publish his journals. White’s answer was firm: “The journals are… full of rubbish. I do not hope to publish them… Occasionally, they manage to report something in exquisite honesty… This is why I have refrained from burning them.”
I latched immediately to his philosophy. He understood the compulsion to keep journals but comfortably acknowledged their inferiority. I like to think this exquisite honesty has cropped up occasionally in my own journals, too. On December 1, 2012, when my body was under siege by hormones: I don’t want to be a grown-up—that stinks. I just want to be little for longer. On June 13, 2015, when I finally got over my first heartbreak: Right now, I’m listening to the nice summer rain fall outside my window and I’m feeling alone. But I’m feeling that maybe it’s okay to be alone. And on March 30, 2016, halfway through falling in love: I keep getting that tingly stomach-drop feeling whenever I think about her.
Those are the moments that make me fall in love with the way I used to experience the world. They are proof that I have managed to keep bits of the person who put those words to paper so many years ago and that somehow even though everything is different, nothing has changed.
Illustration by Abbie Winters.