I never travel without my diary.
One should always have something sensational
to read on the train.—– Oscar Wilde
As I was writing yesterday’s first entry in my new diary, I noted its 364 still-blank pages. It reminded me that all those days, yet unrealized over this coming year, remain to be documented with whatever adventures in 2022 life brings my way. Unlike Oscar Wilde’s tongue-in-cheek boast, I am not anticipating “sensational.”
I have been keeping a diary almost every day since 1961. A few times over those years, I temporarily, and only briefly, switched to a journal format. The obvious and only difference between these two styles of privately recording one’s events, thoughts and emotions, is that a diary demands daily discipline while a journal can be written whenever one wishes to comment or reflect on one’s personal life. I disagree strongly with dictionary or literary definitions which describe a diary’s sole purpose as recording daily events. One can certainly include feelings and thoughts as well as facts into a single daily entry.
Why keep a diary? Admittedly, it is becoming a less common practice. I even have difficulty finding a real diary to purchase. Remember those old versions with leather covers and a tiny lock and key? My current substitute is actually a Mead’s 2022 Daily Planner. Journaling remains more popular and blogging, its-for-public-consumption counterpart, is an increasingly go-to social media outlet for younger generations.
Although I often include personal thoughts and emotions, my primary reason to keep a diary is to record my life’s daily happenings. And when world events are especially newsworthy, I clip part of the relevant newspaper item and paste it into the page. But the question persists: why even bother keeping a record of daily happenings? Consider these reasons:
—When needed, I can obtain information about past events simply by dusting off and opening an old diary. I regularly read from my 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer diary when I visited high school history class as a guest speaker on civil rights or to English classes studying To Kill a Mockingbird
—When I want to “revisit” a day in my past life for the purpose of indulging in nostalgia, I can time travel through my diary, even back to university days in Iowa
—One far-off future day, my yet-to-be-born great-grandchildren or other descendants may want to meet and get to know me through my handwritten entries and learn more about those troubled but still wonderful long-ago decades in which I lived and wrote
In fact, I began to keep a diary after coming into possession of my “Uncle” Joe’s annual diaries faithfully compiled through the dark years of the Great Depression, the anxieties of the Second World War and then the unanticipated joy of his post-war marriage to my widowed grandmother. Unfortunately, in my youthful ignorance, after reading his entire story I committed a terrible offence against Joe’s legacy. I cut out all the most significant entries, chopping bits and pieces from his life, and pasting them into a new, condensed synopsis of his adult years. In doing so, I desecrated the documents. Even now, my niece who is a professional archivist, cringes at the thought. (Today, those diaries still serve as a poignant and powerful witness to the 1930s and 40s and are safely stored in the archives of the Toronto Library, accessible to research scholars and historians.)
Our world has been much enriched by the preserved writings of famous diarists. We think of Anne Frank hiding from the Gestapo with her Jewish family in a secret room in war-time Holland. Samuel Pepys accurately documented the Restoration of the British monarchy, the devastating Great Plaque and Fire of London during the 17th century.
Lucy Maud Montgomery set aside time from writing three of the Anne of Green Gables stories to record her troubled emotional life as a preacher’s wife in Leaskdale, Ontario.
Which raises interesting questions: should I write cautiously, knowing that others will one day read my scribblings or am I fully transparent in putting on paper what I really think or feel; should a diary be opened and read after the death of its writer when no direction was given by the deceased?
When my family visits every December holiday, we always enjoy a traditional, year-end ritual. They insist I haul out my heavy box of accumulated diaries and set it on the dining room harvest table. With eyes closed and taking turns, each member is allowed to pull out one diary, open a random page and hand their selection to me for a public reading. The results have been informative, often amusing, always entertaining and sometimes a bit embarrassing. (I must hastily clarify that I retain the right of declining to disclose and share any self-incriminating content.)
Yesterday, I took one last peek at my 2021 diary before saying goodbye. There was my brother’s January death and Covid-delayed August funeral. I could again follow the relentless path of the disease over these past 12 months. I revisited the Capital Insurrection in Washington. Sunday Zoom visits with our Toronto family that kept us in touch. I remember being driven by family and friends for cancer treatments in Kitchener, forest fires and record heat, ball games with grandsons on the vacant lot, granddaughter off to Michigan and music, our unnecessary and wasteful Federal election, the surprise ten-day October visit from our American-based son, a too-brief Christmas family gathering, cut short by a Covid scare, home-made care packages from our daughter and varied year-end, unexpected expressions of love and caring from neighbours and friends.
Have you had the privilege of reading an ancestral diary? I know how busy many of you are but do you keep your own diary? If not, it is a perfect time of the year to begin. Three-hundred-and-sixty-four blank pages still lie ahead, awaiting what life will bring in 2022.
May you enjoy this New Year’s journey!