(Gorgeous Art by Pamela Carlson)
In August of 2011, I wrote about the heady experience of opening my great aunt’s 1922 diary for the first time. I was with my mother, who’d pulled the big, leather-bound journal out of a drawer where she’d been keeping it for years, and we marveled at our ability to read my aunt’s words nearly ninety years after she’d written them. I had two emotions as I ran my fingers along the straight, neat lines of Mary Drake’s life. The first was gratitude. I felt incredibly fortunate to have such an opportunity, a precious gift that had traveled through time to reach me.
The second feeling was more complicated. As I scanned the words and wondered what secrets they might reveal, I felt a sudden, intense protectiveness. I wondered if she would have liked knowing her private thoughts were laid bare before me. Did she write them with that possibility in mind, or did this book get left behind accidentally, one of the many inevitable loose ends of a long, full life?
I stopped reading, focused instead on the space between lines, and thought about my own journals, stacked in a drawer of the antique vanity table I use as a desk (an antique vanity table that, coincidentally, belonged to my aunt.) I could see them in my mind’s eye, four black notebooks chronicling the past three years: my utterly ungraceful slog through my shit. I thought of someone sitting on the floor just as I was at that moment, cradling my journals just as I was cradling my aunt’s.
“I have to burn my notebooks,” I said to my mom, and then I smiled, hoping to throw her off the scent of my sudden dread.
It didn’t work. With absolute understanding, my mom said, “Or you could shred them.” Our eyes met, and I knew she wasn’t speaking hypothetically. “I’ve done it,” her eyes told me, and I laughed the laugh of a co-conspirator, but honestly I wasn’t sure how to feel.
On the one hand, I certainly understood the impulse. Holding my aunt’s diary, I felt like an intruder. If I could have asked her if it was okay to read it, I would have. And if she’d said that it wasn’t, if she’d ask me to burn it, I’d have done so without hesitation. On the other hand, despite my own misgivings, I felt sad that my mom had destroyed the record of her own journey. For days afterward, I grieved the part of my mother’s story I would never know.
It’s been almost two years since that day with my mom. My notebooks are still stacked in the same drawer. In fact there are five now, but for the last year or so, I haven’t been journaling much at all. I haven’t felt the need to. The truth is, the five notebooks in that drawer cover a very specific, very difficult time in my life. Much of what I wrote, I wrote while crying. I dug deep, hit my own emotional barriers, and then dug deeper. I was reeling and the words I wrote helped me make sense of myself and the world in a way that nothing else could. I don’t know what I would have done without them.
So it surprised me when I read Danielle LaPorte’s post, “Why I burned my journals & celebrate my insignificance,” and all I could think of the whole time was, “YES.”
Because I’m here now, the strongest version of myself I’ve ever been. I’m fond of that past me; I hold her close in my heart. I’m grateful for all that she went through so I could be right here, right now, but I don’t want to revisit the pages of her life. And while I don’t really want anyone else to either, that’s not the main reason I feel so drawn to the idea of a ceremonial burn. Danielle wrote this:
I love deep and I’m very ritualistic, but I’m not very nostalgic… I love my present and I love my future. I love the vastness of my past. But I’ve found that investing in the future has way better ROI… I want my past to move through me like water. I want my ideal future to come to me as easily. Fluid yesterday, fluid tomorrow.
We all carry our pasts inside us, for better and worse, and I’m okay with that. I don’t need the journals to remind me of where I’ve been, and I firmly believe where I’m going is more interesting.
And so, this weekend, there will be a fire – a release, a forward leap, a celebration of me… and my mom.
I absolutely loved the conversation that took place in the comments section of my original post on this. I wanted to write about it again now that I’ve come to a decision and ask you all what you think – if you like Danielle’s distinction between ritual and nostalgia, if you ever read through your old journals, and have you ever destroyed them?