This week I am packing up an office I have had for seven years outside my home. I rented it during a time when our house felt noisy and chaotic and I needed a place of my own. Really, as Virginia Wolf famously said, a room of my own, because this is a pretty tiny room. But it was for a long time such a refuge for me. For a while I would feel guilty if I went there and didn’t work, didn’t write, didn’t even get business correspondence done, but just sat and read or, later, meditated or quietly thought my thoughts, which were often very different thoughts than I typically had in my house. It was the only space in my world that was just for me.
But recently I noticed that I wasn’t using my office as much, that I had gotten into a routine in my now quiet house that I really enjoyed. I have sort of been floating around, working in the kitchen one day, the dining room another, outside when the weather is right. Sometimes I stand at the high counter in the kitchen, knowing it’s better for me than sitting, and an hour will go by before I will suddenly realize that my dog, Poppy, has been outside and has dug into my freshly planted impatiens. I liked the theory of my office, I liked the idea of it, knowing I had an escape hatch. But I came to realize that with both my daughters no longer living at home (and my husband, coming out of a rough health patch and now not needing to spend his afternoons napping or his mornings sleeping in) the house was mostly empty and the place I wanted to “escape” was not FROM my house but TO my house.
So I am packing up. Probably because I liked the idea of personal papers staying in one, easy to remember place, I have used my office (tiny as it is, it has a decent sized closet with shelves) to store cartons of old journals, diaries, photographs and letters. I don’t go into them often, but I opened one of them up yesterday, primarily to see what I might possibly want to winnow out to make the move a bit lighter. What, of my long ago past life, did I really need to keep?
I had looked at some of the stuff from my teen years a few years ago, but hadn’t looked at later journals and letters from my twenties in a very long time. I wondered, now that my own daughters were this age, how we compared. Who was I at 23, at 26?
Well, not shockingly, I present quite different personas in my letters than I do in my journals. In my letters I recognize my own voice, recognize an interest in communicating with the person to whom I was writing, I see my effort to present an honest if customized version of myself. I don’t, of course, have many of my own letters, (but, surprisingly, I do have a few) but even reading letters from others which refer to mine gives me a sense of what I had written, and memory does fill in some blanks. But the journals, oh my God.
Maybe I used my journals for my most superficial, compulsive, narccistic, judgemental, (I was by far hardest on myself) completely self-absorbed side of my personality. You know that expression, it’s not always about you? Well, yes it is, or certainly was in my early/mid twenties. They are like Bridget Jones diaries in that they are completely obsessed with recording food intake (at least I didn’t really smoke or drink much), including calorie counts, and exercise sessions and the number on the scale. DAILY. But they are devoid of wit or the sparkling writing of Bridget. I was working fairly consistently in my twenties as a TV writer, there are many references to jobs and meetings and scripts and writing sessions with my partner. But you would never know it to read these journals. Oh, what else was I obsessed with besides numbers on the scale? Boys. I was in my twenties, they were, technically, men, but the way I write about them it’s not so much that THEY sound like boys (although sometimes they do) but that I sound like a boy crazy teen GIRL from 1962. But these pages are from around 1980, and they are completely mortifying.
I look at this picture of me at 23, and I can’t help wondering, who is that girl? I honestly don’t remember being that obsessed with dating and boyfriends. I do remember some of the most awful dramatic moments (on my 25th birthday I spent THREE hours on the phone with this guy telling me why I didn’t match up to what he wanted in a girlfriend. Seriously?) But much of it was a haze until I read the incriminating evidence. On a Tuesday I was planning on which dress to wear for a Friday night date, which style would best show off my attributes or disguise my flaws. I mean, honestly, you know the guys grabbed a somewhat clean workshirt and their favorite pair of jeans. (And should I add that in a few cases, I barely even remember a couple of those young men who I wanted to impress so much?) I was like that character in the movie “”He’s Just Not That Into You,” trying to figure out what this guy meant when he said he was going out of town and would call me early next week. Like, what constitutes “early”? Monday, Tuesday….cause you know by Wednesday I would be a head case. Two things struck me…..one was that I had a much more active social life than I had previously thought. What I remember is a lot of loneliness but I was not wanting for company, and I also had quite a large friend circle. I went out a lot, and most of the time it was fun. So, perhaps that revelation made keeping these journals worthwhile.
But most of the writing? The great, majority, pages and pages of them, are handwritten garbage.
Why on earth did I keep these? Did I not see how humiliating they are? I mean, they are humiliating to ME, I am humiliated, thirty-five years later, sitting cross legged on the floor of my office, reading them. I came home with the three most horrible (as I said, the teen ones are actually more interesting, and record times and events that would have been long lost to memory) with plans to throw them in the fire. But then I realized, I am not a Game of Thrones character, I live in Los Angeles, not in a castle in Westeros, I do not have roaring fires going…..anywhere. I have a gas grill. But, honestly, these are too embarrassing to just throw out. Even just the idea of another human reading them anywhere at anytime….they are sitting in the trunk of my car now and all I can think about is how I can burn them.
There is a wonderful song in the musical HAMILTON where a major character, without going into details that could ruin it for anyone who doesn’t know the story, decides to burn letters, to deprive future historians of knowing what she said or how she felt about a certain event. It is a sad moment, but she is triumphant, she is taking control of what she can, although I do feel slightly frustrated that we don’t have those letters. I am frankly kind of amazed by all the letters and journals historians DO have, including the ones that often do not make the writers look or sound their best. While some historical figures were absolutely mindful of the idea that their letters would survive and be read by future generations, even the most famous of their times seemed to forget that and the best are filled with juicy, ribald and often hilarious observations that show them in an unflattering but human light, and they absolutely bring them, across the centuries, to vibrant life.
I realize, of course, I am not a historical figure. But I have thought, hmmmm….when I die, would I want anyone reading these? The truth is I would LOVE to have letters and journals of my parents when they were young, and the few that do exist are appropriately treasured as time capsules from another era and a snapshot of my parents at certain times in their lives. But…..no. No, I do not want to be remembered this way, even (0r maybe especially) by my own daughters. I do have the right to “curate” my own letters and diaries. We all do. But I am leaving the remaining teen diaries. They are embarrassing in their own right sometimes, but I give myself a pass, I was a teenage girl!
But re-reading this past evidence of my humiliating twenty-something if not existence, then the documenting of that existence, has presented me with an opportunity, one that I could not possibly have thought about thirty-five years ago. It has softened my own feelings towards my younger self, I really was kind of an idiot in some ways, but I was a mostly good person trying to find my way. And it has also softened my feelings toward my own daughters and the other young people in my life. All of us are works in progress but reading these journals I realize that this young adult time….wow, it’s got a lot of challenges. I can read about it and have, but seeing/hearing my younger self really makes me want to embrace all of us at that age, whether we are somewhat in flux, as I was, or are one of those young people who seem to broad jump into adulthood, who have the house and the job and the mate and the kids before thirty. One of my daughters has a friend who got divorced at twenty-six and when I heard this I couldn’t help but think, “Huh? How does that even happen?”—which shows you how clueless I can be. It makes me think of a favorite quote of mine from Picasso, “It takes a long time to grow young.”
Occasionally, usually in a coffee place, I will see a young person sitting at a table writing in longhand in an old fashioned hard cover journal. This young person often does not have her (she is more than likely female, but not always) phone out, and she is usually dressed in a way that expresses who she is without showing any interest in current trends. Often there are sketches as well as writing in the pages of the journal. So, there are a few millennials who are carrying on the tradition, of making their personal mark in the world just for themselves, that are leaving social media for a different kind of exposure. I realize that in my case some of my journal writing was just a way of taking notes on myself, of giving myself goals, of checking in that on some level I was HERE. And I can’t help but consider that blogging is connected to that. But all bloggers are (or certainly should be) aware that their writing is being read by others. Journal writing is, mostly, just for the writer. I don’t regret the often daily writing I did, quite regularly (with some gaps) from age eight until twenty six. (It is not coincidental that, for a myriad of reasons, while I kept writing letters, my journal writing ceased soon after I met my future husband. I moved to New York, I tried out different professions, I simply did not have enough solitude for that kind of writing anymore.) Leafing through these journals, trying to be more compassionate to my younger self, I do see some introspection, and I did from time to time use the daily writing as a way of figuring things out about myself and my place in it.
But they still need to go up in flames.