How To Control Your Life
Do you keep a diary?
Probably not. Or maybe it’s only an appointment diary, just for noting down where you need to be when, and whose birthday is coming up and so on. Paper or digital? On your laptop, your phone or your phablet? Do you write things in your diary/calendar/ToDo list with a pen, your finger, a digital pen, or a stylus? Or perhaps you just let Cortana, or Siri, or Google do that bit?
Or perhaps you Tweet, or blog, or put your life on Facebook?
We’ve come a long way since Samuel Pepys wielded his silver pen to inscribe his daily musings, using his own shorthand method because they were so voluminous, or Edith Holden used her paintbrush and pen to capture the Edwardian countryside.
Or have we?
Where will your smartphone, or blog, or Facebook page be in 350 years’ time? Will people still be treasuring your Tweets in 110 years’ time? Pepys’ diary still conjures up the catastrophic events in London in the seventeenth century with an immediacy and vividness which enables us to see the events as they unfolded three and a half centuries back. Edith Holden’s ‘Country Diary’ shows us a long vanished rural Solihull in all its minute fascination before the First World War. Our view of the world and our history in it would be much poorer without either of these people and their painstaking records of their lives.
A friend of mine, let’s call her Mandy, on looking back after a couple of decades at a diary she kept while at school remarked wonderingly: “Was I ever really that person? I don’t remember being like that”. After school (and at home during her time at school) her life had been rather miserable - but at school she was happy because she was involved, she had a good group of friends, and there was always something going on. When she was looking back all those years later she was unhappy again, and it seemed amazing to her that she’d ever been so carefree, so engaged with life, and so full of anticipation rather than dread. The diary was a bit of a lifesaver on the day she found it again.
A diary is a record of what happens to you on a daily basis. It’s a record of the thoughts you have about what happens to you, your responses to life as it unrolls. You are, for the moment of writing, a particular person - and you may never be that person again. Life happens, it intervenes, it changes us. If you don’t capture a time, you’ve lost it and you might never get it back.
You also probably have a memory box (or drawer, or trunk, or storage facility…) in which you keep lots of mementoes: tickets, programmes, cards, letters, trinkets, presents, photographs. Ah - photographs. Here’s another thing: the faded sepia-toned, dog-eared and creased daguerreotype of the past has become the digital image captured in a second on a smartphone, or the video snatched as-it-happens and uploaded to YouTube in less time than it took to polish the plate for a daguerreotype. And all those digital images are stored on computers, or on removable media, or in the Cloud.
It’s all got a touch evanescent and worryingly ‘not there’, those things you want — need — to revisit all through your life and which future people on the planet might find useful, interesting and enlightening. It can also, ironically, become more difficult to access memories (as formats change, for example, and devices become obsolete). If you kept a diary/calendar in the early days, say on a Psion, where’s that diary now? Not in a form you can read or access. Do you know someone who’s lost their device and all the data? Do you know someone who’s had a backup failure? Or whose Cloud storage has been corrupted, closed down or lost in some other way? Nightmare City.
There is no one hundred per cent safe way to store your memories. Pepys might have lost all his diaries in the Great Fire in 1666, or Edith Holden’s beautifully crafted paintings might, like Carlyle’s manuscript (purportedly), have ended up being used as firelighters. Digital is better in that it can immediately be copied, backed up. Except we don’t do it. Or we do it and the backup fails at the same time as the original. Or we rely on the backup and then find it doesn’t exist because someone else has failed to do what they were meant to do. However - accidents and mishaps apart - being able to copy things, again and again so as to make absolutely sure, means that we are less likely to lose our memories.
Those of us who will actually lose our memories - personal, biologically-based memories as opposed to loss of backups or memory sticks - will have a precious resource in anything we have which reminds us of who we were, a real aid to help us keep our memory intact longer. Those of us who live to be very old will be able to keep in touch, when everyone we knew has died, with who we once were. Memory is not only precious, it’s vital.
So, how can you stay in control of your memories?
Keep things, write things down, take photographs, paint, draw - however you best record your responses to life - and then put them all together. We are in a digital age, so a database is the thing. It’s a life raft, and it’s a good amalgam of the memory box, the diary, the old, and the new.
The sort of database you need is one which doesn’t have to be organised. Not the sort where you have to design it, sketching out hierarchies and relationships and so on ad nauseam before you start - life is too short and you wouldn’t keep up with the thing. The database you need is one where you simply put what you want into it (words, pictures, scanned images, photographs) and, when you need to find them, you can. You simply type in a word or two, and up they pop. It won’t work any other way. Human beings don’t think, if they want to find that scribbled note about a good plumber the guy in the fish shop gave them: “Operatives; subsection: tradespeople: subsection plumbers”; they think: “Didn’t that guy in that fish shop give me a note of a plumber’s name?”. So when you go to your database to look for that note, all you want to put in is ‘plumber’ (or fish shop, or the name of the fish shop if that’s the way you think).
You could, of course, simply find the piece of paper the guy gave you originally. Six months down the line. In the pocket of the coat you were wearing that night (you remember what you were wearing that night, don’t you?). If, of course, the coat hasn’t been to the cleaners or through the wash in the meantime. Or maybe you threw the paper onto the mess that’s your desk? Or put the note somewhere safe (tucked it into the telephone directory? Put it in your bedside table? On the kitchen worktop? Pinned it to the fridge?) It’s lost, isn’t it?
You’ve got a computer (if you haven’t, your life is probably so simple that you don’t need a database either…). A computer can find things quicker than you can, and probably that computer in your home is not fully earning its keep. Databases don’t cost much - certainly not in comparison with the time, energy and effort they can save you. (We spend a vast amount of time, both at home and at work, looking for things we’ve misplaced.) They don’t cost much when the money-saving is taken into account (all those coupons and vouchers you never used because you couldn’t find them at the critical point, for example). And they certainly don’t cost much when it comes to not losing your memories - ask anyone who’s suffered that nightmare.
Find yourself a database (AllMyNotes, Evernote - there are some good ones out there) and start using it (there’s only a very small .learning curve for this type of database). Get yourself a scanner (they’re tiny, and inexpensive), and start scanning all those scraps of paper, and all the memories (and highly useful information) on them, into the database. Scan cards (Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries…), old photos, tickets - you know what you’ve got - and, every time you want some information or a trip down memory lane, it will be right there for you.
It’s a far, far better place for your everyday thoughts as you go through your life than Twitter, or Facebook, or even a blog, because you can back it up instantly. You can take it around with you and share memories and useful bits of information with other people. Most of all, you can be sure it’s safe because you can copy it to different places, endlessly.
And one day, perhaps you can publish some of it and turn yourself into a Pepys or an Edith Holden - famous down the centuries for your daily life.
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