I’m Sure Glad I Started Journaling in January 2020
In April, my writing group used “reflections on life during the COVID pandemic” as a writing prompt for submissions. We were meeting online, and the topic felt like a good exercise for writing out some of our feelings. Given the rollercoaster of emotions we all were experiencing, we wanted to commiserate with each other through our words.
The exercise sent me, flipping through my daily journal. I stepped backward through time to mid- March when I canceled my flight to Pennsylvania to visit my nephew in the hospital getting cancer treatment. The government had recommended canceling non-essential travel. But I also couldn’t risk exposing an immunocompromised little boy to coronavirus.
A few pages further, I read about attending a conference in Orlando. Even during that first weekend of March, I realized attending a gathering with thousands of people jeopardized my upcoming plans to visit my nephew. I worried the 12 days between trips was not long enough to ensure his safety.
In an entry from the last days of February, I wrote about meeting a friend for dinner. We sat down at our table, and she immediately handed me an alcohol wipe. I looked at her quizzically. She had family in Italy, and she was worried. I took the wipe and followed her lead, wiping my hands, wrists, and the table. Our dinner was the same day the US announced its first case of community transmission.
Both events were notable enough to get inked into my journal.
I haven’t always appreciated the value of journals
I’ve tried to keep a journal off and on ever since I was a kid. In middle school, I had one of those journals with a little tab that inserted into a lock on the cover with a click, and a flimsy stamped key secured it in place.
I didn’t know what to write about. I felt silly recording mundane things each day because I had no idea why I would want to remember all that minutia. I felt small in the grander scheme of the world, so I didn’t think my thoughts held enough value to be retained permanently in ink.
I have stacks of abandoned journals that I’ve saved over the years. They represent different eras of my life where I made an effort to start journaling but never followed through. Most have more blank that used pages, and several have pages torn out, sacrificed to other things I thought more important than remembering my life.
One from high school has a total of five pages filled out and dozens of ragged tore edges. All of the entries lamented about imperfections with my body. “Why are my thighs so fat and full of stretch marks?” Those couple of pages reveal the heartbreaking obsession my sixteen-year-old self with being thin and perfect.
In hindsight, I now see that those few recorded thoughts are interesting and valuable to me now.
But at the time, I know why I stopped. I hated my body. My self-loathing was a quiet secret that I never admitted to out loud. I went about my day and pasted a smile on my face and pretended I didn’t care about how I looked.
Admitting to any complicated feelings was taboo to me. Journaling betrayed my self-composed exterior. Even if only my eyes would ever lay eye on the pages, writing down the messy, emotional, confusing thoughts going through my head would be admitted to my own weaknesses.
But I’ve wanted to journal
I don’t think I was conscious of why I’ve always abandoned journaling until I just wrote that last paragraph. It only just now occurred to me that I have all these abandoned journals because I didn’t want to admit to having any fears or anxieties — not even to myself.
Yet, for some reason, I’ve tried to journal several times in my life.
People who journal regularly have told me how valuable the practice is to them. They tell me about bookshelves full of journals they’ve kept for decades. Often, they will talk about revisiting old journals to reflect on different times or their lives and help them through difficult times they may be facing now.
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I’ve had several therapists and coaches suggest that I start a journal for its mental health benefits. They’ve explained how writing down my thoughts can help me recognize negative feelings — like those body issues when I was a teen. But even more than just knowing those feelings, it is a way to work through them and help find meaning.
Ultimately, as a therapeutic tool, journaling can help recognize patterns, reveal hidden triggers, and cultivate mindfulness. We capture not only struggles, but also accomplishments. A daily journaling practice is a way to ground our thoughts in the present moment.
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In writing classes, instructors have espoused the value of journalling to the writing process. They’ve explained how they’ve referred to their journals for mining material and capturing ideas. Capturing unusual moments or quirky stories from daily life can work as inspiration for scenes, storytelling, or characters. This works for both fiction and non-fiction writers alike.
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So, although I’ve felt like keeping a journal is a good thing with positive benefits for my mental health, my writing, and my life, I found it challenging to get over the fear of my thoughts so that I could keep my daily journal.
Turning journalling into a daily habit
Over the last few years, I’ve started getting more serious about my writing. I take writing classes at GrubStreet in Boston. I’ve started a writing group that meets at my house every two weeks, and I joined two other writing groups, including the monthly group that met last week to share our “reflections on life during the COVID pandemic.”
In addition to doing technical content writing, I’ve submitted writing from classes and writing groups to literary publications and even had a few accepted. And late 2019, I started getting serious about posting regularly here on Medium.
As I spent more of my time writing and capturing my thoughts on paper, I decided it was time to try to make journaling a regular habit. So, when the calendar turned over to 2020, I took the new year as an opportunity to do just that.
I headed out to my local station and armed myself with a pile of new notebooks. I wrote about how I would give up my search for a perfect unicorn notebook for Writing Cooperative’s Seeing 2020 series. I decided to embrace using separate notebooks, each with a specific purpose.
My plan to start a daily journal began with a Leuchtturm1917 daily planner, a thick, one-day-per-page planner.
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I scheduled a daily 30-minute journalling session into my electronic calendar for 8 a.m. My planner now lives next to my spot at the dining room table. Every morning, I sit and sip my coffee while I write about the previous day.
The journal captured my hopefulness in January. Several new habits I started working on last year — a regular workout schedule, more writing, and submitting — were paying off. At times, I felt like 2020 was going to be a good year for me to dig into a new career.
But the journal also captured my frustrations. There were times I felt like my progress was stalled. It detailed an ongoing fight with my husband about moving and planning for our future.
And as the year progressed, the journal turned into a way of capturing the madness that COVID-19 had thrust upon our lives.
I strolled through the memory lane of just a few months, and it was interesting to see how my response to the unfolding crisis evolved. My concerns about moving and planning for the future started evaporating, replaced with anxieties for an unknown future.
On the first day of the conference in Orlando, I noted, “First day of [conference]. Couldn’t find hand sanitizer. Sold out everywhere. It’s 14 days before I see [my nephew]. Should I cancel Philly? I don’t’ want to kill my nephew because I went to a stupid conference.” And days later, I would lament how my brother was at Disney with his family, not practicing social distancing.
Soon, I was obsessing over coronavirus coverage. I wrote, “A day of ups and downs. I spend most of my time alone anyway, but it’s weird how the thought of isolation makes my usual loneliness lonelier.”
Later, I reflected on a recent fight with my husband with, “Part of me thinks, “Shouldn’t we just get over this bullshit. Things are insane, and we should just love each other.” But another part can’t deal with the idea of getting my hopes up again. The world might change, but will we as people?”
It was surreal to flip through the pages and see how I went from worrying about superficial things to wondering why any of those things mattered in a world that has stopped.
I saw my words of frustration about how I wasn’t doing enough to make my career successful fade away. They were replaced with the satisfaction I got out of making elaborate dishes from scratch — an activity with immediate rewards and the added benefit of keeping me away from the outrage across social media.
Just last week, I reflected on a day where planted strawberries started seedlings, baked bread, then finished the day with homemade tacos with handmade corn tortillas. “Working with my hand. It is crazy to think about how weekends used to feel like wasted time unless I did something big and amazing, and now I do all these things from home, and it is more satisfying than going out.”
Yes, I felt the anxiety of the world, the frustration of the politics unfolding, and the sadness at the sickness and death.
But, I also felt the silly shit I used to think was so crucial to my identity, and my success lose its significance. All that bullshit — branding, boasting, trying to prove stuff to the world, and myself — -evolved. It was all less relevant to how I wanted to live in the now and the very murky future.
And all of that transformation is captured in a journal. In the middle of a crisis, I’ve finally understood the importance of journaling.
Kimi is a recovering corporate engineer figuring out what’s next. She is a Boston area freelance writer with work featured in HerStry, For Women Who Roar, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing, The MOON Magazine, Backroads, and Culture. Follow her at NoReturnTicket.kceridon.com or as [at]WordsbyKimi on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.