Remember when my brother, Caleb, asked me what kind of peanut butter I preferred and I waxed poetic about our mother and Christmas traditions and finding joy in bittersweet memories? Turns out that the reason he asked me my preference was because he was sending me… fifty pounds of it for Christmas.
That *fifty pounds of peanut butter* is now sitting in its own drawer in my kitchen, like a never ending punchline. I opened it on December 25 and I’ve been laughing ever since.
But enough about peanut butter, ffs.
Yesterday, I did the thing again that I sometimes do, and that thing is reading from my high school notebooks. I’d call them journals, but they’re too scattered to be precisely that. They’re about one chunk derivative poetry, one chunk stream of consciousness drivel, and one chunk of what I might call my earliest stabs at personal essay-writing. They’re exactly the kinds of things that aren’t unique or special to anyone else but me, and maybe my stalkers, if they had access.
I only have about three or so that are filled with a significant amount of writing, so they’re easy enough to keep track of, and without a question they are totems of my most unhappy —yet most optimistic — self. Their contents — recounting high school almost-romances and significant moments in their developments, angry paragraphs about my father’s draconian rules, meditations on my own undiagnosed depression — are quite literally my own personal history.
I’m not unique in this. Writers and all other types of people are perennially fixated on recording their lives. In fact, it’s encouraged. I basically got my master’s degree in keeping a stupid notebook.
But I’ve been thinking about why I can’t stop re-reading them in semi-regular intervals, and why I preserve them with such ferocity, and I believe that it might be because dwelling in old grief brings me a form of catharsis, the way that some people force themselves to cry just for the relief.
I suffer a lot from the feeling that I am disconnected from past selves. Sometimes, I long to feel as sure of myself as I did when I was a young teenager. I remember sunshine and bike rides and 32 oz Mountain Dews and feeling so headstrong, and I remember having a group of friends that I loved, at times, perhaps even more than I loved my own family. But the rub is that I am not stupid, and I don’t ever want to be as lonely, as helpless, so lacking in authority as I was then — a subject to cruel parenting. And combatting this false nostalgia, I’ve found, requires picking up my old notebooks and looking back at the realities which frame those sun-kissed emotional memories that I hold so dear.
In a way, this the other side of the coin that I wrote about a couple weeks ago. It’s okay and healthy and good to fondly remember the good parts of the bad times, I think; it’s not okay to rose-color wash them all together, to paint them with a beautiful hue of denial.
“Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things,” Joan Didion once wrote, “anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” She goes on to say, “How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook.”
As ever, I believe our Dear Queen Didion to be on to something there. I kept notebooks to track my emotional trajectory, to relish in the precision of my own emergent feelings. I return to them because the sadness and confusion that they contain remind me of the cost of ignorance.
Yesterday, I opened my oldest spiral bound notebook, one that logged my thoughts from most of the year of 2008, my freshman year of high school. I was doing personal research for a piece about that time in my life, which I’ve never written about as an adult. I needed a refresher.
Usually I flip through those pages under the haze of a bottle of wine and end up paralyzed at witnessing the depths of my own past unhappiness, but this time, stone-cold sober and under a false academic pretension, I was surprised to find that the result was just the same. The lonely girl etched in between the wide-ruled blue lines, who unironically declared all of her words to be “just a waste of time,” was still locked inside, screaming into the void for someone to pay close attention to her. And that, I hope, is where she will stay. But I also know that I will still visit her from time to time, as a self-prescribed solipsistic pilgrimage to a period in my life when all I desperately wanted was to be who and where I am now. And that’s what we have to remember.