In high school, I had a fabulous American History teacher who was famous for his lectures. He knew so many stories and so much detail almost entirely by heart and would enthrall students for fifty minutes at a time. Rather than detailed outlines of the material, his PowerPoint presentations were minimalist, with perhaps a few relevant pictures or timelines. This was a very intentional decision on his part. Anyone peering in the window during one of Mr. Richardson’s classes would see row after row of bent heads, students hunched over notebooks, ceaselessly taking notes, our handwriting (or at least mine) growing always sloppier as the period wore on.
It was a joy to follow his lead through the maze of history, but we knew that without noting all the turns and landmarks, we would soon be lost. He forced us to create our own maps, picking out the details that we found most illuminating and the quotes that we knew would best help us recall stories of battles and treatises and Supreme Court cases. He pushed us to not be passive consumers in his class, mindlessly copying down prescribed notes from a PowerPoint presentation, but active observers, recreating and evaluating every idea as we encounter it. His questions were tough. Mr. Rich didn’t point out patterns for us, but nudged us to discover them ourselves. His tests were tougher, and for days before each one, I would meticulously review my notes.
Journaling is simply another way of taking notes, but about ourselves. We humans are great at solving problems, and it’s taken our species a long way through the years. We observe, we analyze, we hypothesize, we experiment, we theorize, and eventually we come up with some nifty solutions and some beautiful and brilliant ways of explaining the world around us. The one thing that we forever have trouble making sense of though is ourselves. We can practice logic till our last breath, but half the time we don’t know why we feel the way we feel or even why we do the things we do. We have a hard time making sense of where our fears or joys come from. We can be blind to our deepest strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, this is a beautiful thing: it is the magic of falling in love; it is the exhilaration of an early autumn breeze stirring up some aroma, some wisp of a memory that suddenly makes us feel like dancing. Sometimes it is hideous: it keeps us falling into the same mistakes over and again, running back to the same toxic relationships, and turning to self-harm to numb pain that we cannot make sense of.
So many of us are trying to make it through the toughest class we’ve ever enrolled in without taking notes. The Lecturer is leading us along through fast-paced adventurers – this doesn’t seem that bad, right? – but, pausing, we look around and realize that we have no idea where we are, or if we do, we cannot recollect how we got here. Sure, we’ve been trying to pay attention, but there was just too much going on, and all that was said sort of spilled over and out of our memories. We whisper to the students beside us, asking whether they can explain things. If we’re lucky, we might sit next to the guy or girl who has this school thing sort of figured out, but still, that doesn’t get us very far. What we need to do is grab a pen and paper.
For years, I tried and failed to keep a journal. In elementary school, I was an avid reader of the Dear America book series, which are based off the found diaries of girls growing up in different cultures and eras in American history, and I loved the idea of writing in a journal. My parents even gifted me a Dear America themed journal, but after a few attempts beginning with “Dear diary…” I felt so silly and set it aside. I even tried to name my journal, as one of the protagonists in the book series had done, so that it felt more like writing to a person than, well, nobody. That didn’t help either.
When in middle school I began to see a counselor to address my eating disorder, she encouraged me to keep a journal. When I professed my lack of talent in that area, she gave me weekly assignments to write about specific memories, goals, fears, etc. Every night, I was to list at least five things that I was grateful for. I didn’t have to start off with “Dear diary” or anything of the sort; it felt sort of like homework, which I already knew how to do.
Eventually, I began to write more than what the assignments required and to turn to my journal in times of panic during this first recovery journey, when my family did not understand what I was feeling and I myself did not know how to explain it. I would purge emotion onto paper rather than through exercise or restricting my food. I didn’t realize the extent to which I was truly transforming during that time until a year or two later when I found that journal and, flipping through the pages, did not recognize the scared, angry, and lonely voice of the girl in the first several pages. As the dates in the corners of the pages progressed though, she became calmer, more reflective. Re-reading my old journal, I was able to observe myself from a distance and watch again as I learned to process my own emotions and slowly make sense of what I was experiencing.
After that first journal, I gave up the practice until college, when again, my life seemed to be falling apart and I couldn’t understand why. My eating disorder had returned with a vengeance, along with that lovely anxiety/depression combo that makes one both emotionally overwhelmed and numb at the same time. Paralyzed, I began to write, and my journal soon filled with thoughts and fears and words that I didn’t know I had. Putting my thoughts and fears down on paper allowed me to observe them and decide whether they were worth the energy I was giving them.
As I took notes on myself, what was going on in life, my emotions, my ED thoughts, etc., I began to notice patterns. I learned that my negative emotions such as sadness or anger correlate with my body dysmorphia. Rather than fully processing anxiety from major life changes such as leaving home and attempting dorm life for the first time, my brain defaults to making me feel like “too much” and dragging me back into self-destructive behavior patterns. I learned this by reviewing my notes.
Over the years, my journals have evolved from a place solely for emotional scribbling to a sort of catch-all of daily thoughts, stories, to-do lists, creative writing, sermon notes, and sometimes grocery lists. Putting all this in one place keeps me in the practice of writing at least something in my journal in a regular basis and leaves behind an eclectic trail of reminders about what I was doing or thinking or cooking at a certain point in life. It’s a road map to remind me where I am and where I’ve come from. It reminds me what I’ve learned so that I can try to avoid repeating mistakes.
Soon, I will graduate. I will put on a cap and gown and receive a hard-earned diploma after years of classes and essays and exams. I will have my own classroom, and I will be the one teaching lessons while my students take notes. However, I will remain a student in the toughest class I have ever enrolled in, and I know that the best way to keep my bearings is to write down notes. The Lecturer is moving quickly, and His questions are tough. If we pay attention, He nudges us into discovering patterns ourselves, but we learn best not as passive consumers but active observers.