So I borrowed that box of diaries from my aunt and uncle, tucked it behind my driver’s seat and took it home to Asheville (Leicester), opened it, and read the first entry in the first notebook, dated Sunday, November 5, 1944.
Well, Diary, I’ve been neglecting you again — after keeping up faithfully from January 1 till the first of September, I should have been able to hold out a few more months, but there just didn’t seem to be time after I left home and began getting established in Rochester.
So many new developments have been and are taking place, though, that I shall want to have some account of that I decided to try to get into the habit again. It will be a big job now to analyze and to put into fairly small space all that has been happening to me mentally, socially and spiritually these last two months — in fact, I hardly see now how it can be done. But I guess I’ll just jump right in —
It’s a cold, windy, snowy (the wet kind) day and is quite a shock after the glorious, almost summery days of the last week. I dreamed last night that George McClure died and I’ve felt very queer all day. Marion and I slept till the last minute this morn and then just walked across the avenue to St. Paul’s. I took Communion for the first time since I left home and it affected me emotionally for the first time ever. I feel that I can come to Christ now as I should have years ago but somehow couldn’t. I went off the “intellectual” deep end last year, just as I had gone off the emotional end before. All I want just now is to feel as I felt that night in the spring of the 8th grade when I really gave myself to Christ — and I think that must be the beginning of my “new life.”
I read it again.
Her handwriting was the same as it would be some forty and fifty years later, before a tremble set in that would cause it to falter. The same cursive I’d read in so many letters and cards. And right out of the gate she was the self-deprecating woman I’d known, in this case chastising herself for falling out of the diary habit.
But there were also some surprises. I had not known that Grammy ever analyzed herself, let alone in writing. I thought her love of God had precluded such indulgences. And I’d foolishly assumed that her love of God had always been there, even bathing her in the womb. But here she’d made it to twenty without having “come to Christ,” without even being emotionally affected by Communion. For as long as I’d known her, Grammy was emotionally affected by everything. She’d always seemed poised to laugh or cry.
Here was a woman I didn’t quite know. A twenty-year-old college student who dreamed of death and felt queer, who went off emotional and intellectual deep ends and longed for a “new life.” I had to know more about her. And in my hands, and in the box filled taut with other notebooks she’d exhausted, was the source of that knowledge. The primary source. After reading that first entry, all I wanted to do was read the others, and indeed I spent countless hours poring over them. Within a couple of weeks I realized I should start typing them up so other family members could more easily enjoy them, and so I might immerse myself even deeper into this new, old world, so separate from my own life and yet so irreversibly a part of it.
I returned to the Raleigh area for the usual Christmas fellowship and requested another box of diaries. Druscie was happy to give it me, even though I was nowhere close to returning the other one, knowing how much I cherished their contents. Now in my possession were the diaries that spanned 1941-1944. In 1941, Grammy kept two diaries — big and little — and her cursive in the small one was so incredibly tiny, I chose to first record myself reading the entries out loud, and from that recording I would then type them up, pausing the device when needed. (To type this diary straight from the page without losing my place or turning into a hunchback would have required a little podium of some sort to keep the book at eye level and no more than six inches from my face.) I loved showing people this particular diary, as they always gasped and said, “How can you read that?” and I would always give them a closer look, so they could see that the words were quite legible, despite their tininess.
For the months that followed, my grandmother’s diaries were all I wanted to talk about with anyone. Each time I broached the topic in conversation, I attempted anew to convey the diaries’ impact on me — how lucky I felt, first of all, to have these documents, and to have had this grandmother who cared enough about life to write it all down with an honest hand. I tried to convey how wonderfully eerie an experience it was to read her words and know in such detail how she spent her precious days. I wanted to share my discovery with others in a way that they could feel — the embodied realization, beyond intellect and abstract thought, that old people were once young, that dead people were once very much alive, that I would one day very much be old (hopefully), then dead, and that every life, past and present, echoes and undulates without end beyond the stars and through the cells in all of us.
And yet, though death is real, I see now that no moment ever really ends. I understand (I think) what Joanna Newsom means when she sings that “love is not a symptom of time; time is just a symptom of love.” Through my newfound love, Grammy is not yet Grammy at all, but still and always Pattie Anne Watkins, twenty years old in 1944, sitting on a bed in a room in Rochester with her friends, eating chocolates and laughing and hoping for a new life.
November 12, 1944. A Sunday. The alarm goes off at 9:00 and Pattie silences it. Outside the world is cold and gray but in the bed it’s warm, the black and tingly color of oblivion. Breakfast and church don’t matter. Nothing matters, so she drifts off again. She lives in a boarding house with a few other college girls. One of them is named Peggy, who pokes her head in at 9:45 and informs Pattie and her roommate, Marion, of the time. They nearly miss breakfast.
For church, Pattie wears her black dress and accessories. Peggy and Marion comment on her figure, as accentuated by the dress. Together they walk, with Kay and Mary Jean, to St. Paul’s Episcopal. Marion splits off halfway for the Catholic Church. The sky is so overcast it’s white. Pattie sits between Mary Jean and Kay, whom she finds wonderfully sweet and interesting. Kay is especially funny when she talks about her “boy friend” in the Navy, who’s currently at Pearl Harbor. While singing “For Those In Peril on the Sea,” Pattie watches the woman in front of her get quite broken up, and she sheds a few tears herself.
The sermon, however, confuses her. And what few points she does understand are disturbing. Some of the big problems of our hearts will only be answered after decades of patient waiting? It makes her feel rebellious. She doesn’t want to spend half her life waiting for questions to be answered when they cry for solutions right now! Again she feels that she has no right to be happy or at peace — that she must always be torn up and confused simply because she always has been.
Back at the boarding house, Pattie joins Peggy and Mary Jean in their room on the first floor. Marion returns soon after, exuding a blissful energy. “That did me so much good,” she says. “I wanted to stay for the twelve o’clock mass, too.” Her spiritual life is a closed book. Pattie can hardly understand her. She longs to have a satisfying religious experience, but she cannot hope for it in the Catholic faith.
At around 1:30 everyone scatters to their respective rooms to change clothes for lunch at Lorenzo’s, a restaurant where neither Pattie nor Marion have eaten. True to form, Pattie is ready before everyone else. Upon descending to the main hall, she encounters her friend Walter standing in the doorway to Peggy and Mary Jean’s room.
“Oh, Pattie, come here,” he sings. The music in his voice strikes her as suspicious, but she steps closer to find Mary Jean curled up in her bed. She, Walter, and Peggy try to coax her out from under the covers, to no avail.
Outside, the clouds have cleared and the air is cold. Peggy wears white gloves while Pattie wears black and fingers entwined they walk, verging on hysterics. They take a bus from University to Main. The wait at Lorenzo’s is not long, and soon they’re shown to a table by the wall. Pattie is perfectly content with the candles, soft light, fellowship, and reasonable prices. She spends $1.15 on a six-course dinner.
Annie Dillard once said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Therefore in writing about her days, a diarist tells her life story. But for many, the mere idea of writing about their days is stultifying. They are so familiar with their own lives, they can’t imagine that words describing them would ever be worth their ink. Anne Frank is a case in point. Her diary is perhaps the most widely read in the world, and yet she doubted that “later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.”
Perhaps some people’s lives really are quite dull, and being confronted with the diary prospect can alert them to this reality. Perhaps they should start living in such a way that feels more worthy of the written word. Or maybe they just need a shift in perspective: to see the miraculous in the mundane. They might also consider how what’s boring to them now could be enthralling to them later, or to their ancestors. The case for posterity.
Even my grandmother couldn’t have known how fascinating certain details of her diary would become with the passage of time. The way she’d write “’phone,” for instance — with an apostrophe at the beginning to denote that it was short for “telephone” — showed how new and not-yet-ubiquitous the phone still was. She and her mother regularly “went calling” around the neighborhood, which meant they actually walked to people’s houses, knocked on their doors, and started conversations. No doubt we’re all doing things today, all the time, that will seem quaint some fifty years hence.
But not everyone is interested in writing for posterity’s sake. Arnold Bennett, in his 1920s essay called “The Diary Habit,” said that the thought of posterity left him “stone cold,” and he himself was a dedicated diarist. Bennett said that the only good reason to keep a diary is because you want to, because you enjoy it. He also said that it’s a great deal of work, requiring discipline. One must put her back into it if she’s going to write the truth. “And to attain truth is the hardest thing on earth,” Bennett said. “To attain partial truth is not a bit easy, and even to avoid falsehood is decidedly a feat.”
Even Sylvia Plath, whose Unabridged Journals rival Grammy’s diaries for my favorite collection of life writings, recognized the difficulty of translating the truth of our experience into language. In the summer of 1950, when she was seventeen, Plath sat down to describe being sexually assaulted (though that’s not what she called it) mere hours earlier. But first she acknowledged the difficulty therein: “Some things are hard to write about. After something happens to you, you go to write it down, and either you over dramatize it or underplay it, exaggerate the wrong parts or ignore the important ones. At any rate, you never write it quite the way you want to.” Nonetheless, the urge to try (the word “essay” means try) remains indomitable. A writer is simply someone who has no choice but to keep trying.
To describe a thing exactly how it happened is the challenge implicit to any diary or journal entry. But if this challenge fails to entice, another siren song is cued to seduce those who can hear it: the promise of slowing time. Writing about our recent experiences is a way of savoring them. We get to linger in them while they’re still a part of the present moment, before they enter the halls of memory and start bumping around with the other ghosts there, getting mixed up, smudged, trampled on. It is a kind of sacred clinging, what James Joyce meant when he wrote, “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past…”
Plath quotes this line from Ulysses on the first page of her 1950 journal, along with a line from Yeats and a poem by Louis Macneice. I myself copied the words into my own journal when reading Ulysses in 2017, not recalling having ever seen them before. But I’d seen them some fifteen years prior when reading Plath’s Journals for the first time. No doubt those journals were her way of holding to “the now, the here.” They kept the future from plunging through. In filling their pages Plath was staking her claim on the present moment.
But why would she — or any of us — want to stay in the present moment if that moment is unpleasant, even traumatic? Regarding her experience of sexual assault, Plath wrote, “I’ve just got to put down what happened to me this afternoon… No matter how it comes out, I have to write it.” Why? The obvious answer: because she was a writer. But I also suspect that Plath was operating from a more unconscious knowledge. She seemed to know that writing about the assault would help her process it. Staying with things — resisting the urge to turn away, make light, deny, suppress — is how we make sense of them. Giving language to the unspeakable helps us integrate primal, fear-drenched experiences into higher levels of consciousness. We write about what happened, still feeling how we felt, and we take control of what would otherwise be a limbic, reptilian process.
Given that Plath killed herself at thirty, she’s admittedly not the best example of someone using the diary habit to improve mental health via psychological integration (a concept she addressed directly and repeatedly in her journals). But I’m inclined to believe that she wouldn’t even have made it that far without said habit. And while Grammy did not suffer from the clinical depression and resultant obsession with death that plagued Plath for much of her life, I think her diaries and journals also played a large role in keeping her relatively sane. Like Plath, she used writing as a kind of intellectual and emotional mastication, in order to better digest her experiences and avoid the painful bloat of repression.
Also like Plath, Grammy wrote about the beauty of life, which appeared in varied, sometimes surprising forms. She wrote what Journal Therapy pioneer Kay Adams would call “captured moments,” describing the kind of life affirming, often fleeting experiences that we tend to forget in favor of remembering something painful. Our instinct to remember the painful things is also known as the negativity bias, and it has allowed our species to thrive. Without it, we might not take the precautions necessary to prevent dangerous repetitions. But the negativity bias often runs away with itself, causing us to lose sight of all the good things and the nourishment they have to offer. Writing about the good things on a regular basis can help us cultivate a positivity bias.
Plath may have experienced the shadows of life more often and with more anguish than the average human being, but she could also see — and feel — the beauty in a “sudden slant of bluish light across the floor of a vacant room. And I knew it was not the streetlight, but the moon.” And Grammy savored the experience of waking in the wee hours of a winter morning to shut her bedroom window: “On the return trip I banged smack into the floor lamp by my bed with my nose and knocked said lamp over till the shade lay on my pillow — so you can imagine with what force I ran into it!! Oh, dear, I nearly died laughing and was sure I’d wake Marion up — but she didn’t hear a thing till morning. I woke up laughing so told her the tale of woe!” Much of what covers the pages of Grammy’s diaries are descriptions of moments like this, moments that were funny or sweet or beautiful or otherwise suggestive of the joy she wished would suffuse every second of every day.
Anne Frank reminds us of an additional inspiration for the diarist: the need for a friend. She wrote her first diary entry on her thirteenth birthday, June 12, 1942. This entry consisted of one sentence: “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” On June 20, 1942, a little more than two weeks before she and her family would go into hiding, Frank good-naturedly bemoaned her lack of a “true friend.” She admitted to having “about thirty people I can call friends,” and “a throng of admirers who can’t keep their adoring eyes off me and who sometimes have to resort to using a broken pocket mirror to try and catch a glimpse of me in the classroom,” but
All I can think about when I’m with friends is having a good time. I can’t bring myself to talk about anything but ordinary everyday things. We don’t seem to be able to get any closer, and that’s the problem. Maybe it’s my fault that we don’t confide in each other. In any case, that’s just how things are, and unfortunately they’re not liable to change. This is why I’ve started the diary.
Renia Spiegel, another young victim of the Holocaust, started a diary for the same reason. In her first entry, dated January 31, 1939, she wrote:
Why did I decide to start a diary today? Has something important happened? Have I discovered that my friends are keeping diaries of their own? No! I just want a friend. Somebody I can talk to about my everyday worries and joys. Somebody who will feel what I feel, believe what I say and never reveal my secrets. No human being could ever be that kind of friend. Today, my dear diary, is the beginning of our deep friendship. Who knows how long it will last? It might even continue until the end of our lives.
Indeed it did. Spiegel wrote her last entry on July 25, 1942. Six days later she was executed by German soldiers. Nineteen years old. “Dear Diary!” she’d written the previous summer. “How precious you are to me! How horrible were the moments when I hugged you to my heart!”
A great passion fueled Spiegel’s relationship with her diary, as well as a deep wisdom. In psychology even the gravest “disorder” is seen as an answer to life’s problems. Exquisitely wise, it unfurls from the urge to protect oneself. In many cases it actually provides a kind of order (think anorexia), helping one feel safe in what Jill Ker Conway calls “the chaotic ebb and flow of experience.” In keeping a diary or journal, one not only creates her own safety by corralling that chaos into language, but also by creating a safe other to whom she can attach, and with whom she can resonate. No matter what she says about what she’s done, she knows that this other will (1) feel what she feels, (2) believe what she says, and (3) never reveal her secrets.
Thank you, Renia Spiegel for distilling such basic, complex aspects of the human condition into a tidy little list! The needs that drove her to start a diary are shared by all; their fulfillment is required in order for human beings — social creatures that we are — to feel truly safe and to therefore live with ease. Unfortunately, most humans are ill-equipped to meet these needs on a consistent basis, so in general we walk around with at least a nagging sense of unease, which sometimes becomes disease. Or a diary habit. Or both.
My grandmother clearly considered her diary a friend and even took a similar tack to Anne Frank, who gave her diary a name. A year and a half before Frank christened her diary Kitty (“to enhance the image of this long-awaited friend in my imagination”), Grammy began an entry dated January 2, 1941, with “Dear Marcy.” In the left-hand margin she wrote, “I’m going to pretend I’m writing to a real person. It will probably be easier to write to someone by the name of Marcy than by the name of Diary — but you’re still my diary, darlin’.” In her next entry, however, written just four days later, she abandoned the Marcy technique and returned to addressing her confidante as, simply, Diary. On that day (January 6, 1942) she had “come very close to something” and wrote, “Perhaps in telling you about it, I shall come even closer.”