Inspiration for the Open-Eyed: The Benefits of a 5-Year Diary

“Real life is lived when tiny changes occur.” – Leo Tolstoy

My home is filled with hand-me-downs. This is not ONLY because I like the vintage look (I do), or because I’ve never had the means to buy new furniture (I haven’t), but also because I like to be surrounded by items that remind me of my loved ones, and that make me feel connected to the past.

In the bedroom that I have repurposed for a home office, I have a small, 3-shelf bookcase, made of particleboard, that once sat in my grandma’s bedroom. It is filled with many of the same actual books that once belonged to her, because one of the things that we shared was a love of reading, and I developed many of my literary tastes at her knee.

But one new feature of this bookcase, now that it sits in my home instead of hers, is that among the novels are kept the many volumes of my grandma’s personal diaries.

Of these many volumes, only two of them are journal-style, by which I mean the kind of thoughtful, rambling writing that we tend to associate with journal-writing. The majority of her diaries are those short, squat, 5-year diaries with locks that flop open, the keys long gone. These are the types of books that have four lines per day and a partial date at the top for you to fill in the last two digits of the year.

I’ve seen these types of diaries very much poo-pooed by those who are proponents of the journaling process. They are dismissed as prescribed, as overly practical, and as too restrictive to allow the writer to get very deep into their thoughts and feelings. Who cares, seems to be the implication, what you did that day, or what the weather was like?

Well, I do, for one. These short, regular jottings record so many of life’s details. I don’t know how my grandma regarded this daily ritual—she must have gotten something out of it, for she kept these diaries faithfully for decades. But I know that for myself, when I am anxious, or stressed, or grieving, there is nothing more comforting or calming to me than to open up one of her diaries from the 1960s or 1970s, and read about my grandma’s daily chores on the farm, or her social visits, or her choir practice schedule.

My typical routine is to turn to the page that corresponds to the date I am reading it on, and see what she said about the weather. Her brief daily writing always included the weather at the end, even if she had to squeeze it in along the edges: “bright, cold”; “gloomy & wet”; “mild, windy”; “lovely sun & cloud”. I get a real sensation of her lived days, as well as her mood and feelings—don’t ever let someone tell you that you can’t imbue four lines of writing with your personality!—by reading these pages.

Polaroids from the farm, circa 1980s

Sometimes we want to sit and write down our thoughts and feelings at length—to let it be messy, cathartic, exploratory, descriptive, or wordy.

Other times that feels overwhelming, or too time-consuming, or like rehashing a problem we already feel exhausted about. In those cases, I think that a four-line-a-day diary routine could be just the ticket to keep the fingers nimble and the inkwell from running dry.

There is something bewitching about keeping a record of the little details in life, those things that probably culminate in patterns, and may otherwise go unnoticed. I recently began keeping a reading list in a notebook of every book that I read. I love to write about books (obviously!) but I don’t need to write a full blog post about every single book I finish. I save these for the really special ones. Nevertheless, there are lots of reasons why I like the idea of a reading journal that is a simple list, with a star next to titles that I particularly loved. I am thinking of starting another simple diary, to record the daily weather, or maybe the daily clouds.

I feel like it’s a way to practice being more open-eyed, more alive. And it’s also a way to practice crafting with words. Choosing just a handful of select words to express the exact feel of the day is something I am interested in experimenting with.

Thanks for being an inspiration, Grandma. ❤

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