“But,” they complain, “the days are bleeding one into the other and are hardly distinguishable. What should I write? That I watched eight hours of Netflix today?”
Yes! That’s exactly my point. Capture it before it’s gone. Remember when all this felt new? When it was strange that we wore sweatpants every day (and every night) and never took a shower and stared over and over at the same 12 things in the refrigerator? Remember when Zoom was a novelty? When sleeping until 11 seemed like a luxury? When you first couldn’t remember if it was Tuesday or Wednesday?
That is now the stuff of our lives. But how did it become this way? And what was on Netflix anyway? We won’t remember unless we write it down.
“But I’m posting on Facebook every day and on Instagram, too,” they assure me. But let me assure you: That’s not the record you want. Facebook and Instagram are a conversation. They are for others. A journal is for you. You deserve a record. Write it down so you will remember how you got used to this — and how you got through this.
I’ve been trying to write every day since the sheltering in place began. I write in pen in a blue spiral notebook I keep beside my bed. Sometimes, it is just “I took a shower” or “S and I played Scrabble” or “Tuna, again.” Other times, I note the markers of this strange journey. “Stopped walking in Riverside Park” or “Trump says we’ll be out by Easter” or “started wearing a mask outside” or “played duets with J” or “Fauci says November” or simply “prayed.”
I’ve been keeping a diary for more than 50 years — since I was 19, in fact. It was the opposite sex that got me started. Nothing mystified me more as a teenager than girls. I needed to write it down, I reasoned, if I was ever going to figure them out.
I kept writing almost daily until I got married more than a decade later. I kept writing through the births of my children, through a switch in careers, through seven years of cello lessons, through the deaths of my parents, through the birth of my first grandchild and into my first pandemic. I like to think that this daily writing practice has kept me sane.
And history benefits from a record, too. One of the other things I am doing to get through this difficult time is reading. I am now well into “The Splendid and the Vile,” Erik Larson’s eye-opening book about 1940-1941, Winston Churchill’s first year as Britain’s prime minister. It is hardly a surprise that this book is at the top of the bestseller lists right now. It is about inspired leadership at a moment of existential threat, a dark time when the Nazis were bombing London.
Larson writes how Churchill toured London after the first major attack, which left more than 400 dead and 1,600 wounded. Churchill wept openly, Larson writes, “overcome by the devastation” he witnessed “and by the resilience of the crowd.”
“In one hand he held a large white handkerchief, with which he mopped his eyes; in the other he grasped the handle of his walking stick.”
That kind of detail, like so much of Larson’s book, came from the diaries of those who were there — Churchill, his family, his inner circle and the Londoners who lived through those turbulent times.
Some of the best testimonies came from something called the Mass Observation organization, an academic project that enlisted hundreds of volunteers to keep diaries about daily British life. Some of the entries from the World War II era ring particularly true today.
“One thinks that every noise now will be a siren or a plane,” writes a nervous diarist, Olivia Cockett, on the eve of the first bombs being dropped on London.
My contemporary diary also notes the sounds of sirens — on ambulances making their way to Mount Sinai West hospital near my Manhattan apartment.
There are several efforts similar to the Mass Observation project going on today, including at the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress, as well as academic projects such as “A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of Covid 19.” StoryCorps has also launched an effort.
I encourage everyone I know to participate in these projects. But I also tell them, don’t do it for history. Do it for yourself. Write it down. Keep a journal.