Dear Diary

When I was 10, I got a bound journal as a gift. It was either Christmas, or a birthday – I don’t remember. But apparently I took well to suggestion, because starting that night I wrote something in that journal pretty much every single day. And that book led to others – new ones from the local chain bookstore, with fairy or moon themed covers. When I finished the last page of one book, I’d read through it completely then start the new one, dating the first page with the FROM: date.

I was a kid who was drawn to rituals and tradition. By the end of my journal writing days I had 6 volumes documenting pubescent life. Most entries had some sort of nuts-and-bolts accounting of the day – a school assembly happened, some kid’s pants fell down, etc. The format became more fluid over time, as often happens with anything you do for a while. I loved Dave Barry, sketch comedy, and late night shows, and that love birthed a series of entries titled “The 10:10 Show” (always written at 10:10 PM, because rituals). They were ostensibly some sort of parody of the late night format, with a dash of comedic essay thrown in. Occasionally I wonder if any of those were actually funny. I’ve never been brave enough to crack them open for a re-reading.

Like most things of this sort, I fell away from it slowly – first, missing a few days here and there and promising to write again soon. Then the days of not writing outnumbered the days of writing. I think I stopped completely when I was 15, around the time of the traditional first terrible boyfriend. Isn’t it silly and self-important to be documenting the minutia of one’s life, anyway? So says the adolescent moving from biased confidence into brutal self judgement.

Cut to 25 years later. Of course it seems surreal to say we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, but here we are. And I am writing in a diary again, albeit an electronic one.

I started it the day we arrived here to Central New York. Here is an 1860s era farmhouse on 4 acres, in a tiny village of just under 400 people. We bought this house – a fixer upper – just about two years ago. It was a toe in the water of a different sort of life, a place for weekends away from the Western Massachusetts city we’ve called home for the past 11 years. First there were renovations, then furnishings, and somewhere in those weekends – in that other, now distant, life – we said, “Yes, this is where we should be.”  The plan was to move here full time sometime in the summer, with help from friends showered with pizza and beer. Instead we sat on our couch on a Saturday afternoon in March, the news blaring in the background about infection rates and stay at home orders, and I said “I’d rather be there than here.” Just like that, we got up and packed for just about 20 hours straight. The next day I took one last look at our first home and we drove away.

So there are things missing here, things that didn’t make the cut of the truck: the good microplane, the lid of the largest stock pot, clothing besides sweatshirts and t shirts. But we are healthy, here with all the pets, and each other, and land to clear and work. There is a lot to appreciate, and a lot to do. This property hasn’t been a working farm for probably 50 years, and being neophytes most of the things we do we are doing for the first time. I am proud of it – even the mistakes.  If you don’t want to make mistakes, don’t do anything.

So – the diary. It’s a page in an electronic notebook I mainly use for code snippets for work. Not nearly as much style as the gilded-edged fairy books of yore, but it gets the job done. I guess I started it because it felt important to write some kind of first person account of these strange times, and because rituals are especially comforting when everything in your life has changed. Most days I try to write in the early morning or evening, or occasionally as I’m making lunch. If the weather is nice and we’re busy with outside chores, sometimes I skip writing over the weekend. The teenaged me would’ve never allowed that, but being over 30 makes you more forgiving.

The art of a diary is to keep going even when you don’t know what to say. So some entries come down to what we cooked, or what we did in the yard. Baked a loaf of bread, cleared a field – that sort of thing. Sometimes I just write down what’s on the news, what people are saying might happen. Scrolling through I see one just says “They are almost finished converting the Javitz Center to a hospital.” The next day I write I say it rained and I made pasta for dinner.

The thing with a diary that makes it fascinating (or tedious, depending on your perspective) is that there’s no thoughtful contextualizing or re-envisioning of the past; all you get is the present moment, in all its mundanity, or sadness, or anger. It’s one day’s mood and habit, preserved forever, regardless of what tomorrow brings. Maybe that’s why most journal-writers eventually stop – life is painful enough the first time.

And yet, each day I write. Even when the days are hard, sometimes when they are wonderful. Sometimes just to say that the sun was shining, or the lilacs finally bloomed, or that the chickens went outside for the first time. Sometimes to say we got the tiller implement installed on the tractor, and it felt like we won a battle. Sometimes to say that I wish for this to be over. To say that part of what makes it so sad is to avoid getting sick you avoid people. To say how different it feels from that other tragedy of my adult life – 9/11. How right afterward there was a brief moment, before the beat of the war drums, where people hugged and waved flags and cried together. Now we cry separately, or worry alone, and beg our families to be careful from a distance.

How grateful I am for this day, but how I hope one day it will be different.