Journey down memory lane

Dear Diary, I cried all night’ is the cliché line about teenage angst poured into a private journal.

Keeping a journal is something most of us do at one time or another. If not the locked diary in adolescent years, then maybe it’s the trip diary on a momentous vacation, a record of daily destinations and doings, or a parent’s chronicle of baby’s development through childhood.

Writers, too, are famous journal keepers. Virginia Woolfe described her terrible black depressions. L.M. Montgomery, author of the Anne books, talked about the pressures of being a minister’s wife. Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within, is a writer who specializes in how-to advice for people wanting to open up and write. 

When my ill mother recently asked me to find a grandmother’s journal for her, I also realized another important point about journals. Keeping a record of life’s events is creative and therapeutic-and a wonderful treasure for grandchildren. The Little House on the Prairies books by Laura Ingalls Wilder chronicle everyday events in a pioneer family that are exotic to modern eyes. This record kping becomes a valuable legacy for future generations.

Getting started
But how to start? There are some ready-made books organized into categories to jog memories. These books are divided into sections for describing favourite childhood activities, school days, work experiences, and so on. But these are expensive, and not really necessary. The Internet is a great source of free advice and guidance. Simply type in ‘journaling’ in the word search box.

There’s also some solid advice in a recent Canadian publication called A Guide to End-of-Life Care for Seniors, published jointly by the geriatrics and health sciences departments at the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa.

The book deals mainly with palliative care, with one section on journal keeping for seniors. When a senior sits down to do some autobiographical writing, “it is an inside picture of a life as it has been lived, ” says the guide.

The writing need not be complex or great literature. “A senior might record daily events, experiences and observations or base the record on themes such as life changing events, relationships with family and friends, work, leisure, among others,” suggests the guide.

Basic first steps
The most important part is to actually get going and keep at it:

  • Pick your writing materials- a journal doesn’t have to be a fancy book. A school exercise book will do fine. Use a pen or pencil you’re comfortable with and use the same one each time.
  • Pick a time of day when you’re fresh.
  • Find a place where you won’t be interrupted.
  • Then stick with that time and place every day, just for 10 or 15 minutes, longer when you feel like it or have the extra time.
  • Set a timer and write for the entire time.

Write about what?
What will you write about? You can pick any topic-one word sometimes will trigger memories or thoughts. Spend one writing period creating lists of topics or one-word triggers. Here are some suggestions:

  • My favourite food; teacher; family holiday; brother; sister; friend, etc. and why?
  • My best/worst memory of school; teenage years; leaving home. Describe and analyse.
  • My first girlfriend/boyfriend; pet; car; job; apartment, and so on. Give details. 

Positive thinking
An important part of writing a journal is mindset, thinking about how this time of your life gives you perspective and vast experience that is valuable. You do have something worthwhile to say. Here are some good tips for priming your ‘mental pump’. They’re from the End-of-Life Guide for Seniors:

  • “Prepare to write in your journal by sitting in a comfortable chair, closing your eyes, and relaxing your body. Take several deep breaths, emptying your lungs completely after each inhalation. Remain in a meditative state as you become quiet and centered.
  • Ask yourself “How do I feel about aging?” What do I look forward to and what do I fear?  Consider these questions in terms of your profession, family life, finances, health, intellectual life, and spirituality. Write naturally without censoring yourself, telling the truth in your own language. Remember that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers.
  • Now list negative models of aging that you have internalized from our culture. Think of sources such as literature, films, television, advertising, religious instruction, your family life, and older people you have known. Describe traits and attitudes that may be influencing your own aging process.
  • List positive models of aging that have influenced you. Have you acquired any traits and attitudes that are helping you become an elder?
  • In your mind’s eye, make a composite of the good models and imagine what it feels like to walk in the shoes of such a senior. Do you have a useful role in society? Are you earning respect and recognition for your wisdom? — Is growing older a blessing or a burden?
  • Visualize going through a routine day as your ideal senior, feeling confident, respected, and socially useful. Be as concrete and detailed as possible in imagining encounters with colleagues at work, loved one, friends and associates. Know that by envisioning a positive future, you are seeding consciousness with the expectation of your own potential growth.”

Your journal may be a personal journey, to help you adapt and grow in your senior years. Or it may be a chronicle of your life and memories. Categorizing what you write is not so important as the writing itself. Thinking too much about these points may make you too self-conscious about your ‘journaling’. As in life, the value in keeping a journal is not the destination as much as the journey itself. It’s all about self-exploration and discovery.