For the last 27 years, I’ve kept a diary in which I’ve made entries three to five times a week in a ritualistic obsession to document my life. To be honest, I’ve also kept the diary to have someone to whom I can talk. No one but a blank page would ever care to listen to all my complaints and worries (given their number and variety) and no one should have to. When I was a child, it was my mother who listened. Now Microsoft Word is my mother.
Many of the entries are short. Some go on like essays. But no matter how voluble or terse, joyful or upset I was when I wrote, I’ve been able to use the entries to bend time—essentially to bring my past more vividly into my present. As a result, I believe that who I am now is more meaningfully informed by who I have been at various other points in my history, affecting the way I view my present place in the world and my sense of momentum through life.
Bending time is one of the most outstanding benefits to keeping a diary, maybe the only real benefit. It may sound like a kind of hell, endlessly ruminating over people, places, events, and feelings long gone. And one does pay a price. I’d be lying if I said my diaristic habit hadn’t aged me in certain ways while keeping me young in others.
In one sense, I carry a unique emotional weight. Some things that happened decades ago may seem like they went down yesterday. And what is happening right now may resonate in idiosyncratic ways, causing me to react unpredictably. Why am I so angry? Why did I find that so funny? Well, you see, back in 1997 . . . I don’t heal very well from past wounds. Some things I just can’t let go or forgive. I wouldn’t even say I hold grudges because that would imply an unnatural or inappropriate degree of ill will or resentment over time. My ill will and resentment are perfectly natural and appropriate, given my perspective.
I’ve also seen personal themes emerge, but I can’t say whether it’s because of character, destiny, or maybe just selective attention. I only know that I’ve noticed cycles, repetitions, even echoes across the years. Situations will happen over and over. Similar personality types will appear and be magnetized to me or repulsed by me or both in their seasons. People will say the same things. Headlines will look the same. I’ll often (though thankfully not always) make the same stupid mistakes.
I’ll even have dreamlike moments of déjà vu in which I won’t be sure whether I imagined something, saw it in my sleep, or actually experienced it. But I think I’ve reached the point where I care a lot less about the distinction between daydreams, actual dreams, misremembered dreams, and lived dreams. Life really is but a dream and, if I experienced something, it was undeniably an experience.
Ironically, my compulsive documentarianism has made everything seem a bit relative. I celebrate many anniversaries, births, deaths, resurrections, departures, (not so) sudden arrivals, accomplishments, magical epiphanies, failures, desperate heartaches, humiliations, dignities, and small quiet moments. I remember a red leaf from a chestnut tree that I picked up while standing in the German WWII graveyard outside Tallinn; walking behind an NYU undergrad through old town in Prague, how his T-shirt had male and female restroom icons made to look like they were at a wedding and the words GAME OVER underneath; dancing with a girl who’d driven down that night from the Flathead Indian Reservation at a bar called the Iron Horse in Missoula, Montana, the same night a friend of mine got high and chased two fraternity brothers through the frozen streets with a razor sharp hunting knife.
I remember the night I met the woman who’d become my wife; the moment I learned that my father had been abusing my mother right up to the day she went into cancer hospice; holding my first book of stories when it finally arrived; the day I spent acting in a TV commercial; standing in the ruins of the Hell Fire Club on Montpelier Hill overlooking Dublin on a rainy day; lying down on a grave in Savannah, Georgia, and staring up at the night sky through the branches of a willow tree.
I’ve already lived multiple lives, died and been reborn multiple times. And I feel this has modified the way I see everything, the way I write, how I speak, probably even the structures in my brain. In a moment of absolute strangeness and synchronicity—not to be believed but true nonetheless—my neighbor is playing the Pixies’ Where is my mind? (poorly) on the piano. Good question.