I should have kept a journal

I know, I know, I should have kept a journal. I should have saved the love letters. I should have taken a storage room somewhere in Long Island City for all the papers I thought I’d never need to look at again.

But I didn’t.

And sometimes I’m forced to conclude that I remember nothing.
— Nora Ephron

We’re young and overflowing with the memories we’re making, the future is an infinite canvas in every direction, the past is close at hand and it’s solid, we can still feel it, taste it, smell it – surely all the really important things are tattooed upon our minds – some upon our skin – forever.

I have a scar on my right hand from where my brother gouged deep with his thumb nail in one of our many fights. It almost perfectly resembles the Nike swoosh. I know it was him, just as clearly as I knew it was him in the moment, but I can no longer remember how old we were when it happened – six, eight perhaps, as old as ten? And of course I have no idea what prompted the fight. The scar too – like the memory – has faded, from bleeding scarlet, to raw pink, to the barely there outline that remains. My hands are covered in scars though, and I remember all the others even less vividly than my little swoosh. Some are from fights at school, in the locker room, on the rugby pitch; others are from cycling accidents, was that from the crash that buckled my front wheel?; others appeared after drunken nights out, for which I feel a particularly gnawing shame for having forgotten, did I hurt someone? And if I can’t remember my scars, how can I have any hope of remembering all the experiences of life that don’t leave a calling card.

Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.
— Cormac McCarthy

But maybe it doesn’t have to be words, if a picture truly speaks a thousand words, then the many thousands of photographs I have amassed are a library equal to tens of millions of words. Surely those count, so vivid an aid to our memories. Yet there are no photos from the day I returned home from school to find an ambulance parked on my street, the front door left open, me stepping inside to discover that my brother had attempted suicide – again. Nothing but memories exist of his apology, his shame, my confusion, my anger, my mother’s despair.

Photos cannot capture lifes most intimate moments, the excitement of reading something profound and feeling it careening through the mind, tearing down walls of ignorance, knowing that your view of the world has forever changed; of being drenched in sweat, muscles tired and torn from a hard day labouring beneath a hot sun; the bliss of falling in love, of discovering yourself in another persons eyes; the pain of realising that love cannot overcome every obstacle, having tried so hard. When we look back at a photo of ourselves – or one that we took – we are not that person anymore and try as we might, we cannot look upon it as we would have then. Every change that time and life have wrought in us since that moment are brought to bear in the self-preserving service of reshaping and re-writing our history to what we wish it would have been. Photos capture events and prompt our recall, but they cannot preserve our memories as our own words can. A picture may speak a thousand words, but nothing beats twenty words chosen carefully and immortalised on the page by which we can confront and remember ourselves honestly well into the future.

But what’s the use? Why do we need to remember? To that I can only say I’ve never regretted keeping a journal, only not doing so. There are no answers in ignorance, I can’t reflect on nor learn any more from the things I’ve forgotten but I’ve learned countless lessons from those things I have refused to forget. Through my journal I have spotted the patterns that emerge in my relationships, the good and the bad, realised I was unkind to a good friend and atoned, noticed the writing on the wall about a job, seen myself at my best and at my worst and, drawing on all those lessons, built a life that thrills me in its daily riches and its dawning possibilities.

That life brought me here to New Zealand and as Rose and I tramped its length over four and a half months, I recorded our highs and lows, triumphs and failures, the people we met, and the wonders we witnessed from Aotearoa’s northernmost extremity to its southernmost latitude – and yet, as I read through my journal from that journey I know that there is much that I did not capture. Some of it still lingers in the fickle synapses of my brain and I try to capture those fragments in words when they surface, but already they are a second hand account seen through tinted glasses. By recording my thoughts I am free to change without fear of forgetting where I’ve come from, how I got here, free to live fully without erasing all that I once believed, the ways I used to understand and perceive the world.

It is not possible, nor would it be desirable, to record all of a life in writing. The effort would subjugate any who tried, leaving scant time for life itself, and besides, the volumes of minutia would dilute any substance that such a life might still contain. An exhaustive chronicle is not the grail I seek, but I know that I wish to write more and in my hubris I’m here to suggest that we could all stand to gain from doing the same.

I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.
— Virginia Woolf