I recently bought tickets to fly to Memphis in October for my 20th high school reunion. About the same time two other things happened: I sat down in front of my bookshelf one afternoon late and took down the first journal I ever kept. I started writing in it when I was working as a volunteer counselor at summer camp the year I turned seventeen. The other thing that happened is that I started reading Sally Mann’s righteous new memoir, Hold Still.
We learn in the prologue that much of the source material for Mann’s book came when she “began this Knossian epic by cutting, one by one, the strings securing the boxes that I had hauled back from the nursing home after my mother died.” She also kept journals. In the first chapter she quotes from the first entry in her earliest journal:
It has been a mild summer, with more rain than most. We work hard and grow tired. The evening is cool as we watch the night slide in and hear each sound in the still blue hour. The silver poplar shimmers and every so often the pond ripples with fish. The mountains grow deep. They are darker than the night.
My first journal entry, which I wrote when I was the same age Sally was when she wrote that, said: Campers arrived and we got to know each other in cabin. Met as a camp & played get to know you games as a community. Went on scavenger hunt as a cabin. Dined on Lakeshore’s fine cuisine and had fishin’ with Trina and Chad. Progressive games: placed second. Given minute free time and gathered for worship. Closed with personal cabin devotion.
Later, from the same journal, Sally wrote, We reach the top pasture and you are ahead and spread your arms wide. I run to catch up and it opens to me. There is no word for this; nothing can contain it or give it address. There are no boundaries, no states. The mountains are long and forever and they give the names, they give the belief in the names. The mountains give the name of blue, the name of change and mist and hour and light and noise of wind, they are the name of my name, the hand of my hand and the sight of my eye.
Here’s what I wrote later: Josh called me today. As I sat ready to turn left onto my street I said that it would be awesome if Josh had called while I was out – and he had. … My prayer was answered and I thank you, Lord. I could not be happier than I am at this moment.
Clearly I was working some stuff out.
There are two problems with my early journals, one stemming from the next. The main issue was that, even though I don’t think I intended them to be, over time they became prayer journals. I know I’m not the only one who’s done it, but I wrote down my prayers. Which leads to the second, central, problem: keeping a prayer journal as a seventeen year old conservative Christian who believes that God knows (and absolutely cares about) everything that’s happening in your life means you don’t actually describe a damn thing. It’s a big, angsty middle finger to the historian, the preservationist, to anyone who wants to remember more than Be with everyone who needs you. You know the needs. I close. Twenty years later I have this treasure trove of joy and worry in equal measure, and yet I have no idea what happened, no idea what I’m blithering on about, no idea what all the fuss was over. Who is everyone?! What were their needs?!
With Sally you get lush description, a clear sense of place, and an idea for the things she cared about.
With me you get:
Thank you for letting me finally find a senior quote that I like. Please let me continue to like it.
Lord, please be with Amanda this weekend. I hope she got something out of it. Please let her have. (Gotten something).
Please be with me as I take my French Quiz tomorrow. Also, please don’t let me have much work to do on the 29th of this month as Trina is coming to see me.
Please also be with my research paper as I continue to work on it. I got a thesis last night and I thank you so much for that.
Thank you for tonight. I really had a good time with them tonight. I am excited that we talked about senior trip. I hope and pray and think that I’ll be able to go. It’ll be fun.
It’s all so narrow. And it’s all so desperately important. Sitting here more than twenty years later seeing it all written down, it would be easy to think that it all sounds so silly. And maybe it does, but that doesn’t mean it was insignificant. People killed themselves over it, whatever it was for them. We felt so mature, so sure of ourselves – and it was all just a mask for the chronic feeling of being lonely and afraid.
One of the reasons I’ve been looking back is because of the upcoming reunion. It’s a natural moment for reflection. It’s been twenty years since these things I’m describing – or not describing – occurred. At the time I thought they were the most important things on earth: new friendships, summer camp, the suicide of a friend, the death of my grandmother, leaving home. What I know, looking back, and what I value and cherish and respect, is that despite the simple faith and awful writing, it mattered. It all mattered. And I appreciate the kid who took the time to write it down, even if all he wrote was Thank you for all you do and have done and will do. You know whats [sic] on my mind and in my heart. Please be with me. I close with prayers in my heart.