I’ve just had a chance encounter with myself from 8 months ago.
Today being 1st January, I woke up once again resolving to keep a diary.
I’ve been here before. In 1989 my granny gave me a pretty notebook for Christmas and I immediately started using it as a diary ‘dedicated to my first grandchild’. It was supposed to be a bit of social history, documenting the life of a 12 year old girl growing up in Ipswich in the 1990s. Unfortunately for my first-born grandchild, the life of that 12 year old growing up in Ipswich in the 1990s was mind-numbingly dull. Even I knew it. By 3rd January, I had ‘decided to write shorter accounts of the days, as I think it is boring and I don’t have enough time’. Didn’t stop me going on to describe in riveting detail how the whole family (except for dad) decided to go to Norwich for the day and I got a shirt and a belt, both from Next.
As I’ve got older, I’ve turned to diary writing as a way to capture my thoughts and feelings rather than describing day-to-day events. The wretchedness of unrequited teenage love (fills a whole book). My gap year (fills about 2 pages). The wonder of pregnancy. The ups and downs of motherhood. So why not do the same for the world we’re living in right now? We keep being told we’re living in unprecedented times, so it might be useful to record my personal response to all this strangeness.
Yes, I thought, I shall do this. And I shall start today. So I picked up a small black notebook I found in my bedside table and opened it, ready to pen my first profound words of 2021.
What I found was evidence of my startling lack of originality. Because it turns out I had this bright idea already, back in April…
Thursday 30th April 2020
Today I shed my first tears of lockdown. In some ways I’m pleased it’s taken this long. 6, 7 weeks I think it’s been now. For the most part we’ve coped really well. The odd flared temper, girls having some emotional ups and downs, days when we feel more cross and snappy than others, sure, but basically doing alright. The girls are OK. Work is OK. The house is OK. Our health is OK. Our whole life is OK – better than OK in so many ways. But today I was not OK.
It started yesterday when I felt the panic rising. I’d spent too much of Monday and Tuesday nipping away from my desk to help the girls with their school work. I loved overseeing what they were doing and making sure they had plenty of structure and direction. We made 3D hand drawings together. I gave them detailed lesson plans and timings to work through. I broke off to explain an assignment or let them explain their work to me. All the things I want to be doing. But the price of that is falling behind on my own work. And so, as today’s deadlines loomed, I ran out of energy to do another 2 hours of lesson planning late into the evening. Another day would go by with the girls not completing their daily Powerpoint – not in itself so important, except they feel lost and aimless and confused on days when they’re left to fend for themselves. And so I worried and didn’t get enough sleep. When I woke up this morning I felt sluggish and low. Knowing I should get up and go for a run, but barely able to drag myself out of bed.
By 8.30am it had become apparent that my phone had got into the washing machine with the bedsheets. I didn’t know how to drain the machine to open it. Isla and Rory came to help and ask questions I couldn’t answer. Irritation rising. The washing machine wouldn’t turn back on at all. Phone stuck inside. Washing machine dead. Fretfulness rising. I barked at Isla and told her I didn’t want her there. Not cruelly, but bluntly. It will have hurt her. I did eventually get the phone out, but that was dead too. Without any grace, I stomped about trying to find out how to fix it. An earrings stem bent and broke when I tried using it to open the phone’s battery part. The children squabbled while I tried to research answers online. Fury rising. “I’m going to scream, I’m going to scream!” I had a strong impulse to get up, go out and take an enormously long walk. But no, I had deadlines to meet. I went to my desk, took a deep breath and plunged in. The girls were left to work out what to do that day, and within minutes I could hear them scrapping again.
Two hours later I’d had enough. I needed fresh air and a change of scene, so Isla and I cycled to the village to post a birthday card. That was lovely actually. An easy ride on quiet roads, the earth and trees pungent with rain on parched leaves. But before long we were back and working.
By 3.30 my articles were written and submitted and I’d had a good meeting about some website copy and wireframes. That should have given me a sense of relief and unburdening, but a work email from earlier that day was weighing on me. Advance warning of tough times ahead. An acknowledgement that it would be tough for staff with families. But there won’t be any specific news until Monday. Will they furlough me? Make me redundant? Cut my hours or my pay? In lots of ways I would happily take furlough. Released from this constant juggle between being a worker, a parent and a teacher. I’d have time to devote to the girls, the garden and the house. And to myself. But faced with the possibility of being so dispensible, I felt pretty devastated. So the anxiety hovered. When Rory came in to check on me he found me searching for a new phone online and getting nowhere. He put his hands on my sagging shoulders and rested his head on top of mine. That was it. The floodgates opened. All my strength and pride and resilience collapsed and poured out. I was not OK.
Half an hour later, the girls were at supper, a plate of chicken goujons, waffles and baked beans unceremoniously plonked in front of them, and I was on a Zoom call with J and B, large glass of wine in hand. I’m not good at admitting weakness or failure, and I don’t like oversharing my negative feelings, but it was so good to chat it all out with those wonderful women, never feeling judged, only supported, understood and encouraged.
Tomorrow will be a better day. Being Friday, I will be entirely at the beck and call of the girls. We will do school work together. I will not attempt to do that while also cleaning the kitchen or checking work emails. I will play with them, go outside with them, do their piano practice with them. I will cuddle them, watch them, laugh with them, listen to them, admire and adore them. And I will be very much OK again.
The funny thing is, I had completely forgotten about that episode until I read about it. There could be several reasons for it not standing out in the memory. One being that it turned out not to be an isolated event. As we’ve stumbled through this pandemic, I’ve had other, much more spectacular crashes, collapses and crises of confidence than this wobble.
But I also like to think I forgot about it because I had written it down.
At the outset, I was clearly giving myself a fairly hard time, having set myself some unattainable standards and berating myself for malfunctions outside my control. But look – even in the space of 6½ scrawled pages, which must have taken no more than 15 minutes to write, I progressed from morose self-flagellation to Annie-esque optimism.
I can’t remember if the sun did indeed come out tomorrow. The fact is, I didn’t write an entry for Friday 1stMay, or any day after that. My entire CORONAVIRUS DIARY consists of that one entry. But I take solace from that. The diary had served its first purpose.
I say first purpose because lots of people will tell you that the writing of the diary is the therapeutic bit – offloading it, purging the bad stuff, letting confused thoughts coalesce, giving shape to muddled ideas.
But I’m starting to think that the real therapy – a diary’s second purpose – is in discovering it later down the line. Reading your own thoughts back to yourself. Reacquainting yourself with the struggles and the triumphs as you experienced them in those moments. Observing yourself from a distance. And in doing so, getting to know yourself just a little better.
I reckon (having considered this for at least half an hour) that there are two rules to making this work.
Rule 1: Never write for anyone but yourself. Not future grandchildren, not readers of a blog. To be able to read an old diary without cringing to death, you need to write completely unselfconsciously. This is especially good news for anyone reading this. I’ll continue with my intermittent curative diary writing, but I won’t be publishing any more entries on here.
Rule two: Write as infrequently and irregularly as possible, adding an entry only when you’re moved to and not because it’s a daily discipline. It’s so much more fun to chance upon a journal you had forgotten all about. And occasionally, something you wrote a long time ago might just surprise you.
5th January 1990
In the afternoon something sad hung over me like a big black cloud. I don’t know why it was. But there’s only one way to get it out of your system. Write down exactly how you’re feeling, read it, take 3 deep breaths, smile and go and have a chat with someone, even if it’s only with your reflection.
31 years later, it looks like I might be about to take my own advice.