My son is asleep in bed, my husband is overseas for work, and I‘m taking advantage of the free evening to tidy our walk-in storage cupboard. I’m doing well. I‘ve already got a bag of old electricity bills to haul out for recycling and I’m about to take a break when suddenly, behind a pile of tax returns, I spot a box of my old diaries.
“Ha!” I say to myself, settling down on the floor to start reading. “This should be fun!”
That night I do not sleep. I sit and read for almost ten hours. The carpet becomes littered with things that have slipped from the pages: bus timetables, autographs, horoscopes ripped from color supplements. There’s a limited edition chocolate wrapper, sold to celebrate the new millennium. There’s a photo of a tour guide in Rhodes, whose name I don’t remember. There’s a record of my team’s soccer score, every Wednesday and Saturday for a span of eight years.
Sometime a little after midnight, my son Tom appears in the doorway, eyes crunched tight against the bright light, hair ruffled by the movements of sweet, deep sleep that seven-year-olds do so well.
“What are you doing?” he asks, rubbing his face.
“Just reading,” I say. “Just looking at some old books, don’t worry.”
I stand and wait in the hallway while he uses the toilet, then I tuck him back under the sheets.
“Goodnight, love,” I say. “Goodnight.”
The walk to the bathroom pulled me back to reality, just for a moment, but now that Tom is warm and settled again I return to the diaries, determined to find something meaningful. I’m questioning not just why I wrote them in the first place, but why I find them so compelling now.
The diaries are the only writing I’ve ever done without an audience in mind. They were for me—only me—and I think it’s for that reason they’re so terribly raw. It’s unlike the writing I do as an adult, where there’s some attempt at craft and structure, an effort to find a lesson, to use the prettiest words, or to make the reader laugh. There is none of that. There’s just ongoing, relentless detail of every day of my life, and the complete lack of filter means that all these years later it’s easy to reinhabit the experiences.
In the room I sit in—this space with Tom’s kindergarten art projects on the wall—time has stopped. Perhaps it has even turned backwards. I don’t see the octopus with his crayon colored tentacles, or the bright, beautiful flowers made of fingerprints. Instead I am a teenager again, and all the associated feelings slam against my chest like punches.
I am fourteen, and my diary has Winnie the Pooh on the cover. I want my nose pierced, but I’m not allowed. I cut my hair short and people constantly mistake me for a boy. I have six weeks off school with glandular fever. I go to the Alps on a geography trip and a classmate tries to grope my breast while we walk outside one night. My mum remarries. I’m fitted with an orthodontic brace. I start wearing contact lenses, and my optician has one brown eye and one blue. I borrow Judy Blume books from the library each week. I feel a bit sorry for Bill Clinton.
I am fifteen. My diary has Hello Kitty on the cover. I argue with my mother about wearing colored nail polish to school, about how short my skirts can be, and how high my heels can be. I practice kissing using an orange because that’s what the agony aunts in every glossy magazine say I should do. I become vegetarian. Sometimes I stay in a hotel for the weekend with my Dad and I wander the corridors at night, not sure what I’m looking for, but knowing I can’t find it in my room.
I am sixteen. My diary is bound in navy blue leather. I am embarrassed by our car—a red Citroen 2CV—and often hide on the floor when we drive through town. I go to concerts and feel so overwhelmed that I cry when the lights go down. I play basketball alone, cycle down hills that are likely too steep, and walk our two dogs through empty fields. I have a crush on almost every man I meet but I still haven’t been held by one. At night I hear mice scratching in the walls of my bedroom.
I am seventeen. My diary has a red and yellow sticker on the front saying “Porn Star” and inside it is full of lists. The 100 sexiest boys. The 20 best ice cream flavors. The ten tattoos I’ll get when I finally turn eighteen. I usually write my entries sitting on a beanbag in the corner of my bedroom, leaning against the radiator until the heat turns my skin pink. I make revision timetables with three different colors of highlighter pen, and wish that people would stop asking what I want to be when I grow up.
I am eighteen. My diary is small and sky blue. I join a creative writing group at university and spend every Monday night reading poetry and smoking menthol cigarettes. I appear briefly on a television dating show. I get a tattoo–just the one for starters. I start drinking Guinness and wearing cardigans. Every morning I’m woken up by the sound of a milk cart going over the speed bump outside my window.
I am nineteen and my diary has a Stop the War sticker and a rainbow on the cover. I lose my virginity to an architecture student whose name I don’t hear over the sound of the music. I have a summer job handing out promotional flyers during the Edinburgh Festival and every day I eat a bacon roll for lunch—that’s the end of being vegetarian. Sometimes I go to clubs and dance alone, but more often than not I just walk late at night through the quiet city.
I am twenty and twenty-one. I stop writing a diary and start writing a journal, a beautiful Italian notebook with a dark, marbled cover. I go on a date with a tutor and get my first A of the semester. I join the Green Party. I take my coffee black. I buy a book called How to Make Anyone Fall in Love with You. I start skipping lectures to spend time with someone else’s boyfriend. I receive a copy of the Communist Manifesto for my birthday. I am drinking too much or not at all. I want to be a writer. I eat a handful of magic mushrooms sitting on the swings in a children’s play park and it takes me eight hours to find my way home. In that time, I am convinced that I’ve met both David Attenborough and Superman. I loan my tutorial notes to a friend whose dog eats them. I go to Dublin and leave my new jacket on the bus between the airport and the hotel. I am too thin, and the dark roots of my hair are showing, but people occasionally call me beautiful.
I am twenty-one years and six months old. I still write in my diary almost every single day. And then I stop.
There is no grand announcement. No life event that halts me in my tracks. The entries just finish without explanation. I guess I was done.
Sitting on the floor of my house in Tasmania, 10,000 miles away and more than ten years later, the abrupt ending to the diaries takes me by surprise, but it also feels like an appropriate conclusion to the unsettling experience of reading them. I feel utterly drained. I realize that I have been crying.
It is so strange to be confronted by all these selves. I know they are me—they must be me, because I wrote them—but very few of them are a me that I recognize. My younger self is both happier and unhappier than I remember.
As a mother myself now, I want to go back and hold fifteen-year-old Ruth, to remind her that she doesn’t have to try so hard. I want to take nineteen-year-old Ruth out for coffee, and tell her not to spend so much time and energy on people who don’t deserve it. I would gently remove the beer from twenty-one-year-old Ruth’s hand, and reassure her that she’s going to be okay, that one day she will feel secure enough in her life that she doesn’t need to blur the edges with alcohol, or kiss strangers, or write down the details of every single day in case she forgets them.
There are some good secrets in the diaries that make me laugh out loud in the middle of the night. There are some bad secrets that I should have told someone about at the time, instead of hiding them deep within bound leather books. But there is also line after line where I detail one-off incidents and mundane thoughts, each one bearing no relation to the last or the next. I don’t prioritize information. I rarely give context. I write about the exam results that allow me to leave high school and start university with the same enthusiasm that I greet a new magazine in the shops. I mention in passing that I’ve been up north to my Grandmother’s funeral, but I spend most of the entry recounting a funny conversation I overheard on the train. At the time, for whatever reason, these experiences meant something to me.
These were the ones I chose to record.
Every night for the next week, with my husband still away, I start to dream as my teenage self. I am back in the high school canteen, wondering what to have for lunch. I am standing at the edge of a Friday night disco, willing someone to pay attention to me. I am pacing my bedroom, practicing for a French speaking test and close to tears because I am sure I will never learn it in time.
It feels like Tom has picked up on my anxiety. Either that or he’s just missing his dad. One night he tells me that he has “the blues” and cannot sleep, so we check under the bed and find a bad feeling, which I have to cup in my hands and blow out the window. I wonder if this is what people do when they can’t write down their fears.
I’ve left the diaries out on the floor, and I return to them each evening. I read some sections again and again. I look at the photographs I cut from magazines and pasted to the inside covers. I imagine what might have happened to this former friend and that former teacher. Then when I’m too tired to read any more I retire to bed, and fall into a restless sleep full of unease and old faces.
But every day I wake, and I continue to be a mother. I prepare a packed lunch, I walk Tom to school, and then a few hours later I walk him home again. I do the daily bath, which is normally my husband’s job, and as the week goes on I realize that language is Tom’s way of processing too. The scattergun approach of my diaries is echoed in the stories that he tells me in the bath each night. Mrs. Quinn was in today, even though it was a Tuesday and she isn’t usually. What do you think there was before God? Emily’s tooth fell out. There are so many rainbows here, I wish one time we could find the treasure. I think the only reason Matthew is mean sometimes is because he doesn’t have many friends.
My diaries were what I used for eight years to record events and feelings chronologically, but the individual choices about what to include and what to omit—the decisions about what is important and what is not—were no less random than my son’s choices of what to tell me at the end of each day.
Tom does not have a diary. He has a box, in which he keeps movie tickets and birthday invites. So that is one way of remembering. And there is a notebook beside his bed: the first four pages are drawings of trucks, and on the fifth is a poem he has started called “The Dark Side of the Moon.” But usually when he writes it’s about imaginary worlds rather than his own. It is stories about elephants called Steve and monkeys called Keith, or about excavators that also serve ice cream.
As I rub shampoo into Tom’s hair, and use a flannel to wipe the suds from his face, I wonder if he will ever choose to write a diary. Is it modesty that means so far he thinks only fictional stories are worth writing down, and that his own experiences and feelings are just chatter? Or is it the innocence of being seven that makes him think none of this will ever change; that he can take this life and this love for granted? Perhaps it is a little of both.
I hope that my husband and I can keep going with what we have started, that Tom continues to grow up in a safe, secure and happy house where everything gets discussed, and where the hour between bathtime and bedtime maintains its privileged place as the time for debriefing the events of the day. But even if we do everything right, we cannot be sure that will happen. We can only listen for as long as he is prepared to talk and if—when—he reaches an age where the secrets become too much to tell, then we can hand him a pen and a diary. We can suggest that he finds a warm corner and starts to write about his hurting heart, or his soccer team’s bad run, or perhaps just what he overheard someone say on a bus that morning.
After a week of contemplating my previous selves, I am tired of waking up with a buzz of anxiety in my stomach. I pack the diaries back up again. I tape the box up tightly and push it to the back of the cupboard, behind the tax returns. Then as I close the door and brush the dust off my hands, a message arrives from my husband telling me he is now just one flight away from home.
Thirty-something Ruth does not need to journal herself into existence. She trusts herself to remember the important things, and believes that if there are moments she forgets with the passage of time, there is likely a good reason for that.
Instead she walks in the sunshine to collect her son from school. She chats and laughs with friends and fellow parents. She hugs her husband hard when he walks through the door after a long work trip, and she knows—without rushing to write it down—that she is seen, that she is loved, that she is real.