Despite growing up during Peak Journal [fn1], I didn’t start keeping one until we had a baby. It begins when she is 17 days old: “Right now we are in [the baby’s] room crying. We are in here so [my wife] can sleep for a couple of hours.” Two weeks later: “Overall, she doesn’t sleep as much as I expected newborns would. Last night she slept on my shoulder for about four hours. I had picked her up to give [my wife] a break and thankfully [she] took the opportunity to sleep. It’s not especially restful, but if [she] is quiet I’ll take what I can get.”
As the weeks and months progressed, I realized that things weren’t likely to get better as much as they would simply become, well, different. (That said, the mood definitely lightened after about 7 months when dear daughter began sleeping through the night!) And so I resolved to make the most of the rapidly passing stages of life for what they were rather than waiting until finally the next had been reached.
The journal gave me a way to refocus and reframe life’s events. Life itself didn’t change, but my perspective did and with it my ability to enjoy what came my way. Let me see if I can explain. Ever since I started skateboarding in 1989, parking lots and sidewalks aren’t simply places to put your car or ride your bike (I mean, it’s not like anybody walks on them). Upon closer examination, the red-painted curbs, gaps, handrails, banks, etc. mandated by code or placed there on an architect’s whim are skateable terrain, offering whole new vistas of entertainment. Likewise, the journal project didn’t change my life but kept me on the lookout for things to record that day. There’s no pressure to find anything; I just became more aware of, what the heck, let’s just call them the tender mercies of fatherhood when I encountered one.
What was born of desperation–what else are you going to do in the middle of the night when sleep is not an option?–became a regular feature now 60-odd typed pages long. Most entries are just a sentence or two and there are plenty of gaps. But together with a hard drive of photos, this journal has become a pearl of great price, recording many details that would have been lost to history but are a source of great interest and amusement to the people involved.
Then I had a health scare. Life suddenly seemed very transient. Plus, when my mother had died a couple of years ago I was taken aback to realize that although we had a handful of photographs, her letters (this is how she kept a journal, she would say) and miscellaneous papers to document her life, the only recordings of her voice were a few voice messages my sister had yet to delete from her phone. I felt a strong urge to preserve what I could of my own life for my daughter, who is still too young to maintain an active memory of this stage of her life. I know–overwrought. But like they say–you go to war with the army you have, not the one you want.
Anyway, I determined to record myself. But saying what? That I’m afraid I’m going to die and want you to remember me? Nah. So I put the project on hold.
Until one day I was browsing the bookshelf and came across a book a colleague had given me when my daughter was born. It was entitled Papa, erzähl mal! (see the title of this post) and contained a number of prompts for fathers (Elma van Vliet, the Dutch author, began with a book for mothers in 2004) to tell their life’s story to their children. The prompts are grouped under the following headings:
- Childhood and growing up
- Did you have a favorite stuffed animal or something else that always had to be with you?
- How long did you believe in Santa Clause? How did you find out?
- Which of your school friends would you especially like to see again?
- Falling in love and becoming a father
- Did you write love letters? To whom? Do you still have them?
- What changed in your life when you became a father?
- Do you raise children the same way your parents did? What do you do differently?
- Leisure and other nice things
- What places do you particularly enjoy? Why?
- When did you feel especially cool?
- Did you travel much? Where to?
- About yourself and the special person you are
- What are the five most important things in your life?
- What does friendship mean to you?
- How do you respond to difficult situations?
For each section there is also a prompt directed at the child, e.g., Was there something that you used to always sing or read aloud to me? Do you still remember the words? Did I become more like you as I grew up? Can you remember a time when you were particularly proud of me?
It was perfect. Ever since my daughter was a newborn she has loved stories. Obviously it wasn’t story per se that interested her at first but talking and singing would always comfort her. To this day, the bedtime ritual isn’t over until we’ve read book and I’ve told her a story. Plus, the book jogged my memory in ways that wouldn’t occur to me on my own and provided a structure the ensuing story. Once the short version was written down, I could expand on video. And so that’s what I’ve been doing.
How about you? Are there any journal writers here? What motivates you? Angst? Love? Both? Any interesting approaches to generating content?
[fn1]: Roughly corresponding to President Kimball’s tenure as President of the Church, especially after this talk.