I blur the years between fourteen and seventeen, now, but I remember, then, what it was like: how each birthday seemed to bring a new self, a new purpose, a new “I must!” And vast were the distinctions between the age I was outgrowing, and the age I was donning like a grand, embroidered coat. One was speckled with reality: I knew that fifteen brought no boyfriend, no writing of a bestselling novel, no conclusive revelations on the meaning of life. Sixteen, though: the possibilities were boundless and shining…
There was something about being a sixteen-year-old that was embracing and defining, much more so than being a person who is twenty-one, as I am now. I think it’s because, at the younger age, we haven’t always yet found the labels that come later and become more and more important: our profession, our politics, our sexual orientation, our cause. When I was sixteen, I wrote “the pinnacle of teenliness” in a neat cursive inside textbook covers, scratched it on a wooden dresser, and looped it in an inky band around my ankle—I never had a real tattoo, but I loved the solemnity of writing important words on my body and then letting them peek out under T-shirt collars and hems of pants, startling my parents and friends.
Sixteen was a number (halfway between thirteen and nineteen), and age sixteen was a collage of cultural tropes (I had vague dreams that combined boys in blue convertibles, watermelons, suburbs, independence, swimming pools, and debutante balls of the late-nineteenth century). And then there was Aris, age sixteen, who was an invention all my own. Mine is a summer birthday, which left me two months to completely reinvent myself between the end of school in June and the beginning of September. The process was part introspection, part fabrication, and largely fuelled by those strange, intensely aware feelings that come when you stay up past your bedtime.
I still find schedules, sometimes, tucked into a diary, or slipped between novels on a bookshelf. They are elaborate and wildly ambitious, signed neatly by me at the bottom of the page under a tremendously serious oath to follow the schedule “for every day for the rest of my life starting today, and no exceptions” (schedule, age 14). I wanted to write for one hundred minutes every day, perfect a different skill every ten minutes. I wanted to spend twenty minutes twice a week contemplating climate change. I wanted to dedicate each day of the year to being nice to one of my family members, on a rotating schedule; Christmas and my birthday were discreetly excluded, being holidays.
My commitment to self-improvement was laudable, or maybe laughable: I never followed the schedules for more than a few days. And once school began in September, my grand plans for reinvention were lost in a swirl of classes, homework, friends, projects…and so, in hours and days and weeks, the dust-speckles of reality crept in to settle on sixteen, too, as they had on fifteen, and fourteen before that.
I couldn’t tell you why, but I’ve become suddenly enthralled by the idea of the present moment. Maybe it’s the museums in London, room after room of glass-housed artefacts begging you to imagine life and love in the thirteenth century. Walking down High Holborn a few weeks ago, I had this whirling feeling of stepping through a slice of history: that the details of this present moment (the sound of the rushing traffic, the reflections in the windows, the faded red poster wrapped on the telephone pole, the swish of the yellow skirt of the woman who just passed, the signs in the bookstore’s window, the grey spatter of rain on the sidewalk) were just as glamourous, romantic, and worth preserving as the details of the streets in medieval London.
A few days later, I remembered diaries.
Of course, diaries aren’t exactly written in the present moment. We don’t (usually) whip out our journals in calculus class, or during a house party, or in the middle of a whirlingly unplanned first kiss. Hours or days pass before we make a few commemorating marks (“Today—5:25 pm—UGH” diary, age 20) or spill everything and everything onto paper. When we write in our diaries, that is what we are doing in the present moment: writing, in a diary.
Still, sometimes we come close to recording the present moment. After I came out for the first time, to a friend in my college residence, I ran to my diary, where I used up several pages recording the seismographic trembling of my hands (“~~~~~~~ AAAAAAHHH,” diary, age 18).
Diaries swarm with the details we’d rather not remember, and the details we wish we did; the details that are almost always swept away when we review our experiences later. We consolidate, we select. We shape the clouds and speckles of memory into the shape of stories.
Take the paragraph two before this one, the one starting with “Still, sometimes….” Here’s only a small sampling of the things I didn’t tell you: what the friend looked like, and the accent he spoke with, and why I chose to come out to him; what I said and how we hugged; more—the colour of the walls in the room; more!—the time of day! the weather! the room’s light and shadows! the music I listened to that morning, the socks I was wearing—and how it all swam together, commingling, to form the present moment.
The more time that elapses after we live the experience and before we write it down, the more we select our facts. When we write in our diaries, we’re still selecting facts, but we’re doing it less. And so, in reading and analyzing diaries, we move one inch closer to capturing the elusive present moment.
There is a world of difference between diary and autobiography. As Daniel Madelénat describes in his book La Biographie: “What a youthful diary recounts, and what the autobiographer presents as memory have every chance of being very different. […] The autobiographer regenerates material even while using it.” Autobiography recounts moments in the past, as seen by the author in the present moment. The narration of every past moment is determined by the unique and particular relationship that moment shares with the present moment.
Suppose I were to tell you an amusing anecdote about a brunch party, involving my roommate, three friends, an excess of fruit salad, and a well-intentioned compliment about the shape of someone’s ears. Right now, at age twenty-one, I am separated from these friends by an ocean; I’ve secretly fallen in love with one of them; and I’ve learned a spectacular recipe for fruit salad I wish I’d known two months earlier. These facts will all determine how I tell the story: the facts I select, and the infinite facts I sweep away—either because I’ve forgotten them or because I’ve trimmed them to streamline the shape of the story.
Now suppose I tell you the story again, six months later. I’ve lived with my roommate for another semester, and her habit of clipping her toenails at the kitchen table is driving me up the wall; two of the dinner party guests have eloped unexpectedly to Minnesota; and I’ve developed a dangerous allergy to kiwi. The anecdote would take a completely different shape: it would scarcely be the same story. This is because the same past moment shares distinct relationships with the two later moments, and with every other moment in time. I could tell the story again in another six months, and it would be different; in two days, in an hour, in an instant—!
In autobiography, we sweep years into the shape of stories; in diaries, we sweep moments. The process is the same. The scale is different. The present moment is infinitely elusive—inevitably we snatch at air—but through diaries, we brush fingertips with gold.
When I was younger, I used to imagine that my younger sister read my diary. It wasn’t that unlikely, especially since I read hers. I left notes: “If you’re seeing this,” and then a message, pleading her to be generous as she read what I’d written, and then, hastily added, to “never come back again!” (diary, age 11). Later, in college, it became a game. I’d imagine a scenario: I’ve left my diary on the kitchen table, and my roommate finds it. She picks it up with curious hands. She pauses—should she? When she opens the diary, it falls to a random page, and she begins to read. It’s a wondrous experience. As she reads, she begins to see herself differently; but mostly, she begins to see me.
I’m reading my own diary now, touching the pages, careful and tentative. As I read my own writing, I reconstruct her entire (imagined) experience: every memory, every sensation stirred by every word. “Rosemont and Little Italy, that garden,” she reads, and she remembers. It’s that apartment I wanted to rent but that was lost to someone else, at the last moment; and she remembers the fuss I made, and shakes her head, smiling.
Her eye jumps to the corner of the page: there, it’s her name. She reads, “Anne says I’m idealizing the place, the apartment, the neighbourhood which has occupied my dreams”—and she remembers, suddenly!, all the conversations we had at the end of March. “She says I’m confusing the two things in my mind: the apartment, which writers live in, and the possibility of living there; and the possibility of me, becoming a writer, and living in a similar apartment.” She has never visited the apartment, I realize: she doesn’t have the same mental image of the place. I carefully mute it.
This isn’t really about my roommate, although I’ve borrowed her eye. It’s about me. Using documentary evidence, I’m reconstructing the development of Aris Keshav’s personality in the context of place and time. When I play this game, I act as my own biographer. This isn’t autobiography. I’ve deliberately stepped outside of myself. Just as the poet flourishes within the restrictions of the sonnet, here, I’ve limited myself to documents—my diaries. Using these, I leap to the larger question (impossibly large, otherwise) of Who am I?
It is comforting to see the continuity of my identity through so many years. I see motifs that occur and recur, regularly, like waves, cresting, repeating. I love writing; I love boys. I am fiercely loyal to my friends. I am sad every winter. I love pretending: first make-believe, then theatre, then, in one enlightening French literature class, I discover panfictionnalisme (Truth is relative! Everything is fiction! I never wrote any diaries at all!—ah, only teasing).
In some of the diaries, however, the text has completely unlaced itself from memory. In tenth grade, apparently, I tried to explain elegance to a classmate named Allison Penner. An aunt came to visit from Germany, my diary tells me, and joined our family for lunch (“I had baked brie on toast, it was sensational,” diary, age 15). There’s an expedition to Toronto, eight hours travelling, following madly impractical handwritten instructions from a friend—but who? and why? what did I do there? It’s like it was written by someone else. The text revives no memories for me; no familiar faces, no echoes of voices, no lingering tastes. Did I write those passages, or was it someone else? Turning the pages, I sense the presence of a boundary.
I’m tiptoeing around the same boundary whenever I make annotations in my diary. I wouldn’t think twice about adding a note to last month’s journal. I’ll circle the first mention of someone who became important later, say; or revel in dramatic irony (“Ha! And then AFTER ALL THAT…,” diary, age 19, on age 17). Older diaries, though, are artefacts. I wouldn’t dream of defacing them. They are objects, memory containers; in every way as valued as keepsakes reminding me of a deceased relative. I am that deceased relative: or rather, a younger version of myself is. Where do we draw this boundary between permissible and taboo? Does it follow the boundary between me and someone else? Can we map its precise location?
Suppose we wrote down the same memory, every day. Would pure memory (the psychological experience) become swallowed by the memory of writing down the memory? Would the episode take the form of a story, gradually, and then habitually, until each retelling was built around the same frame of events? The smaller events between the events: which would disappear, which would remain? Would details reappear later, as fragments of pure memory resurfacing? Perhaps the idea of mapping the boundary is only another sweet impossibility: and yet, how sweet the possibility…
It’s too easy to make fun of adolescent Aris. The heartfelt commitments to self-improvement, the meticulous daily logs of one boy or another’s clothing (“elbow patches!!”), the petty thrills, the desperation, the philosophy, the raging angst, the ennui! But I have come to feel, wandering through the pages of my diaries, a sort of sinking guilt. It’s the sort of sideways anxiety I used to have when repeating something outrageous my mother had said to a group of school friends. I revelled in the laughter, and yet…
There is a diary in front of me now, written when I was ten. I was terribly in love with a boy in my class; elfin and slight, with trembling hands and auburn hair. “Dear future reader,” I wrote, “I know you’ll think this isn’t really love. But it feels real to me right now. I know everyone thinks I’m too young for love, but this is the oldest I have ever been!”
I remember writing this. I had so many feelings, and from every side they were trivialized. My parents were laughing; but it wasn’t only my parents. I knew that my future self, reading these words, would laugh too, in the same heartless hollow grownup way as my parents.
It’s moments like these that make me pause. I owe something to this kid. I would like to hug them, whisper in their ear, “it’s going to be okay,” almost as much as I wish some apparition of my older self would appear (gliding outside the windows of a moving bus? a milky face in my morning tea?) and tell me, “you know, it really will work out.” Instead, and lacking confidence in tarot and tea leaves, we keep living; and we keep living.
—From CNQ 110 (Fall 2021/Winter 2022)
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