In May of 1987, I was eating a meal near midnight during a break as we prepared to publish our university’s newspaper. I was the managing editor, and I had to be in the production room until the last of the pages dried. Our efforts to record the events that shaped our midwestern university would hit the newsstands around campus at 6 am. One of my editors challenged me to continue journalism after I graduated, even if I didn’t make it into my occupation. I only had one issue left of the newspaper that would tag me as managing editor, and I was receptive to his idea.
“Dude, record the rest of your life with writing and pictures. Do that if you don’t want to get paid to record what everyone else is doing,” he said. At least, that is what I remember. Too bad I don’t remember his name, though.
In retrospect, that 37-year-old challenge has felt more like the call to become a disciple than that of a college buddy looking to give me a crumb at the end of a short-lived career. Yet, his suggestion to master the power of word might have been more important than the college experience itself. Let me explain.
I was about to leave for Europe with some friends for four months of exploration, play, part-time employment, and adventure. It didn’t require much rearrangement of my life to begin writing my memoirs, so I took his advice and began journaling. At the start, I used an old but unused colorful notebook meant to record my mother’s recipes. I filled all its pages by the end of the second month, and I bought a new one in Italy. Over the years, I have used many flavors of notebooks and tried computer software. I have settled on sketch pads that allow me to tape things into the book in addition to writing my own words as I reflect on the day’s happenings.
A few days ago, I placed my 30th completed journal on the bookshelf at the back of my office and started writing in a new one. In addition to reflections, this one was filled with thank-you notes from people and images that defined a moment more than my words could. It also had some handwritten notes that others had sent me over the last year or so. I have often told my wife that if the house was burning down and I could only take one thing with me, it would be the journals.
Completing 30 journals was an unscripted milestone that I never set out to reach. The value of the journals, though, does not come from writing in them. Indeed, they are mere reactions to the world I perceived. The real value comes when I look at them years later. Some years, I wrote only 100 times. For some years, I wrote in it 400 times. Even though I can’t find a pattern with the writing, the habit created a desire to write for the benefit of others and not only to continue journaling as an end to itself.
This last week, two different people asked Jeff Gaura, the author, what I was working on. When I said that I am writing my seventh book, they couldn’t grasp the possibility. Most people have no ability to embrace that authoring a book begins with a commitment to write a word. All my outcomes, both the unpublished ones and the published ones, start with that fundamental assumption.
In fitness, a strong body starts with a commitment to finish a single workout. The same habit of building and maintaining a strong body applies to authoring, as well.
I discover as I reread older journal entries who I used to be. This authentication of my past is the gift that means the most to me. It would be wonderful if we could use the future to “redo” the past, but life doesn’t work that way. However, it is through my journaling that I can take the past to make course changes in the present.
Yesterday, I opened some notes from the 1990s. My lack of developed faith is often on the chopping block as I review my past. Back then, I suffered a lot from chronic worrying. I can see uncountable moments when my lack of control over the outcome of future events caused me to worry wastefully.
My wife and I were fighting a losing battle to collect child support from her first husband, and I was trying to break free of the bondage of working for a public school system. There is no record that I was committing to leaving outcomes in God’s hands, but there was lots of evidence that I was trying to control the results. As I read a few entries, I found that I remembered very little of the events, but I can remember how I felt as I recalled that time in my life. I was outright mad that I didn’t get what I wanted, but I was proud that I made the required changes to move forward and beyond. I ended up quitting my job as a teacher and taking a job without pay at a local IT company to learn the trade without risk to my future employer. That was a high-risk/high-return decision that worked in my favor. I later became an entrepreneur, and yesterday’s reading was the record of the first step of a real journey that lasted more than a quarter of a century.
I get to laugh as I review them, too. I read how I used to do all my own car maintenance. It was a good use of my time as a skilled troubleshooter and an art form to pass on to my children. In retrospect, the kids could care less about learning how to maintain their cars, and I didn’t save that much money, considering how long it took me to fix things compared to a mechanic.
My priorities were different then, too. My top priority was providing for my wife and child. I had a second job in addition to teaching high school chemistry and physics. I coached sports in school, even though I coached a sport that I was never good at. Now that the kids have grown and gone, wealth accumulation is unimportant, and I follow my calling more than ever. Indeed, you are reading it.
On this Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for the records of my past. They are my book as to whom I used to be. I liked the man who came from it, even with all the flaws my wife has earned a Ph.D. in discussing.
I pray that I finish journal 31 in the future and have another enjoyable experience mixing the past with the present to redirect the future.