When Charles Lee handed me the small red notebook in 1974, he changed my life. “While you are traveling, you should keep notes on the things you see and do,” he explained.
I was 20 years old, a junior in college, spending a semester at the University of London. Charles was a retired traveling salesman. I was staying with him in his cottage in Kendal, located in the Lake District of northern England. It was a one-week homestay the university arranged for us before classes began.
“You are young and doing a lot of exciting things,” Charles said. “It seems as though you will always remember these things, but I promise, you will forget them if you don’t write them down.”
I took his advice. I wrote in the notebook every day during the homestay. Back in London, I recorded weekend trips to Wales, Yorkshire, France, and Spain. I commented on my classes, professors, and classmates. I contrasted my life at a small college in western Nebraska with my wandering through the streets of London, my introduction to life in a big city, my initial travels outside the United States. I tracked ideas I had about my life and my future.
When I wrote in the notebook, I struggled with a sense of my audience and purpose. Who would read this? Were these writings just for me, or did I want others to read them? Was I recording events and ideas just as a prompt to memory, or was there some larger purpose for this daily exercise?
I developed a sense of vision for the task. I was recording events, thoughts, words that were important to my life. I imagined a future me sitting down to read the pages. I wondered what it would feel like to read those words later. I wondered where I would be, what my life would be like.
I filled the notebook Charles gave me. I bought a new one and filled it. Then another and another. I continued writing in notebooks for four decades. By that time, they filled two boxes in my garage.
I had reread some of the journals. Specific volumes had provided me with the background I needed for dozens of articles for magazines and newspapers. But I had never read them all.
Recently, I decided to bring my collection of notebooks into my office and replay my life. As I opened the first box, I suddenly became nervous. Would I like the former me portrayed on those pages? There was a risk in opening that first notebook. I did it anyway.
Charles had been right. I remembered the big events, the central happenings, but on each page were details I hadn’t retained.
The pages revealed highlights from college classes and stories about roommates and friends. I read anxious comments I’d written as I’d launched my teaching career, learned to write lesson plans, assigned grades for student work, and solved discipline problems. I reflected on my coming marriage, then the wedding, and eventually the proud moments when I held each of our three daughters. I recounted more trips – returning to Europe, teaching in South America, taking a photo safari in Africa, exploring Greenland. I relived memories of trails hiked, rivers paddled, mountains climbed, dreams shared.
The writings in those journals framed my life. I hadn’t written every day. I often skipped a few days or even weeks, but I always picked up the writing when it felt important. Journals went with me when I traveled, and I often wrote in them at school when my own students were writing. I modeled the behavior I wanted my students to perform. I encouraged them to keep journals of their own, passing on the lesson Charles had given me.
These writings formed a continuous thread through events in my life, a connection between my own past, present, and future. They gave me the chance to record my life, sort out my thoughts and emotions, play with ideas, see patterns and themes in my experience, decide what was important to me and what was not.
It took several long evenings to read through the notebooks, taking me on a retrospective tour spanning 42 years. As I read, I could recall sitting on a bench in Trafalgar Square in London, in our apartment in Peru, on a mountaintop in Wyoming, writing to the future me. It was then I realized: I am now the person I was writing to throughout those years.