An Analog Library of All the Lives I’ve Lived

After a routine iPhone update, a new Journal app recently appeared. Intrigued, I tapped it, which led to the instruction “Enable journaling suggestions.” If I agreed, my phone promised to give prompts like “Take a moment to write about something special in your life you’ve been taking for granted” and “Take a look around you and take a picture of something you’ve overlooked. What do you notice about it?”

Apple is attempting to lure me into the world of Journaling 2.0, complete with the help of artificial intelligence. The app promises meaningful reflection, apparently gleaned from my phone usage, that I can share with people around me via Bluetooth. In the multipage permissions, the creepiest line explained that all I would have to do is tap a button for the app to utilize “information about your workouts, media use, communications and photos,” which would “create meaningful suggestions for you.”

This isn’t the first time outside forces have suggested I reflect on my life. About 34 years ago, when I was 9, a family member gave me a “Ramona Quimby Diary.” The spiral-bound book contained a page of stickers that said, “Extra special!” and “Private! Keep out!” as well as leading prompts like, “This month I was really happy when …” and “The nicest person in my class is ….” Around then, a friend of my parents gave me another journal, with the title “My Private World.” That cover has a pensive, apron-wearing, barefoot girl seated under a sinewy tree, nestled alongside a dog, two cats and a book, with rolling mountains in the distance. I’ve never felt a connection to the girl, blissfully lost in thought in her bucolic setting. But the journal’s title? That spoke to me. It still does.

I’ve kept a journal ever since. I have an oversize Tupperware bin in my basement containing dozens of musty diaries. Each is filled with anecdotes from my life, scrawled in sloppy handwriting, riddled with misspellings. They’re filled with rants about friends, family and feelings. They contain my shames and terrors, my crushes, my dreams (both literal and figurative), my worries and mundane accounts of more than 30 years of my life. Like a boy with a porn stash under his mattress, I’ve always carefully tucked them away, embarrassed they exist.

I hold on to these journals because when I feel discombobulated and lost, reading through who I was at 14 or 19 or 25 years old helps connect me to myself. Paging through the diaries now, I’m startled to realize how far I’ve come and also how little I’ve changed. In Journal No. 1, I’m a 9-year-old living in Ohio. I’m 4 feet 5 inches tall, weigh 75 pounds and feel a kinship with Curious George. In Journal No. 11, I’m 20, working for my college professor on an archaeological dig in Syria and flirting with a German man twice my age. Journal No. 19 leaves off in June 2009, when, unbeknown to me, life is about to pivot: In a month I’ll become engaged, in six months I’ll be married, and in a year I’ll be pregnant with my first child.

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