In a small-town Kansas laundromat, in the pages of my personal journal, I came face to face with someone I barely recognized.
I was journaling during laundry day at the local bar, as one does.
Set your Wayback Machines for March 1998. A few weeks earlier, I’d crash-landed like a falling star in a tiny town in central Kansas. At the time, it was (semi-)famous for two things:
First, the area had been name-checked in a big Kevin Costner movie, Dances With Wolves.
Second, the town was said to have the highest per-capita alcohol consumption of any college town in the nation, courtesy of a single small community college.
Of local note, the one movie theater there was supposedly haunted.
For my money, the town stood out among its lesser brethren because it was home to a laundromat-bar.
I loved that place. Its front half was an actual self-service laundromat with all the expected trimmings. But the back half was a full bar. At night, the laundromat sort of shut down while the bar crowd filtered in for the evening. During the day, you could still buy a drink while doing laundry. And they stocked my favorite beer, Shiner Bock.
WTF, I loved Laundry Day now.
Years later, the bar owners shut down the laundromat. Now it’s just a bar with an odd, laundromat-ish name. But this story occurred while the washers and dryers still spun.
On that dreary day in 1998, I trekked through snowy streets to my destination, set my laundry to washing, sat down with a Shiner, and opened my journal to catch up on the latest stuff going on in my life.
The many vast and glorious benefits of journaling
My Evil Ex Biff had bought me that journal a few years previously. I still have it. Bound with soft brown leather, it boasts those fancy endpapers everyone loved in the 80s.
When I was just a teenager, I’d gotten this idea that journaling helped develop writing skills, mostly by getting people used to putting words on pages with regularity. I wanted to develop my writing skills. So I began journaling.
Since then, I’ve learned that writing skills are the least of it. Journaling also includes benefits like:
- Tracking progress on projects
- Gaining self-confidence
- Reducing stress
- Strengthening memory
Healthcare sites mention positive effects on mood regulation, immune function, and even developing right-brain functionality. And of course, it’s not hard to find people cautioning against using social-media apps like Facebook as your journal. These benefits do not flow to those who put their thoughts where others can see them.
No, this is for you and you alone.
Even that can be a challenge. You may find yourself performing, even for yourself, writing to impress your future self with your depth, your cleverness, your suffering. And yes, I’ve sometimes seen that even in my own journaling. Getting out of a performance headspace is one of the greatest challenges of journaling.
Now, you might notice that most of the benefits listed for journaling involve the simple act of sitting one’s butt in a chair every day and getting something, anything, written with regularity. At most, some sources point to improvements in communication skills and confidence. And yes, journaling does help many people get their thoughts straight.
(If my editors ever wonder how the heck I manage to write so much, journaling might be a big part of the answer there.)
[I have wondered. —Ed.]
However, I discovered an entirely different benefit that day in the laundromat-bar:
I learned what can happen when journal-writers read their own journals, start to finish.
Something made me pause
Just as I put pen to paper for another entry, a passage on another page caught my eye, made me pause. I can’t remember exactly what it was anymore. Perhaps it was this:
Armand called me a wanderer, and I suppose he’s right. I wonder if there exists anything real, or lasting, or permanent. I can barely hope anymore. For anything. [August 5, 1995]
For a moment, my journal seemed to belong to another person entirely, and I was chancing upon it for the first time. The words on the page felt like they’d been written by someone else.
I didn’t know that “someone else.” She was a stranger to me.
Just imagine that for a second: I was a stranger to myself.
Enthralled, I began to read my journal from the beginning.
The ups and downs: recorded and then, apparently, utterly forgotten
After being Pentecostal for about eight years, I deconverted from Christianity around 1994. I was in my 20s. This particular journal covered the years between 1994-1998, so I began it shortly after finishing my deconversion and about six months before Biff and I separated.
I quickly realized that I could be a cringey ride sometimes. Funny, sometimes, though, with an eye for details:
A guy my age boarded the plane in front of me. His parents were taking it very hard. They kept hugging him at the gate. His mom kept saying she loves him. He was dutifully embarrassed, since obviously everyone behind him in line was watching this display. He finally cried out, “Mom! I might have to sit with these people!” [September 14, 1995, and like me, this young man is in his 50s now; I wonder how he’s doing.]
But as I read, I realized that my emotional memories of those years did not line up very well with the journal’s recounting. I saw the yearning I had for the certainty I’d thought I’d had—and lost— in religion. In fact, I didn’t really even talk much about religion in the journal, which was surprising given how important Christianity had been to me until then. But I still wished I could find something that would just hand me what I needed on a silver platter:
If only I could climb a mountain, get to the top, and see a guru there, and he would say, “Do this, this is the right thing.” Ah well. [September 14, 1995]
That ache existed completely apart from Christianity. It had always existed; I clearly saw my one-time faith as a way to meet that need. The attempt had failed miserably. And when that scaffolding fell away, the ache shone through without filters, and now I knew no way to answer it.
(The next few years would be a slow journey of seeking answers, before finding exactly what I sought: We must make our own answers, because nothing external to us can really do the job. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something that’s not good for you.)
Remembering that which was lost–like it or not
Had you asked me to recall how I was doing during the years this journal covered, I’d have said I was fine, things were going great, and I was looking forward to a bright future in the country I’d moved to (or rather, fled to) after breaking up with Biff.
But this merciless journal told me otherwise.
Those years were actually constant drama eruptions that sapped my spirit and wasted my time. To a degree, I’d known right away that I wasn’t where I needed to be. I had already sensed that I’d kindled a relationship with someone who wasn’t good for me, and I’d built a life based entirely on wishful thinking. I had fought to remain in both situations entirely too long–well past the point where most people would have bought a plane ticket out.
Admitting any of it out loud to myself would have toppled my house of cards.
Once I had shared my heart with this leatherbound book, I buried those off-limits feelings so deeply that I couldn’t even remember what they had been.
But the journal held them for me until I was ready to remember.
The postscript of all postscripts
I wasn’t able to completely read all of the journal in one sitting. After my laundry was done, I went home and finished the job. The next day, I returned to the bar, cracked open another Shiner, and began writing again.
Sure, I could have written this entry anywhere. But it felt right to do it there–to finish the mental journey where it had begun.
Here is part of my entry for March 9, 1998:
Home is inside of me. It always was. I know that now. I wandered outside of myself for so long. Now I am inside, and I’m seeing that it’s a house unattended for a very long time–dusty and unfamiliar. I wander inside myself, glancing at the bookshelves, trailing fingers across the fireplace mantle. It’s not at all unpleasant.
Ever since I was 19 or 20, I’ve written in journals that I wanted to go home. Sometimes I’ve even said that out loud while in my actual home, and it’s confused people who said that I was already home. It just never felt like it. Now I finally feel like I’m home.
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so happy in my life. I feel like I have a solid base under me now. Like I’m whole. I’m going to try hard to do things right this time.
For what it’s worth, I did. That day marked a real turning point for me. Before that, I’d felt so disconnected and fluttery as I went through life. Afterward, I felt much more grounded and self-assured. Even my parents, who visited me in Kansas not long after I wrote that entry, noticed that I’d changed for the better.
I have journaling to thank for it.
I hope you begin journaling as well. It doesn’t have to be extensive or complicated. You don’t need any expensive equipment. It just brings a lot of benefits to the person doing it–and these go far past the obvious ones about learning to write words on a schedule or setting one’s thoughts in order.