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The dual nature of journaling—as a marker of the present and a remnant of the past—has attracted many writers to the practice of chronicling their pandemic days. “I thought it would be cool to have something written down for my kids later on, when they ask me what happened in 2020 during the coronavirus,” Leo Ramirez, a 19-year-old in El Paso, Texas, told me. Hannah Kuo, a 24-year-old nurse in Columbus, Ohio, initially wrote entries after her hospital shifts to track changes in the ways “we treat other people, and how hospitals [form] policies and procedures.” But after a month, Kuo stopped. She told me that her journal entries started to look the same, and she found other activities, such as exercising, to help alleviate stress. Still, she is glad to have a snapshot of her first month as a health-care worker during the pandemic.
Others approach their diary less as a record for the future, and more as a tool to help them live through the present. Justyn Williams, a 29-year-old actor in Los Angeles, hadn’t journaled since 2015, but when he moved in with his mom and found himself out of work, he decided to pull out a notebook and pen. He described journaling as a way to “check in with an invisible therapist” and told me he now writes twice a day for his mental health. As a Black man, he said that the George Floyd protests have weighed heavily on him, in addition to the ambient stress of the pandemic. Williams said that on paper, he’s able to process difficult emotions while also capturing happy memories. He added that journaling “brings a very real tangibility to being able to look back and see what was happening on a day, or what I was thinking” during a certain part of his life.
Across the country, in Dutchess County, New York, 27-year-old Angela DePalma has also discovered a new appreciation for journaling. “I used to just journal about what happened in my day-to-day life,” she told me. “But since we can’t go anywhere, or see anybody, I’ve found that my journal entries have been getting longer because I’ve been reflecting inward.” Writing has been a source of comfort, especially when her grandmother got the coronavirus (she has since recovered). And it’s helped her better understand her life and what she wants from it. Reading over her entries, DePalma noticed that they consistently captured unhappiness and stress from work. So she decided to quit her job. And she’s begun to talk more openly about racism and her own privilege with friends and family. DePalma told me that she wouldn’t have had these conversations with other people, or herself, before she started reflecting regularly in her journal.
Read: How a history textbook would describe 2020 so far
For now, writing these diaries is a comfort to their authors. Future generations may use them to understand what daily life was like during the pandemic—what Americans’ mask-wearing habits were, how much (and how safely) people socialized, or how they entertained themselves at home. These journals will provide history with the intimate details that make it come alive, and show us that even the most world-shattering events are made up of precious, individual lives.