Journaling, or The Story of My Life

When I was in kindergarten, my brother found my diary.  I remember it distinctly, because he paraded around the house with it, reading aloud, as if he were reading Shakespeare, “I do not know (emphatic pause…) if I am in love…”  I was so embarrassed that I grabbed the book and threw it behind my dresser–which, in my 6-year-old mind, meant it was gone forever.

I started writing songs when I was a little girl.  If I sang them too loudly, (in the shower, for instance), my brothers laughed at me.  So I tried to sing softly to work them out.  I started writing them down in a book when I was 11 or 12.  The oldest surviving song is a song that I wrote with my friend, Candace in the church bus on the way home from an Amy Grant concert (House of Love tour) when we were in 7th grade.  It was called The Lighthouse, and it is too embarrassing (for both of us, I’m sure) for me to type out in this blog…

When I was 15, I started to journal in earnest.  I wrote almost every day, locking myself in my room, listening to a recording of thunderstorms and writing songs and prayers on wide-ruled paper, dated and filed away in a three-ring binder.  Writing became part of the way I prayed.  Most of my songs were bad (but sincere) expressions of my desire to know God and to be in His will.  During this formative season of my life, I took a high school creative writing class which showed me that I was already developing a voice.  I felt that writing was important to both my creative life and spiritual life, and as I continued to write, I learned that the two lives were one and the same.

I met Randy and started falling in love with him my senior year of high school.  But I wouldn’t admit it to myself for quite sometime, so I wrote about it really cryptically in my journals.  Like I was trying to hide it from anyone who might find them (my brother, for instance…).  But more like I was testing it out to see if it were really true.  I wrote a lot in the boring spaces of high school–in between assignments, during lectures that seemed totally inapplicable to my life, etc…  I started writing on college-ruled paper, and I would squeeze two lines into one.  This was a precaution against anyone looking over my shoulder to see what I was writing…

A couple of days before I graduated, I gave Randy a notebook full of double-lined-college ruled entries that were all about him.  They grew less hard to decipher as the book went on, and by the end, he knew how I felt about him.  When he picked me up from school, he was beaming.  This was the way that I told him I was falling in love with him.  He gave me an A+ and wrote a book report about the sky-blue-notebook that said, “I love you, too…”

All through our dramatic relationship, I journaled.  I could see things a lot more clearly after writing about them.  Oh, it is so wonderful to be in the throes of romance.  And it is so hard to figure it all out…  For the sheer expense of documenting the confusions of love, I switched to those cheap spiral-bound notebooks that go on sale for 17 cents at the beginning of every school year.  I filled so many of those things with all the questions that love brings up.  It seems so silly now, but at the time my life was saturated in the melancholy of it all…  (You can read more about our story here: (An Anniversary Story (How we met and fell in {and out and back in} love…)  Writing became a mirror for me–I could look into a journal and see things the way they were.  I could work out problems when I wrote them down.  And I could see myself more clearly when my thoughts stopped bouncing around in my head and took on the concrete form of words.

I started college and writing became like breathing to me.  I began keeping journals of different shapes and sizes, settling on a preference for unlined paper so that I could draw and write on the same page.  I found out that I am the type of person who likes to go to coffee shops accompanied only by the right blank book and pen.  I spent hours and hours writing and creating connections between my personal life and the world that was I was discovering through my studies of visual art.  I felt the world was opening up to me in a new way, and I used journaling as a way to keep it open.

This was when my journals began to take on my personality.  They were filled to the brim with snippets of poetry, half-sketched portraits, to-do lists, grocery lists, reminders to myself (“memorize Randy’s face”).  They were littered with names of artists and musicians that were speaking to me at the time.  These books became the record of my internal landscape.  They were mapping out the people, places, and things that were resonating with my soul.

All the while, I still saw them as a prayer and a conversation with God.  Notes from Art History would be interrupted by a question to God or a potential quotable-quote about the meaning of life…  The “Dear Diary” voice has always been, more or less, (now that I think about it) written to God.

Randy and I got married.  I started Grad School.  Journaling became more intense as I traveled down the introspective path of finding my creative voice in the Visual Arts.  I started cutting and pasting things in my books, which by now were all unlined, solid-colored, mostly hard-bound with an image taped on the front.  I started drawing my calendars right in the book, because my whole life seemed to need to be in one place.  These journals were about brainstorming creative ideas, about working out the hard questions of my faith, about finding the rhythm of being newly married, and entering into the whirlwind of trying to prove myself to the academic community.  I started to fall in love with lists, which seems to so-efficiently make more room for the thoughts that crowded into my head day and night.  I wrote down scattered dreams and things that I saw on my commute back and forth to school.  I used these books to process my life-experiences into something that I could understand.  I used them to help me capture the ever-elusive GOOD IDEA that every critique hinged-upon.  It was a stressful season for me.

I wrote all the time.

I took it for granted.

I finshed grad school, three years and a dozen or so journals later.  This is what I wrote the day I finished:

These three years
Starving for inspiration
Robbing the comb for creative ideas

Like a bee keeper
I reach into my brain
And scoop the honey

Later, when sedated bees wake
The queen tells them
They must make more.

Life slowed down to a kinder pace.  The next journals reflected a softer outlook on life, a more settled understanding of my place in the world.  It was full of records of long walks to town, entries headed by the names of new teas that we were drinking at the time of the writing.  Life seemed quiet.

Rosie was born a year later.  Life was more busy and full than I could have ever imagined.  I longed to write, to process how labor, birth, the experience of having a newborn baby had altered my life forever.  But I rarely had the time.  Between nursing and trying to rest and bouts with what I’m pretty sure in retrospect was some form of postpartum depression, my journal remained closed on the shelf.  My mind was in a fog.  It was like all the creative energy I had had been sucked right down into my belly to get that baby into this world, and then when she was born, it didn’t want to come back to me.  This was one of the hardest things for me to deal with in the early months (and years) of having children.

When Rosie was about 6 months old, I started collecting paper bags and cereal boxes to make my own journals.  I sewed them by hand or on the sewing machine, and it was like the act unlocked some kind of creative energy that had been dormant since before she was born.  I cut and pasted with a passion.  I sewed with love in my heart for all things handmade and beautiful, and for the joy of the feel of the perfect journal.  I started writing again here and there when I had the chance, and I felt a reconnection open up to the creative me and to the language that I had so long used for my most focused prayers.  It was a time of healing for me.

Rosie is 5.  I have two more children now, Paloma (age 3) and Kells (age 19 months).  We are expecting another little boy in 10 weeks.  I have very little time for journaling.  I rarely make my own books anymore, but I have discovered the perfect blank book for this season of my life.  Unlined paper, off-white pages with rounded edges, smaller than 8.5 x 11 but bigger than larger than 5 x 7, kraft cardboard cover, flexible enough to carry with me at all times.   (Moleskine Cahier Plain Journals Large)  An image taped on the cover makes it all mine.

I’ve also discovered that I am a better wife and mother when I take the time to write.  It is important to me for so many reasons–as an opening for a conversation with God, as a mirror to see who I am and who I want to be…  It is an incredible record of the seasons of life–more so than any photograph or home video.  One word can bring to mind an entire era of life that you thought would never end but now you have forgotten.  As a historical document of a family.  Life is so fast and changes come so quickly–it is incredible to look back over your deepest, innermost thoughts and see how you have changed.  And how those around you have changed.

I have discovered that the right journal, paired with the right pen (Pilot Precise V7 Rolling Ball Pen, Extra Fine Point) and a cup of hot tea is just about the only thing that can cause me to set my alarm clock to wake me before my children get up.  I don’t do it as often as I’d like, but this post is a subconscious effort to talk myself into getting up on a regular basis.  It is the only way I can be creative.  And now more than ever, when ideas flutter by like little birds and are out of sight in a moment, I have to write them down to catch them and examine them when I have the time.

Life is short.  There are so many things I want to do, so many things I do not want to forget.  The longings of my heart can all be traced back through my journals.  Some of my questions have been answered (“I do not know…if I am in love.”–Yes, now I do.), some of them remain mysteries.  I have still not managed to memorize Randy’s face.  (It is always changing.)  I have so many creative ideas jotted down that will never come to fruition.  But I have some that I am still clinging to, copying them from one journal to the next.  And to the next.  And to the next…  And one day, I am sure they will spring off the page and come to life.

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27 Comments Add yours

  1. nance says:

    Mackenzie Terrell Chester…. you are such a beautiful gem in my life….. i am SO VERY GRATEFUL to have discovered and witnessed you from afar….. keep on writing and singing and writing and writing and sharing…. love you so very much…. nance

    1. Thank you, Nance! So grateful for you, too.

  2. Absolutely beautiful, as usual, Mack! You have such a gift. Thank you for sharing it with your family and the world! I love you!

    1. Love you, Melanie. So thankful for the profound influence you have had on my life…

      1. Melanie Terrell says:

        That made me cry. 🙂 My life has been so blessed. Love you.

  3. Scott Ross says:

    This question bears asking; what are your favorite teas?

    1. Good question! I am not as picky about my teas as I am my notebooks and writing utensils… But right now I am really into lavender teas and nutty black teas… Thanks for asking. : )

  4. deairby says:

    so when are you going to get some of that published? what a treasure for your children in the years to come…

    1. I’ve been thinking about putting together a little e-book with scans of some of the best stuff… Not sure that I will ever get around to it, but it has been on my mind. Love you, Dea. So many of those journals were filled in the tea room!

  5. quipstress says:

    Wow. And just when you think romance is dead . . .
    “”He gave me an A+ and wrote a book report about the sky-blue-notebook that said, “I love you, too…” How sweet is that? I thoroughly enjoyed your musings about journalling. I have been a journaller since I was 14. However, since then I go through phases. I don’t keep a regular diary — I have an ongoing notebook full of snippets of this and that.
    I can totally relate to the importance of a good notebook and pen, and being able to release your thoughts and feelings onto the page. There is just something about paper and pens and the script and the process that is like a writer’s version of soul food. And lists . . .have to have those too! I admit, I am a bit of a pen, paper, and list junkie.

    1. Thanks so much for reading my post and responding. So glad that it resonated with you…

  6. Adrienne says:

    That picture at the end is so powerful – you, with child, standing next to a tower of journals that is almost equal in mass to you, and what are they made up of but the marks that spell out your story – and your search to understand your story. Powerful image.

    I love this reflection so much. There is a generosity in your honesty. I like how the post itself proves your point – how the post itself is an act of you showing yourself (and us) how important journaling is to you, to entice you to keep squeezing in time to do it, even as your obligations grow (literally and figuratively!).

    The story of giving Randy that collection of journal pages about him is priceless – that must have felt like such a leap of faith – such a vulnerable risk to take! I love that he responded with a book report…You guys — you’re story-book-worthy.

    Thank you for this wonderful defense of the power of journaling, and for sharing your story, Mack.

    1. Thank you, Adrienne. I always love reading anything you write. Thank you for always being insightful and helping me to see things from another perspective. Love you so…

  7. I love this so much. Beyond what I can write here. Such a beautiful post, Mack, from such a beautiful person. Love you!

    1. Susan, I love you, too! So glad you liked the post. Thank you for reading and responding.

  8. Becky McGarvey says:

    I love reading what you write. I save these emails for just the right quiet moment with tea and a little something sweet then read and re- read.

    Date: Sun, 27 Jan 2013 03:04:32 +0000 To:

    1. Becky, that’s a really happy thought. Thank you for reading and rereading. I love you.

  9. Phyllis Terrell says:

    Mackenzie, that is beautiful. You are such a creative writer. I love reading what you have to say. I don’t miss a word.

  10. Beautiful…just beautiful. What a legacy for your children—a written record of your journey, your faith, your growth, your fears, your doubts, and the answers God gave you in the midst of them. It makes me wish I had been so diligent. Perhaps it isn’t too late to start….

    1. Definitely not too late to start! I love you.

  11. cris says:

    How sweet your love is. Your love shines through your writing and your song. I love your voice. You are one of the most creative persons I know-whether music, pictures, art, crochet, poems, stories; expressing your wonder and love for others and life. And especially Randy! I am happy that you came into my life-I love your sweet, real, true, gentle, honest heart. Sometimes I need the intimacy of journaling, freeing up my mind and pouring out my soul. Or maybe I always need, but only sometimes take the time! Currently, I am enjoying my “gratitude list” (I also like lists!). Just a short list of 5 wonderful moments/events that have happened each day. Most days my list could be quite lengthy, but I keep it to five. And there have been a couple days in my life that I struggled to “see” to find and write down five. Life is grand, and people like you bring out the grandest and remind us of the precious. Continue writing-for you, your family, and everyone (including me)! There is a peace and calmness reading your words. Congrats, too-how wonderful & exciting your and Randy’s family is growing!:-) I love the picture of you (with your new little one) and your journals! Beautiful story.

    1. Cris, thank you so much for this sweet message. It is so good to hear from you. You are such a precious friend to me. I feel so thankful to have had that little window of time with you in Costa Rica–to have someone to talk to and confide in when the ending of (the beginning of) our story was so unsure. That trip was so life-changing for me. You are such a beautiful, thoughtful person. I hope you will be passing through Georgia again sometime. Maybe one day we will make it to Colorado… Love you so. Best to you, Thom, and your family.