When did this stage of your life begin?

Everyday activities have altered across the world. What we called ordinary life feels entirely different from our lives before. On social media we see that increasing numbers of people, confined to their homes, imagine starting a diary. Reduced options for human contact and social connection add appeal to the companionship of a journal. Diary literature features prominent examples of diaries kept by convalescents, prisoners, or people on solitary retreats.

As effects of pandemic touch people everywhere, the present moment also feels historic, producing even greater reasons to track their lives in a journal. Both lifelong journal-keepers and people who never kept a diary before now find themselves wanting to open a blank book and write pages about how life has changed.

You, too, may have had this passing thought, then grew unsure about following through. Maybe you dismissed the idea, telling yourself that surely there will be a glut of such diaries. What could yours add?

Besides, the coronavirus era is no longer news. After a month of staying home, isn’t it a little late to start a diary about what that feels like? Shouldn’t I have started writing on the day when I first heard of the virus, or back when we still went out in groups and everyone in public was overheard talking about it, or maybe that first day we spent entirely at home? Surely the moment for starting a journal has passed.

But the diary offers remarkably flexible ways to handle time, and one of these could help you now. Ira Progoff, who devised a system called the Intensive Journal, understood that people don’t want to write only about today. “The Now of our life,” he wrote, includes “the most recent relevant past.” To examine how we got here, to see our lives in larger context, we need to “expand the present” and develop journal entries that ask more broadly: What is this present period in my life? How far back does it reach? What have been the main characteristics of this recent time?

Progoff recommends sitting quietly to consider at what point the “Now” of your life began: “We stretch the present moment back as far as it needs to go in order to include as much of the past as is still an active part of the present. . . This forms the period that is the Now of our lives, our most recent relevant past as it moves into our present. “ Citing examples like a move to a different city, starting a new job, undergoing an illness, or starting an important relationship—“since that time,” he explains, your “life has borne the imprint of that event, and it, therefore, is the definitive factor in this present period.”

Your new journal, in other words, can open with an entry that reflects on the present period, that explores the elastic Now. As you look back, when did you realize that life had changed, that your freedom of movement and contact with other people would suffer restriction, that all future events on the pages of your calendar had evaporated, that you would need to figure out how to cope?

Whether your Now arrived by way of subtle shifts and adjustments or in one single intense moment that showed the curtain rising on a new act, the story behind your current reality may take more than one writing session to record. Go ahead and weave into this account of the recent past some details of what happened today, bits of what you notice around you in the here-and-now, even while you write.

The concept of an elastic Now enables you to explore earlier life-stages as well. Progoff calls these stages “stepping stones” and we will leave them for a future discussion. For now, if you want to catch up on diary-keeping in a new and unaccustomed time, borrow his method to pull the recent past into the pages of a new journal.

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