A few weeks ago, as the temperature soared to 105 in Oakland, Calif., and despite the gray air outside, I decided upon the revolutionary act of cracking opening a window overnight. At midnight I woke to smoke inside my apartment, a snowstorm of ash swirling into my room coating every surface in delicate lacy patterns, a portent reminder that very close by, homes, animals, forests were burning.
The evacuation advisory came early the next morning. The Bay Area or at least those privileged enough to have cars were advised to put essentials in their vehicles and be ready to seek shelter elsewhere. I gathered up my passport, a change of clothes and, to my husband’s chagrin, enough journals to fill up the trunk.
I’ve been an obsessive journal-keeper since 1986 when I was 14 years old. At the time, newly immigrated to America, confused by the culture, I found some stability in documenting the details of my life. Almost 30 years later, I have several heavy boxes of journals that I lug with me every time I move.
Ultimately, we were lucky. We had a sleepless night while others we knew lost everything. Since then, I’ve begun doing what I always knew I would have to do: digitizing my journals.
In her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion writes, “I imagine… that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not…Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.” But in the process of rereading the pages of my journals in the midst of a global pandemic when I am the most isolated from other people I have ever been, I realize that they are actually also about others. Reading, I am reacquainted with the many people who have made my life. I am also confronted by the ghosts, the ones who had been central on the stage and then for one reason or another moved into the wings and then out of sight.
At this moment of global upheaval, the grievances, annoyances, wounds of my past feel less important than the halcyon days of love and friendship. I miss the folks I shared those days with. So I made a list of people I had lost contact with. A few were too radioactive to confront. But to some who felt safe, seven in particular, I wrote short emails thanking them for their role in my life.
Not everyone replied. I didn’t expect them to. But the majority did.
A friend I hadn’t talked to in six years called as soon as she got my email. We had lost contact when my best friend at the time broke up with her. Now we talked about what it had been like when we lived together in a Victorian house in San Francisco. We remembered dancing in the streets at Obama’s election, the overwhelming joy of that moment, the deep conviction that history had taken a turn toward justice. She told me about her life now, her work in Child Protective Services, how hard it is to come from rough days into the embrace of her own sweet children. I’m so glad she has found good work and deep love.
An ex-boyfriend I had messily broken up with also responded. In my journals I had found a photo of us from November 2001. The world had blown up, but in the picture we are in the park, basking in sunshine. He is lying stomach down and I have my head on his back. I am making a daisy chain. A passing reporter took a picture and it ended up in the local paper. We laughed remembering that moment and he said, “You opened the world for me.” He had been young when we got together, six years younger than me, and until he said that I hadn’t realized how much this relationship had formed him. He shared pictures of himself with his beautiful wife, two-rosy cheeked kids. He too had made his way into a life he loves.
I’m not sure if I’ll keep reaching out or I’m not sure how consistently I’ll keep in contact with the ones I’ve heard back from, but as we go through these uncertain times, I’m grateful for a sense of mutual forgiveness. This pandemic and quarantine have been a great reckoning, a time to consider our impact on the world, as a species and as individuals. This unexpected life review has shown me that what truly matters is only how well we treat each other, how much connection we can foster despite the ash awaiting us all.