The Hamilton Spectator

An Analog Library of the Lives I Have Lived


After a routine iPhone update, a new Journal app recently appeared. Intrigued, I tapped it, which led to the instructio­n “Enable journaling suggestion­s.” If I agreed, my phone promised to give prompts like “Take a moment to write about something special in your life you’ve been taking for granted” and “Take a look around you and take a picture of something you’ve overlooked. What do you notice about it?”

Apple is attempting to lure me into the world of Journaling 2.0, complete with the help of artificial intelligen­ce. The app promises meaningful reflection, apparently gleaned from my phone usage, that I can share with people around me via Bluetooth. A creepy line explained that all I would have to do is tap a button for the app to utilize “informatio­n about your workouts, media use, communicat­ions and photos,” which would “create meaningful suggestion­s for you.”

This is not the first time outside forces have suggested I reflect on my life. About 34 years ago, when I was 9, a family member gave me a

Josephine Sittenfeld is a photograph­er and filmmaker and an avid diarist. “Ramona Quimby Diary.” The spiral-bound book contained a page of stickers that said, “Extra special!” and “Private! Keep out!” as well as leading prompts like, “This month I was really happy when …” and “The nicest person in my class is ….” Around then, a friend of my parents gave me another journal, with the title “My Private World.” That cover has a barefoot girl seated under a sinewy tree, nestled alongside a dog, two cats and a book. I have never felt a connection to the girl. But the journal’s title? That spoke to me. It still does.

I have kept a journal ever since. I have an oversize plastic bin containing dozens of musty diaries. Each is filled with anecdotes from my life, scrawled in sloppy handwritin­g, riddled with misspellin­gs. They are filled with rants about friends, family and feelings. They contain my shames and terrors, my crushes, my dreams, my worries and mundane accounts of more than 30 years of my life. Like a boy with a pornograph­y stash under his mattress, I have always carefully tucked them away, embarrasse­d they exist.

I hold on to these journals because when I feel discombobu­lated and lost, reading through who I was at 14 or 19 or 25 years old helps connect me to myself. Paging through the diaries now, I am startled to realize how far I have come and also how little I have changed. In Journal Number 1, I am a 9-year-old living in Ohio. I feel a kinship with the children’s book character Curious George, a cute monkey. In Journal Number 11, I am 20, working for my college professor on an archaeolog­ical dig in Syria and flirting with a German man twice my age. Journal Number 19 leaves off in June 2009, when life is about to pivot: In a month I will become engaged, in six months I will be married, and in a year I will be pregnant with my first child.

It is not just their contents that are interestin­g time capsules. I am also drawn back to their covers. Teenage me decorated them with political stickers and funny headlines. Young adult me used postcards from my travels and darkroom contact sheets. I collaged the covers in order to express myself to myself, lovingly crafting keepsakes for an audience of one.

Returning to these covers makes me think about girlhood, secrets, memories and the passage of time. It is not lost on me that I work as a photograph­er, meaning I document people and events for posterity. I am paid to be a memory maker and keeper. I have made a career traffickin­g in nostalgia.

I recently photograph­ed my diaries set against sentimenta­l garments: delicate, pint-size floral dresses my mom saved from the 1980s and stretched-out extra-large T-shirts from the 1990s. By making these photograph­s, I entered a portal to my youth, simultaneo­usly connecting with my angsty, decorative, teenage self and appreciati­ng her from afar. They remind me of who I was, who I have always been and, to some extent, who I still am. Whether or not it is healthy, on some level, holding on to the stuff of my youth makes it more bearable to accept the fact that time is always, incessantl­y, marching on.

Which brings me back to that iPhone update. I still do not fully understand Apple’s new Journal app. If it were not

Digital journals can’t capture the magic of old diaries.

for the eerie fact that it mines phone usage to prompt reflection, I would be open to trying it. Regardless, I am curious what changes when journaling moves into the cloud. Paging through an old diary is an emotional, time-travel experience. If a teenager today uses the Journal app, what will her experience be decades from now? Assuming the technology exists to retrieve her writing, will revisiting an online journal have the same power to transport her back in time? What is her online equivalent of me holding the crispy, lined pages of my spiral-bound books from decades ago, touching the stickers, seeing my childhood handwritin­g and doodles in the margins?


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