By Emmy Serviss / Boston
When you’re drifting in the middle of the ocean trying to stay afloat, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the vastness of the water. Your arms get heavier and heavier as you struggle to keep your head up. You try to breathe in air, and instead get a mouthful of salty ocean water. The waves ebb and flow, threatening to overtake you. It would be so much easier just to give up, than to continue to struggle.
But you don’t give up.
So instead of getting lost in the hopelessness of the sea, you find one thing to focus on. A clump of seaweed drifting in the distance. You watch the seaweed as it rises and falls with the waves. You wonder how many waves will break before the seaweed reaches you, so you begin to count. Before you know it, the seaweed is brushing up against your fingertips.
During my Covid quarantine, time felt like the ocean.
Days felt like the water.
Hours felt like the waves.
I needed something to focus on, so I started keeping a daily journal. I only had two rules surrounding the journal:
1. I had to do something productive every day (anything other than watching TV)
2. I had to write in the journal every day
Some days I did a lot. I baked, painted, took the dog to the park, mailed a package, called my parents, did laundry, and so on. Other days I didn’t do anything except take a shower. It didn’t seem like much, but keeping account of what I did every day, and then watching the days in the journal fill up, helped me to get through my quarantine.
I wrote in that journal for a whole year.
Last month, I picked up my quarantine diary and looked through it again. I was curious as to what it would feel like to go back through my entries, a year later. At the time I wasn’t sure if the journaling was that helpful. But I knew that by writing in that journal every day, no matter how little, I was able to keep my focus on the present day, and not get overwhelmed by the uncertainty of the future.
And now looking back, I can see how even though the days didn’t feel productive in the moment, I actually accomplished and learned a lot over that time.
I thought back to when I was a teenager, I tried keeping diaries. I was never able to write consistently every day, but I would try. Instead of a daily account of my activities, I documented every angsty thought that crossed my mind. I went through spurts where I’d write an entry every other day for a week, and then nothing for a month. Whenever I picked the diary back up after a long sabbatical, I would start the new entry with, “Hey! Sorry it’s been a while.” As though the diary was an actual person who was keeping track of my entries and judging my commitment level.
Revisiting my quarantine diary made me wonder if there were more lessons I could learn from my younger self. Thankfully I’m somewhat of a packrat, and I’ve transported a lot of old mementos, photos and diaries across several states. So I dug through all the random junk in my closet and pulled them out.
Turning back the pages of my teenage days, I realized three important things.
1. I am very hard on myself.
A lot of my teenage diaries are composed of your typical whiny “Why doesn’t he like me” and “Oh my God my parents are monsters” entries. But there was also a lot of self-loathing and pressure and blame that I put on myself. Situations where I had no control over the outcome, but I believed I was at fault nonetheless.
I wish I could tell Teenage Emmy to be more gentle with herself. Not every failure means that she’s failed at life. Not every friendship is meant to last, and that’s not a reflection on her. Things feel difficult and painful because life can be difficult and painful. But it won’t always be.
2. It’s okay to be alone sometimes.
In my teenage diary entries, I wrote about how lonely I was at least a dozen times. Teenage Emmy believed that every time plans fell through with friends, it was because they didn’t want to be around her. She didn’t feel understood by her parents, and she never felt as though she fit in at school. She felt alone everywhere she was, and I wish I could tell her that being alone isn’t always a bad thing.
I would rather go see a movie alone, than miss out on the movie. I would rather stay home and gather my thoughts than try to drown them out in a room full of acquaintances. And I would rather be single than be in an unhappy relationship. Sometimes it’s okay to be alone. (Unless you’re all alone while openly weeping and drunkenly singing along to Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” – then you’re just reenacting Bridget Jones’s Diary and that’s been done already)
3. Emotions are gross.
Reading back through Teenage Emmy’s thoughts, I can remember how every feeling seemed SO BIG. The pain felt so tangible and complete that sometimes it felt as though she would just become engulfed by it. I can remember the number of nights that Teenage Emmy cried herself to sleep, unable to process all of the feelings raging inside her head.
I don’t cry myself to sleep anymore, but sometimes I still get emotions that feel SO BIG. Now, instead of avoiding them and trying to distract myself from them, I try to sit with them. It’s not always easy. Emotions are icky and difficult to understand why we feel what we feel and it’s easier to just ignore them. Except that when we ignore them, they fester and grow. It’s better to sit with those feelings and really feel them, and that’s when we can move forward.
I wish that Teenage Emmy could have known that.
There are so many things that we can only learn as we get older. I hate clichés, but sometimes clichés exist because they’re also true. They say that youth is wasted on the young, and I think now I understand what that means. I wish I had the energy and optimism of Teenage Emmy, but with the wisdom of Present Emmy. I guess we all need some time (HAH) and distance to be able to get perspective.
I wonder what lessons Future Emmy will learn from Present Emmy.
I should get a new diary, so that she can find out.
Emmy Serviss is a Boston-based writer, actor and video editor. Once it is safe to return to live theater, you can find her performing with ComedySportz Boston and the sketch group SUZZY. When not on the stage, Emmy enjoys indulging in her new pandemic hobbies, laughing way too loudly and counting the days until Halloween.