Journaling Project Finds Meaning In The Mundane

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When the Southampton Historical Museum sent out an invitation late last year for people to participate in a journaling project to celebrate the town’s 375th anniversary, I jumped right on that bandwagon. I write for a living—this was a no-brainer.

Except that it wasn’t.

Striving to pen two sentences about my day, every day, for a year quickly joined turbulent flights and calculus as things to be dreaded in my mind. I lasted three weeks and have since avoided all the friendly and encouraging emails asking how it’s going.

Fortunately, for future East End residents, more than 60 others signed on to the project, some with much greater self-discipline than I. And late Saturday afternoon, the museum held a gathering to celebrate the end of the inaugural Southampton Journaling Project at the Rogers Mansion.

The turnout wasn’t huge, which could mean that others who didn’t keep their pens moving all year long were also hiding in shame. But the participants who did show up had a lot to say about the value of a project like this.

“This has been fun,” remarked participant Judy Johnson, who has been journaling off and on since her high school years spent in Guam. “It takes discipline, but it makes me think about what I’m doing with my day. I had an uncle who always used to say, ‘Let me never see a setting sun, unless there’s been some good I’ve done.’ At the end of the day, I think, ‘Did I accomplish anything today?’ and I write it down.”

The weather was a touchpoint for several people in the room, acting as a sort of anchor for their writing. Others focused on what they thought future generations would like to read.

“You might write about how you went to the supermarket and it was packed. It’s very mundane, but they might not even have supermarkets a hundred years from now, and they might find that fascinating,” participant Elizabeth Yastrzemski said. “I wrote about cutting the greens at the Halsey House, about how I found foxglove growing, and how unusual it was for the season … What I find really interesting is the idea of writing for an audience that isn’t born yet. Their grandparents might not even be born yet.”

The project originated with the discovery of a journal kept by Southampton farmer James Foster in 1830, according to museum curator Emma Ballou. Transcribed by former museum president Hilary Woodward, the journal was fascinating because of its plainness, she said.

“Hilary transcribed the journal years ago, but it kind of always stuck with her,” Ms. Ballou said. “She was struck by how interesting it was, even though it was very mundane. Just the fact that his life was so different from what we do every day made it interesting.”

On February 9, 1830, Mr. Foster wrote, “This day got up very early in the morning and foderd and got reddey for to go to Sag Harbor with flour so I went up to Captain Rogers Baarn and took on 16 Barrels of flouer and went to the Harbour with it, waded through the snow all the way and twas nothing but … so ends these twenty four hours.”

Every subsequent or previous entry in Mr. Foster’s journal is pretty much the same, Ms. Woodward explained to the group, except for when “there was a whale out there and they all ran out to catch it.”

“That’s the thing about that 1830 journal,” Ms. Woodward said. “He’s completely un-notable. Oftentimes, the history of places is based on those characters who made history there, but we all make history every day. We all create the reality of that moment in the town, whether it’s taking our kids to school or whatever. We’re all doing the things that make up our town’s history.”

Ms. Woodward said she tried to write something every day, but her hectic summer work schedule found her missing weeks at a time. And she said that was just fine.

“Emma pointed out that the fact that there were a couple of months where I didn’t have time to write anything is interesting in itself,” she said. “It speaks to how busy life is here in the summer.”

She stressed to those who signed up for the project and didn’t write every day—or even every month—their journals are still valuable. As it turns out, even the inspiration for the project, Mr. Foster, stopped writing in his journal in September 1830.

“We want everything anybody’s written, no matter how insignificant,” she said. “If we just have the 10 people who did it every day all year, we don’t get the diversity of voices, or the diversity of experiences, that we want to have.”

One enthusiastic participant, Laurie Collins, the museum’s programs manager, who is also in charge of education and events, wrote with an elegant simplicity in pencil in a plain, lined notebook. Each day, she closed by answering the question, “What is a small town?” On January 27, her answer was, “Our neighbors Chris Corwith and Wayne Moore showing up early in the morning to plow the driveway before we could get out there to dig. 11:00 a.m. 19” snow, still snowing.”

“My grandmother always kept little weather journals, so maybe that’s what inspired me,” Ms. Collins said. “I’ve always kept a journal. Most of the time I keep it right by my bed, so it’s the last thing I do every day.”

During an age when so many people document their every thought and action via social media, some of the participants said they think the project will endure beyond Facebook and Twitter. Mary O’Brien, who kept two journals this year—one for the project, the other for herself—questioned the long-term survivability of social media.

“How much of what’s on Facebook and Instagram is going to be saved?” she posed. “Even now, if you want to read something from a few years ago, you might not be able to because it’s in a media format we can’t access anymore.”

Ms. O’Brien, like many of her journaling peers, wrote in longhand. Ms. Ballou, an artist, combined writing with artwork in hers. Her husband, Matt Nuccio, took one photo a day and combined it with a short journal entry using an app called Journey.

While the formats are as individual as the journal entries, together they will give future generations a snapshot of everyday life in Southampton 2015. Some of the journal entries will be on display beginning next spring at the museum; others will be saved, time-capsule style, to be opened in 25 or 50 years.

As part of the Journal Project, museum visitors will be able to add their own journal entries, creating a continually evolving story of life in Southampton.

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