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Journal the pandemic and those weird grocery store trips — with help from Michelle Obama

"Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice" is a companion to Michelle Obama's bestselling memoir.
(Clarkson Potter)

How many times have you thought lately, I should write this down? We’re living in Never Before times: Pillaged grocery-store aisles. Skyrocketing unemployment rates. Nurses begging strangers for N95 masks on Twitter.

Yes, reality is now dystopic, but we’re also living in unprecedented times for journaling. These are Golden Wow days. You should be writing this down. Not only will you thank yourself later, you will be grateful now.

You’re snorting with laughter behind your mask. With what time? How?

Listen, I get it. I’m currently huddled in place with my husband, toddler and chihuahua in a 1,050-square-foot house that is shrinking every day. In my open floor plan, I have only two rooms with actual working doors, an oversight from the Before Times that I now sorely regret. I can barely go anywhere alone, without either little fists pounding on the door or dog nails clicking behind me or my husband asking where I put the diaper wipes for the fifth time. Yeah, yeah, I love them all (said in saccharine mom voice) but still. Can a woman get some social distance right now?

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It’s tricky but possible. As an obsessive journal keeper since the third grade, I know that one way to get alone time is to pull out my journal. On crisp white pages way cleaner than my kitchen floors, I can launch a conversation with myself. For a moment, I can seal them all out, even when they are right next to me. (Also, earplugs help.) There are also the evening hours, after my son goes to bed and before I collapse. If I can shake out 10 minutes from a day, I bet you can too.

Journaling during a pandemic, especially for the uninitiated, is not easy. Anxiety and worry will scream and howl on the page. Just let them say their piece. All of my entries from March are panicked, bewildered affairs — fine for a while (and a running theme, to be honest), but I wanted to break out of the rut. So I picked up Michelle Obama’s “Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice,” a companion book to her bestselling memoir published late last year.

Obama’s journal is a lined hardcover book in soothing blue tones with a simple prompt every page or two, designed to help you, through writing, to “process, to understand, to grow and, yes, to remember” your life, your story, your weird trips to Trader Joe’s.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama will be reading children’s books in a weekly series of videos for Penguin Random House and PBS Kids through May 11.
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The prompts are interspersed with hopeful quotes like, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s the power of using your own voice.” In her introduction, Obama concedes she hasn’t always been a devoted journal-keeper herself, but when she reads the one from her late 20s, when she was “contemplating a new career” and “getting more serious with Barack,” it transports her back “to that earlier version of myself, with all the warmth, heartbreak, and frustration flooding in.”

Obama is right; it’s a bridge to the past. I’d also add that journaling can function, in the present, as escapism. It’s a more connective, intimate escape than watching “Love Is Blind,” again. On nights when I wanted to cocoon myself from death counts and our never-ending dish pile, I dipped into Obama’s book.

There are prompts for every kind of mood: “List your ten favorite movies” keeps it breezy, as well as Obama’s nod to her White House garden (“list ten favorite vegetables and how you like to prepare them”). Though there are a handful of prompts that dig into loss and struggle, the book is mostly upbeat. Many pages invite you to celebrate your vibrancy, your successes, which caused me and my Midwestern modesty complex to squirm in a good way. There also are civic-minded prompts that feel particularly relevant to a world in such turmoil: “Describe the world of your dreams. What changes — whether on a local, national or global level — do you wish to see?” I haven’t tackled that one, yet.

One I did write: “List ten things you want for yourself. For each item, write one simple step toward making that wish come true.” That exercise clarified the muddiness of life since we sheltered in place and the destruction of all my social structures and schedules. On another day, “List five tiny victories you accomplished this week” assuaged me when my to-do list turned into a detailed way to beat myself up for what I hadn’t done.

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At times, this guided journal led me to some aching realizations. “Describe your perfect day — beginning with breakfast and ending with dinner” spurred me to re-create a day I’ve experienced several times. I wrote about a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, overlooking the glinting ocean, with friends on a bright spring day, a day after a hard, cleansing rain. Then, for dinner, creamed corn in a skillet, roast chicken, beer and rollicking conversation at the Old Place in Agoura Hills, one of my favorite restaurants.

Before coronavirus, I might have answered this prompt differently — an extravagant trip to Italy or some other place on my Never Been list — but in these Never Before times, I just want what I used to have: my friends together and the freedom to live a full, dazzling life. I have to thank Michelle Obama for the two-way travel in a time when I’ve barely left my block: She allowed me to visit the past and the future all at once.

Margaret Wappler is a novelist in Los Angeles.


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