What a diary reveals.
By Holly Love
Anticipating my 15th Reunion, I took out my college diaries to search for anecdotes to share with classmates and to relive that carefree era—and was astounded to find that it wasn’t so carefree, after all.
I had idealized those years as unmarred by worries about money or my appearance, free of time pressures and career uncertainties. I paid a mere fifth of my current household expenses to share a house across from the old Urban Outfitters at 41st and Locust; the $35 a week left after that was adequate spending cash. When we had parties, no one ever asked, “What do you do for a living?” Career satisfaction didn’t consume me as it does now, because I wasn’t expected to have a career yet. My clerical job at the financial-aid office—then in Logan Hall—suited me fine.
Physically, life was also a breeze. Nearby produce stands made eating well effortless, and youth was on my (fast-metabolizing) side. Fairmount Park was a short bike ride from my intermittent academics, so exercise was an easily scheduled joy. Smooth skin, clear eyes, white teeth and bouncy hair with no gray dissenters were givens.
I got up “early” only upon deeming the 9 a.m. physics lecture at DRL a must-hear. Even then, my alarm didn’t ring until 8:15, and, if I were late, there was no danger of getting fired from anything. I never fretted over the speed of my modem connection to some global computer system called the Internet, or whether I’d ever been exposed to HIV. And if the world ended in that remote year of 2000, my years on Earth would have doubled by then, giving me plenty of time to make my mark.
The remembered—imagined—contentment of those four years made the much-hyped comfort of a mother’s womb pale in comparison to the utopia that was Penn. Like birth, graduation suddenly seemed a cruel introduction to the outside world.
But soon after I cracked the red bindings of my treasured diaries, the tint faded from my rose-colored glasses. With every page, it became clearer that my problems and anxieties were as plentiful and powerful then as they are today—and the natures of my past and present woes were not nearly so dissimilar as I would have sworn on my engineering diploma that they were.
The (lack of) greenbacks never got me down? “Mike and I went to see Terms of Endearment tonight,” I wrote in 1983. “I cried my eyes out, not only because it was sad but because I can’t seem to stop spending too much money on going out.” I also wrote abundantly about my eternal efforts to reach my maximum allowed work-study hours.
No career worries? I reported more tears in 1982 while finalizing my choice of major. I didn’t know then that people with technical degrees can still flourish as artists. When I ultimately chose lucrative computer science over my preferred (but ostensibly too competitive) field of music, I apparently thought I was sealing my fate as a mainframe geek. The severe grief of that sacrifice leaked constantly from my felt-tip pen.
And no, I did not think I was the perfect Ivory Snow girl. My diaries show that, just as often as I do now, I inspected myself in the mirror and bemoaned my imperfections (though the focus then was breakouts rather than wrinkles). Moving south to my waistline, I bought a scale last year to help me regain the flatter
abdomen I recalled possessing in college. Wonder of wonders, I complained of its convex terrain 16 years ago. Which made me unhappy when dressing for dates: October 1984, “I hope Scott didn’t notice that my stomach was bursting through my skirt.”
Most surprising was the true age of my obsession with time. I had thought that it wasn’t until I started working full-time at age 21 that I understood and subscribed to my mother’s lament, heard frequently when I was growing up, that she never had enough time. Not so, according to my trusted source: “This semester leaves me absolutely no time for cleaning, so filth and I are good buddies” was just one of countless references I made to feeling time pressure.
Besides common angst, some other parallels between my then and my now particularly interested me. Playing Pacman at Carney’s near 36th and Chestnut alleviated collegiate stress; now I sometimes end a taxing workday with a round of PC Tetris. I was as thrilled when the February 1983 snowstorm caused the cancellation of chemistry class as I was this past winter when snow kept me home from work. Pitching the perfect independent study to the Moore School’s Dr. Eisenberg was paramount, as is proposing the perfect method of data management to my current part-time boss.
My perceived time deficit keeps me from journaling daily these days. Pity, because, in 20 years, when summing up the flavor of my thirties, I’ll clearly need a reality check. That would be a check, incidentally, not just on mindsets but also on specific events. One set of diary entries indicated that another sophomore and I were a couple for three months. Until I read them, I thought we’d been on two dates.
The diaries also reminded me of my escapes to the stacks of Van Pelt Library for solitary study time. That habit corresponds to my searches now for at least a little bit of renewing solitude every day. Whether I find it at twilight on my Havertown house’s deck, or in my bed with old diaries late at night, I use it for the same purpose as I did at Penn—to gain a greater understanding of something. The understanding that my life now is really no more strife-filled, nor issue-saturated, than it was when I was younger, has firmly replaced my old “those were the days” comparison of my past and present.
That, I think, bodes pretty well for my future.
Holly Love EAS’85 is a writer and editor of creative nonfiction and a regular columnist for two newspapers. She lives in Havertown, Pa., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.