Feeling Zoomed out? Tired of texting? Longing, in these coronavirus-challenged times, for something more substantive than the here-one-minute-gone-the-next chatter on FaceTime or Google Hangouts?

Here’s an idea: Start writing.

In her press briefing Tuesday about the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Janet Mills included a few suggestions for parents throughout Maine as they cope with 24/7 family life under one roof.

First, she said, be patient. Second, be sure to give your kids lots of reassuring hugs.

And finally, Mills suggested, “Tell them to keep a journal, maybe, write down their thoughts during the day and in the evening before they go to bed. Keep those thoughts so that years later they’ll look back and say. ‘That’s how I felt. I remember now feeling that way.’ They’ll know how they grew, how they learned and how lucky they were to live in the great state of Maine.”

Sage advice, now more than ever.

There was a time when journaling, or keeping a diary, was nothing unusual. Equipped with only a pen and paper, people of all ages and interests considered it an important part of their day to pause and compose another chapter of their life story – be it a blossoming romance, a family outing, maybe even a still-fresh trauma suffered on some faraway battlefield.

But then came the telephone, followed by the TV, followed by the internet. With each technological leap forward, the art of sitting quietly and putting it all down in real words steadily evaporated to the point where such reflections, if they happen at all, have lost their permanence. We talk, one way or another, more than ever. The problem is, it all lasts about as long as an April snow flurry.

That’s what makes Mills’ idea so intriguing. Keeping a journal through this crisis provides children – and all of us, for that matter – time to truly process a daily existence turned upside down.

And long after the pandemic has passed, it will give us and those who come later a window into how strange it looked to see people standing in line 6 feet apart, how it sounded to walk down a normally busy street and hear only the birds and an occasional dog barking, how it felt to wait for one’s turn on the computer because the entire household was consuming all the bandwidth.

I asked Mills on Wednesday what prompted her to include the journaling advice in her message. Through her press secretary, she said it went all the way back to when she was a child.

“I just thought of it because my parents encouraged me to keep a diary as early as age 5 when I could hardly write,” she said. “It’s a good exercise to contemplate what you did, what you thought, what you feared and what hurt, disappointments, love and joys you felt that you will soon forget.”

In recent weeks, the Press Herald has tapped into that vein with “Virus Diaries,” daily snippets of life submitted by readers as they navigate the unpredictable currents of a reality few could have imagined two or three short months ago.

The Maine Historical Society has just launched a similar project – part of the “My Maine Stories” collection on the statewide organization’s website.

“Everyone’s story matters. And everyone’s life matters,” said Steve Bromage, the society’s executive director, in an interview. “That’s kind of our business, that’s the work we’re in on an ongoing basis, and that takes on heightened importance at a moment like now.”

The stories project, which grew out of the society’s older Maine Memories Network, is about as democratic as storytelling can get. Anyone 13 or older (parents can submit on behalf of younger children) can write and post photos and/or a video about not just the COVID-19 pandemic but also its myriad offshoots – from working at home, to working at a checkout counter, to witnessing one of the thousands of acts of kindness now sprouting like crocuses all over Maine.

My wife an I saw such a moment just the other day. Walking our dog on a rural road in Buxton, we were puzzled to see a line of about 20 cars approaching, all moving bumper-to-bumper at a snail’s pace.

A funeral procession to the nearby cemetery? Nope, not allowed.

Then, what?

Getting closer, we saw one or two kindergarten-age kids leaning out of each car window, many holding signs for their teacher, whom they clearly missed enough to stage a drive-by visit to her home. Amid their squeals, she stood there in her front yard, tears streaming down her face as she waved with one hand and held the other to her heart.

Imagine the stories those kids could write about that. And imagine how they might feel reading those stories to their grandkids 50 or 60 years from now.

So, fellow Mainers, whether it’s for yourself, your family and friends, or for all of us, think about putting it down on paper – or at least a durable computer file. And if you think what you have to say isn’t worth reading, consider these musings of a teenage Jewish girl in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on June 20, 1942.

Her name was Anne Frank. She died in 1945 in a German concentration camp after living with her family for two years inside the “secret annex” of the building where her father worked.

It was during that time that she wrote, prolifically and beautifully, about a world gone mad. Published two years after her death, her “Diary of a Young Girl” went on to become perhaps the most celebrated journal in modern history.

Anne wrote this passage only eight days after receiving her blank book for her birthday – and 16 days before her life’s walls suddenly closed in around her:

“Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year old school girl. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I feel like writing.”

It mattered tremendously. When it comes to the simple process of putting one’s innermost thoughts into lasting words, there is no time like the present.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.