I’m Bad at Journaling, but a Memory Jar Helps Me Stay Grounded

I’ve never enjoyed writing out my daily thoughts longhand, so I created a memory jar instead.

a jar against a background of clocks

A memory jar is one easy way to hold onto memories for those that can’t stand journaling. | Photo by Getty

Welcome to Ritual, Be Well Philly’s column of essays about the low-tech, inefficient things we do that pleasurably slow us down. From taking the long way home to hand-washing dishes, these simple habits allow us to be more present — even if only for a few minutes. 

In March 2020, like millions of others, I was faced with the fact I was not going back to college for the remainder of the spring. In June, I realized that I would lose my senior fall semester year of college as well. Over time, I dealt with the knowledge that everything was different now — and that millions of people, including people close to me, could and would become infected with COVID-19.

Facing all of that, it became easy for me to focus only on everything that is overwhelming, negative, complicated, and difficult. Intrusive thoughts prevented me from staying present in my life. Instead of enjoying my morning tea, I’d find myself distractedly thinking about how during a normal semester I’d be spending my time on my Swarthmore College campus in the company of friends, going grocery shopping and having small talk, complaining about and completing my assignments, spending free time in Philly going to comedy clubs and bars, shopping, maybe even getting a spontaneous piercing or tattoo — all the things I’d imagined for my twenty-first year of life.

Now, I spend most of my time at in my parent’s home in Central Jersey. I do all of my work at the dining table. I’m thankful and feel privileged that I’m able to work and study at home in a peaceful and supportive space — but the thoughts still come. It’s hard not to feel upset and overwhelmed thinking about all of the things I’m missing out on.

I had seen many calls online encouraging people to journal and record their feelings during this time. I had always wanted to keep a journal, but the practice never resonated with me. As someone who publishes her writing, I did not want journaling to become about being perfect and editing myself. I wanted to practice gratitude and try to be present in a way that felt authentic and forgiving to me. So, instead, one sunny morning, I chose to create a memory jar — it felt more freeing and less formal. I’d seen steps to make one on TikTok a couple weeks before. It’s pretty simple: just get a large mason jar or any vessel of your choice, decorate it if you want, and fill it will paper notes to yourself. It may just start with one slip of paper, but it can quickly become many. See how fast you can fill your jar to the top.

On little ripped up pieces of pastel-colored printer paper, I write down good things that happen to me or good moments I remember at the end of the day. I note the date and time of my reflection. Nothing is too little to note, and I’ve let go of self-judgment for this exercise. I’ll write something like: “I made a bangin’ grilled cheese today” or “I got the Philly Mag internship! Things are looking up.” It’s also been helpful for me as I navigate a long-distance relationship pandemic-style. I write down the things my partner and I have achieved as individuals and together, the plans we have made for the future … cute ‘ish like that.

My memory jar became a non-linear, noncommittal journal of a difficult time. It allowed me to reflect in the way I needed and wanted to do, but in a way that made sense to me. The form mimics my thought process; it embraces chaos. And don’t get me wrong, not all things in the memory jar are positive. Sometimes, the notes are as simple as, “Yesterday was terrible, but today was okay,” or, “I managed to go outside.” And, the truth is that I don’t have any rules when it comes to this practice. I will often not write anything new for the memory jar for months. (Yep, I struggle with these kinds of rituals, especially as other responsibilities crowd my life.) Instead of getting upset at myself for failing to be consistent, I try to hold myself in acceptance. I think about and celebrate the fact that I did start a memory jar and — let’s be real — we all need to start somewhere.

The jar now sits on my bedside table beside my sage, incense, and candles. Every once in a while, I re-read what’s in there, and find joy and meaning. The mantra that I have been repeating non-stop lately is “It’s all about the small wins.” Sometimes I pick a random slip of paper and remind myself of something that happened, a feeling I had, I thought I had. Reading all of these scraps through again is therapeutic. The point is not how often I write a new note to myself. The point is that even in a continually challenging time, I have a way to practice gratitude and presence: to note all of those simple, good moments — to savor little wins I might otherwise have overlooked.

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