My first journal was a yellow legal pad. I remember the joy and surprise that came when I filled the last page — as though I had written an entire book without realizing it. After the legal pad came a series of leather, hardback, and spiral-bound notebooks, each carefully chosen as my preferences became more sophisticated. Though I used basic ballpoint pens for the legal pad, my affinity for writing implements evolved to include only a few chosen favorites — mostly black, mostly roller ball, mostly medium point.
Early on, my journal pages were filled with the prayers of a kid who wanted everything but understood little. I wrote in code about the girls I liked and I wrote with sincere bravado about the quality of my new but developing faith. The daily work of filling those pages seemed effortless at the time. I would finish the last line of the last page of one journal, select its successor, and just keep writing.
In no time, I had filled a stack of journals over two feet deep. To my eye, they looked sacred on the shelf. My life was contained in those pages.
But somewhere along the way, the writing slowed. What used to be ten pages per week became more like three. And when three pages per week became more like three pages per month, I took on a strange habit. If I went too long between journal entries, I would shelve my current journal and buy a new one. That new book would serve as a kind of do-over, a fresh start. My first entry would always contain some sort of an apology to God with a renewed determination to write more. But inevitably, the journal would find itself at the bottom of my backpack for weeks at a time, on hand but unused.
Before long I had two stacks of journals — one overflowing with the idealism and passions of youth, and the other consisting mostly of empty pages I’m certain will never be filled.
For years the sight of that second stack of journals struck a chord of guilt. I feared that I was losing heart. I remembered how Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother, “In most men there exists a poet who died young, whom the man survived.” I wondered, was the poet in me dying? Was that what all the empty pages were trying to tell me?
I recently pulled down one of journals from the first stack. What I found were the prayers of a child written half my life ago — beautiful but clumsy, earnest but self-absorbed, expectant but naïve. In those pages I prayed for my God to lead me, to use me, to grow me, and to make something meaningful of my time here.
But the boy-poet who wrote those prayers knew little about life or how such petitions were typically answered. He was long on ideals but short on experience. He swore he had fathoms of love to give, but he knew little of what it actually looked like to lay down his life for the sake of another. He had lofty dreams of changing the world but didn’t realize that most world-changing work is the slow, blue-collar labor of chipping away and not giving up.
I imagine your life, like mine, has its share of abandoned disciplines, forgotten traditions, and undocumented eras. And sure, sometimes this happens because we grow lazy. But not always. Perhaps the empty pages tell their own story. An important one.
For me, the empty pages tell the story of my life becoming occupied with things I never suspected would lead me from the corner booth at the coffee shop into the consuming risk and mess and joy and inertia of marrying a woman who beckons me out of isolation, of raising four beautiful and uniquely complex children, of moving from one city to another, of living in a community, and of following a vocation which, ironically, involves more writing than ever.
The empty journal pages tell the story of my life filling in with answers to the prayers I prayed when I was young and had all the time in the world. My God has led me, used me, grown me, and made something meaningful of my life. And it has turned out to be a lot of work — as joy-filled and satisfying as it is exhausting and constant. The theoretical continues to give way to the tangible as the words I once reserved for the pages of a journal are now often given to the listening ears of a friend instead.
Do not assume that the fact that your life has changed means that the poet in you has died. Perhaps the empty pages are the evidence of answered prayers. Perhaps the poetry has moved from the written page to the hearts and souls of the people you love. Perhaps the keepers of this era are not made of paper and ink but of flesh and blood.
Listen. If the time comes back around to pick up your pen and write, then write. And write freely, without guilt. You are not behind. You are underway.
Russ Ramsey is a writer and pastor in Nashville. He is the author of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.