Embracing the Past: Journaling and Leaving a Lasting Legacy

In 1984, when I sat down to write in a dream log, I had half-filled for a Gestalt class I took, I had no idea I was beginning what turned out to be a lifelong journaling practice. I was approaching my thirtieth birthday, had two small children, was a stay-at-home mom, and suddenly wanted to record what was happening in my life. At the time, we had recently moved to Florida. I had few friends and felt somewhat frustrated amid the baby world with minimal outside stimulation.

That’s how my journaling began. For the next eight years, I journaled whenever the mood struck me to put pen to paper. By 1982, I had filled twelve journals. My closest friend at the time was getting a divorce and was busy dating, and I no longer had my playmate around. Also, it was football season, which filled the weekends for my husband. My children were involved in their activities by then, and I suddenly had much alone time. That’s when my journaling became a more serious endeavor.

From then on, I journaled daily and sometimes more than once a day. I would write on my lunch hour at work, in line while waiting at the bank or grocery store, in the car at a railroad crossing as trains flew by, under palm trees at the beach, and at my favorite spot on my couch at home. People would ask me how I maintained a consistent journaling practice. It wasn’t an issue. I was drawn to record what I was thinking, feeling, and experiencing. Above all else, I found journaling a way to work through problems. Writing became cathartic and was the one place where I could say it all. To this day, I am still journaling and have now accumulated a collection of more than 380 journals.

I thought about what I would do with all these volumes of my writing and, for years, debated whether to leave them for my children. But in my heart, I knew I wrote my journals for my eyes only. In 2002, I finally decided that the best solution would be to cull through them and take excerpts I was willing to share with my children. I had no idea what I would find but embarked on the journey. I divided my life into different topics and had 70 subjects by the time I finished reading through my then 359 journals.

I felt as if I was riding an emotional rollercoaster. I revisited the joys and sorrows, the challenges and accomplishments, and everything in between. It was clear that I am the same person I always was. What changed through the years was my behavior and awareness. There were days when I would feel like I was right back in the moment I was reading about. Occasionally, I wished I could rewrite some of my history—approach something differently than I had. Other times I was fascinated with what I knew early on.

While culling through my journals and seeing all I had committed to paper, I realized I wanted to share some of my life lessons, messages, and more with a broader audience than just my children. I wasn’t sure how that would feel, but it became my new focus. When I finished reading my journals, I had thousands of single-spaced, typewritten pages ranging from 75–450 pages per topic. My next task was to go through the subjects and choose which I wanted to include in the two books I intended to write. By then, I had decided to title them Living and Leaving My Legacy, Vols. l and ll and have eleven chapters in each book. I immediately discarded those I wasn’t willing to share for various reasons. Once I narrowed down my list, I was ready to tackle the individual topics.

My goal was to end up with approximately 30 pages for each chapter. It took me five years to whittle down the 22 chapters. Initially, the excerpts I chose excluded most of my life’s more negative experiences and moments. I hesitated to include anything where I would be judged or where people would see a side of me I didn’t feel willing to expose. I still remember reading the excerpts I had chosen on marriage and thinking how idyllic it all sounded.

At the same time, one of my friends, who is a psychologist, began talking to me about our shadow side. She explained that if I want people to relate to what I’ve written, it was important that I paint a realistic picture. Day after day, we talked about this until I finally conceded.

I returned to my original 450 pages on marriage and began taking excerpts relating to some of the challenges my husband and I had faced. I began feeling vulnerable just thinking about putting some of this out into the world. As it was, I had often wondered why anyone would be interested in reading about my life. Self-doubts surfaced. Several times throughout this process, I considered not finishing it. Yet, inside, I knew I would never give up. I was determined to complete this major undertaking. I knew it was my most important life’s work.

And so, little by little, I forged ahead. I revisited all the chapters and added a more balanced picture of each. Ultimately, while it would not be easy to put my life out there in such an open and authentic way, it was what I needed to do to achieve my desired outcome.

Another challenge I faced throughout this process was how to write about situations without exposing the people involved. Sometimes, I made up names for the individuals to hide their identities. Other times, I even switched genders to disguise someone. What mattered to me was the story—the lesson to be learned—and not who was involved.

My goals for sharing these books were twofold. Firstly, I hoped readers would understand the benefits of journaling and begin to journal. I also wanted them to read about my life not because it’s my life but instead to see it as a mirror into their own. Above all else, through reading the two volumes, I hoped people would understand that how they live their lives becomes their legacy.

Since publishing these two books, people have told me how sorry they are that they haven’t journaled. I always tell them it is never too late to start. When asked how to begin journaling, I suggest people start with something like: Right now I feel or Right now I am thinking. Beginning where we are helps us be in the present moment. Somehow, the pen will flow once we start.

Being a pioneer in the field of legacy journaling has given me the opportunity to pass along the tremendous gift we give ourselves by first journaling and then sharing what we’ve written for others.

MERLE R. SAFERSTEIN

As the director of educational outreach at the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center for twenty-six years, Merle Saferstein worked closely with hundreds of Holocaust survivors, helping them pass along their Legacy of Remembrance to hundreds of thousands of students and teachers. When she retired from the Holocaust Center, she developed a course entitled Living and Leaving Your Legacy® and teaches and speaks to audiences locally, nationally, and internationally. She trains hospice staff and volunteers showing them ways to help patients leave their legacies and works closely with the patients at the end of their lives doing sacred legacy work. For many years, she has volunteered at a camp for children who experienced the death of a family member—helping them gain important tools, including journaling, to cope with their grief. Also, she conducts an all-day parent session at these camps. Merle facilitates a writing for wellness group at Gilda’s Club for women impacted by cancer. She is currently involved in Wisdom of the Century, a project that interviews individuals ninety years old and older. Since April 2020 at the start of Covid, Merle has led a weekly journaling circle. For fourteen years, she culled through her 359 journals taking excerpts according to approximately seventy topics. She has taken these excerpts and created Living and Leaving My Legacy, Vols. l and ll—each containing eleven subjects. Vol. ll is an Amazon #1 new release in two categories and is an Amazon bestseller in two additional categories. Merle is a council member of the International Association for Journal Writing, is the author of Room 732, an award-winning short story collection that pays homage to the historic Hollywood Beach Hotel, is a contributor to the Huffington Post, Medium, Authority Magazine, Women Writers, Women’s Books, and Thrive Global, and has been featured on NPR and MSN.com. As a pioneer in the field of legacy journaling, her chapter on the subject appears in The Great Book of Journaling: How Journal Writing Can Support a Life of Wellness, Creativity, Meaning and Purpose. Merle was chosen as the 2019 Greater Miami Jewish Federation Volunteer of the Year.

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