I’m still catching up on the 30 Days (ahem) of Songs, yes. But I learned something this past week that’s thrown off my bloggery something fierce.
Not just the recent arrival of my new niecebeast. I wish that were my excuse, honestly. I feel rather bad that I couldn’t think of anything to say about this imminent human that I hadn’t already said about the previous niecebeast. Surely I should have been able to distill that same curiosity and excitement in a completely different way, befitting the completely different protohuman? I tried, but there was nothing I was thinking, feeling, wondering, about this new human that I wasn’t thinking, feeling, wondering, and writing down about the last. The knowns were just as few, the unknowns just as multitudinous.
No, what’s rattled my writerly foundations isn’t the new niece with all her unfurling futures, all the wonder of what she’ll see and do and think and feel and become, the mindboggling ways that her every experience will, in some way, alter her every future experience. That’s her own story.
Rather, it’s a sense of sudden disconnect from my past, from my own story.
You see, I just learned that OpenDiary shut down earlier this year.
OpenDiary is – or was – one of the very first online journaling sites. How old? It predated the existence of the word “blog” by a solid year. I left my first post on September 29th, 2000, and my last, it seems, on January 11, 2009. And apparently the whole works was shuttered on February 7, 2014.
I had no idea until I went to check it out the other day in one of my rare fits of curiosity. Fits that had come less and less frequently, in time. What once had been a near-daily haven became a fitful biweekly obligation. A quarterly attempt. It became less a path toward introspection and growth, less a way to push my way out of that psychological instar and grow into, let’s face it, just a bigger, weirder, slightly-less-inept sort of caterpillar… and, instead, it was more like sweeping up the past months’ moltings and trying to pin their dry, crackling husks to the page. They didn’t stay, and they were barely recognizable, but it was important to at least keep trying to put up the facade of writing there.
To hear that OpenDiary is gone, and so long after the fact, is… a little like hearing that the house you lived in as a teenager burnt down to the ground. But it happened a while ago – there’s no flame left to put out, the ashes have been plowed away, and it’s all been paved over. Why should you be upset? You don’t live there anymore. It’s not like the fire went back in time and made Past You homeless. In fact, if you’re lucky – and I was – you may have even managed to take out every single personal item you’d left there, perfectly intact. (Yes, OD allowed you to download your entire blog as a .txt file. Yes, I have it. I feel like I might have posted at least something after the end of the aughts, but perhaps I misremember.)
But to me, there’s something a little more to it. OD wasn’t just where I felt “at home” with my journaling – though believe me, it was. With each adolescent reinvisioning of myself, I’d adopt a new theme. New background, new font, new colors. From the ever-so-angsty red on black to a nature-seeking green on black, then finally forgoing the tedious pseudogoth phase in favor of ghostwhite backgrounds with bubbly purple borders, or with a starfield, or… I think I had blue on my sidebar and archive for a while? Still with a ghostwhite background, though. One I sampled for this background, as well. Maybe it was just the habit of writing in such a familiar place for so very long, but it was so hard to write anywhere else. LiveJournal, Diary-X, Blogger, just plain notecards… none of them felt right. Even WordPress doesn’t feel quite right, to be honest.
It’s not as if I didn’t know the site was always in danger of going under. They’d had two separate hacking incidents, one that resulted in the permanent loss of eleven weeks of entries. I really wonder how my life might have been different if I’d been able to read back to some of those weeks, in fact – they were about a change in the nature of a relationship, a transition from “dating” to “boyfriend/girlfriend,” a transition that was not as smooth as I later wanted to believe – or as he’d later assert. Server problems happen, and everyone understands that… but nothing burned worse than to write some long, cathartic journal entry, hit save, and watch it fail, the data lost forever. To this day, before I save any writing on this blog, a forum, or even a particularly long Facebook post, I still compulsively hit Ctrl+A, Ctrl+C, and prepare to paste it into a text file and submit it again if I have to.
But even though it was fickle, even though it was not the most secure, even though its management was out of touch, even though it was often somewhat gaudy, even after its various “makeovers,” OpenDiary was home. If just because it was where I wrote nearly ten years of my life. (Don’t think that I don’t see the parallel with my current online home.) I put so much of my energy and my time into that, detailing my travails through high school, college, and living on my own, almost up until I moved. There’s so much ME in there. Or what was me, anyway.
I’m glad I have the words, still. Bitterly glad. It’s not like I want to read it all again – it’s got some of the worst of all adolescent whining, and so much college awkwardness and fretfulness, and there might even be POETRY in there… ye gods. All the times lately that I sit and think about how much better off my life could be right now if only I’d learned certain lessons earlier, if only I’d made different decisions, if only I hadn’t wasted my time and affection on broken jerks, if only I’d taken different classes, tried talking to more people, stood up for myself… arguably every stupid decision I’ve ever made that has put me where I am now, it’s in there. Of course I want to reject it, because I have only an uneasy peace with my past. Still, it is my past. It’s mine. I wasn’t much for taking pictures, and I didn’t have many friends, and so I just don’t have that much from my past except for those ceaseless babblings. Yes, it has the records of me fawning over and pining for people who are now anything from “acquaintance” to “What was his last name again?” to “bludgeon on sight.”
But it also has stories of theatre opening nights, and tales of my first days in college. My first Rocky Horror. Graduations from both high school and college. It has stories of events, once so terribly magical and important, that are now not simply tarnished, but corroded. It tells the tale of other nights which have only become even more storied and wonderful with the passing of the years. It has descriptions of average days that will someday be marvelously quaint, and descriptions of those rare days filled with small awesomenesses. It has fanciful reinterpretations of suburban adventures. It has my full set of introspective adventures into the “Mindscape,” and mock-interviews with the various facets of my personality and identity, in hopes of understanding myself better, reconciling my various drives, and figuring out how to be more like the parts of myself I actually enjoyed. So much of it is probably so irrelevant now. A dreadful amount might still teach me a thing or two, if I were bold enough to go back and read.
To truly put the loss in context, I might have to describe my relationship to the Internet itself a little more clearly. I am not a digital native; I remember a time before the Internet, before it was common to even have a home computer. I remember having email-only Juno service, and eventually a 26k dial-up modem and AOL, back in the fall of 1999. In fact…. a little research later, and I have an exact date: September 23, 1999. I spent my nights searching random keywords of things I was interested in, seeing what I could find. These were the days when you REALLY couldn’t trust what you read on the Internet, because it was probably written by some random schmuck. Google was only two years old. Wikipedia didn’t exist. You weren’t ever supposed to put your real name or your picture on the Internet. Not that you could see pictures very easily, anyway. Did I listen to music online? Sure – I was always looking up MIDI renditions of popular songs. Some of the people at school talked about Napster and mp3s, whatever those were, though. Me, I was jsut poking around on MUDs, using Telnet with no local echo – arguably THE greatest boost to my typing skills. Or I’d talk about books in the AOL chat rooms, try to follow discussions on Usenet, or delve into H2G2, reading and writing and editing. “Whoa, an encyclopedia of everything, just like the Guide! What a fun idea!” I’d wait half an hour for a Flash or Shockwave video to load on Newgrounds or Albino Black Sheep. I’d marvel at the convincing photoshops in the video for All Your Base. I’d roll my eyes at this week’s extrapolation of the Hampster Dance. I’d delve deep into the yellow labyrinth of HyperDiscordia, and boggle at the 3D madness of CabaretDiscordia, and skim the staggering roster of the House of the Kiwi, and trail off into the Church of the SubGenius and Cthulhu Mythos. I’d follow little blue links until I was learning all about chaos magick and culture jamming and glamourbombing, Temporary Autonomous Zones, the Cacophony Society and Burning Man. I didn’t even feel like I was, or could be, part of that sort of counterculture – but just knowing it existed seemed to help somehow. Just that awkward reassurance that it’s not just teenage rebellion – the world really is messed up, and even some adults are still trying to do strange things to reality.
There was so much more I’d wanted to do, though. To make my own site, to download music or programs, to learn how to make my own MIDI music, to figure out how those animated icons worked. I maintained a few gloriously tacky cabals on Geocities, granted, but nothing more legitimate than that. I couldn’t have my own website, couldn’t download anything, couldn’t install anything, couldn’t update anything. Ever. Period. My uncle once mentioned The Palace, one of the first graphical chat rooms, where you could have your own avatar, any picture you wanted, and actually stand around in what looked like a room. I never got to check it out, but that description alone defined”cyberspace” to me for most of my young life – something that wasn’t just a page and some comments, but a sort of place, where you could have an icon that represented yourself, and move it around in relation to other people and things, and write instantly to other people! All the amazing things of MUDs and chat rooms and graphical video games, all rolled into one! It sounded so futuristic at the time. Such a relatively short time has passed, and it’s already so quaint that it’s hard to even explain how or why it could hold such fascination. Still, just the idea of The Palace fostered my future fascination with MMOs, virtual worlds, and other digital social tangents – and my general desire for interaction with the Internet and its wealth of ideas, coupled with my incredible lack of agency in the real world, made such constructs all the more compelling.
I had a modest Buddy List, most of them friends from school, acquaintances, or relatives… but a few were Internet Friends, people I had met through the chat rooms or Usenet or whathaveyou. Shocking it may have seemed, but they were generally more genuine, more honest, more caring, than the people I knew in person. One was twice my age, but he helped remind me that it was good to be a weirdo in the world. He reinforced that, painful as it could be at the time, I was better off for being able to recognize the oppressive thumb of the media in every aspect of teenage life – how we all defined ourselves through music and movies and products and clothing, our desires for freedom and individuality forever bought and sold. He reminded me that so much of the drama of high school was, in the end, completely meaningless; it was just that pressure-cooker environment, closing us in and denying us any good outlet, making it so intense at the time. And, of course, we talked books. Teachers and parents were so much older, so distant, so dismissive. But his curmudgeonly arse was well prepared to rant with me against Society At Large, while still reminding me that at least that part of it was fleeting — and that I’d end up better off by the time I was as old as he was. I suppose I am, now. And I suppose, in some ways, I have. And now I have no idea where he is or what’s become of him. I guess he was even more right, that the things and people that seemed so important when I was 16 would someday seem dim and immaterial. Ah well.
But another such Internet Friend was how I found OpenDiary in the first place. He’d found it through his girlfriend, then stared one himself. I can actually still remember seeing his first IMs with links to his journal, peering at the strange URL and mentally parsing “opendiary” as one word that would rhyme with “incendiary.” The friendship with him lasted longer – but it, too, faded, became a Was instead of an Is.
Let me diverge back to the old-timey mechanics of the Internet for a minute. The Internet may still, in some ways, be a Wild West, but it was even Wilder and Wester then. Different in the small things, like how links were shared – the fancy websites would let you click a button to fill in your email address, the receiver’s email address, and it would send a link right to their email! Groups of sites on related topics would sometimes cluster up into Webrings, since it was so unlikely you could find more information just by using AltaVista, Dogpile, or by Asking Jeeves. If we had something to say about it, maybe we could find the author’s email address, but that’s probably it. Not every page had a comments section Almost everything seemed to be made by individuals, not companies, and the user was on the receiving end. You could only make a website if you knew HTML and could afford the hosting. Geocities, Angelfire, and Tripod were genuine revelations – the easiest, most accessible way for an average user to publish content. But even on them, you probably couldn’t get any comments. Thus the everpresent Hit Counter – with no comments, likes, or shares, hits alone were how we’d measure our impact.
I rehash all of this as a reminder of how different it was to interact with information then — and how innovative OpenDiary seemed at the time, bog-standard as it is now. To be able to write anything you wanted, put it on the Internet, and get comments from other users – even if you didn’t know a lick of code? That was pretty amazing! You could even select certain blogs as your favorites, to read their newest posts more easily! Readers could submit posts they really liked to a Reader’s Choice feature! If you didn’t know what to write, the home page always had a writing prompt, under which you could read what others had submitted for it! These were surprising and complex features for the time. No, really. Some upstart called LiveJournal started doing similar things a few years later, but eh, that was the site for the stupid kids – the ones with the pixel doll avatars with blinky eyes and sparkly jewelry, the ones who got so worn out after reading just one paragraph that they’d whine if you didn’t put the details behind a cut.
To actually have a sense of community online – of creating content, sharing it easily, having it be read in a timely fashion by other users, who could then comment and respond to those comments and so forth… this was genuinely new. And, though I didn’t have many friends on there, nor did I really follow many other journals, it still made a huge difference to my life. Not just the venting, but those flickers of feedback, support, even empathy. One person in particular helped keep me sane and bolster my spirits when I needed it most. Arguably, what I really needed was a swift slap to the face, an internal sense of validation, and a different boyfriend, but still. To be encouraged like that, to be able to have “girl talk” even at a distance… it was an amazing thing.
But really, why do I keep explaining the nature of the Internet at the time I kept that journal? Because that was a big part of the experience for me. It wasn’t just keeping a diary. It was sharing it. Even if it was never stumbled over by anyone, even if nobody commented, I knew it was out there. I knew it wasn’t just me ranting into the void. “Anyone could read this, today or tomorrow or next year” was part of the excitement. And the anxiety. There surely were times I was tempted to put the whole works on Friends Only. Times I was a little afraid to say what I wanted to say, not knowing who was going to read it. Times when I wondered whether – or how much – I’d “crossed the streams” with screen names or character names or whatever, how much I’d made it easier for people to tie together the other anonymous threads of my online life. But, in the end, it felt better to have it out there. To be a face in the crowd. To give myself permission to trust the other faces. To reach out, even if nobody reached back.
I have the text, yes. I have all the comments. But I don’t have that sense-of-place. I don’t have that sense-of-outreaching. Nobody will ever reach back and take a hand unhinged in time. I’ll never have to worry about somebody taking those details and trying to figure out who I was, or who I now am. I used that site to understand myself for so many years, and now I never will again. The first times I ever really dared express myself, try to find myself, study myself… it was in a way that, in theory, any incredibly bored user could randomly stumble upon. And a few did. And however they reached out back then, however I may have reached back, that connection is cut forever now. It is, all of it, Past, no longer Present, never again Future.
So I’m shocked, and I’m gutted, and I feel a sense of loss.
But I also feel… okay with it.
I’ve changed, you know. If slowly. I’ve hung on for so many years to so many terrible things. I’ve been slow to see how I’ve changed, how I’ve grown, how I’ve stopped being that small child everyone seemed to love to hate, stopped even being that sullen and cynical adolescent, that untrusting yet self-sacrificing college student. I’ve seen how those other ODers changed. That helpful and encouraging girl? Apparently she gets to make a living at both writing, being encouraging, and being pretty, now! Meanwhile, that friend who introduced me to OpenDiary in the first place? I haven’t talked to him in years; he unfriended me on Facebook after I called him out on one too many instances of taking jokes seriously and getting critical in illogical ways, then acting like his paragraphs-long complaint was, itself, a joke. It’s one thing to try to make a heavy situation lighter with comedy. It’s another to turn every single conversation into anti-humor performance art. In the end, I couldn’t tell whether he wasn’t the guy he used to be, I wasn’t the person I used to be, or if it wasn’t really about either of us — more about the fact that I’d made, well, real friends – ones who didn’t just rant at me, ones who didn’t make flippant jokes and insults when I tried to make real conversation, ones who actually cared about talking with me, sharing things with me, having a proper give-and-take. Friends who didn’t just talk to me because they wanted an excuse to talk. And that other early Internet friend? Even less of a clue – I think we’d stopped IMing even before I was out of high school. I’ll probably never know what’s become of him.
Over time, and by forging new connections in a different online community, I’ve gradually felt more comfortable with myself. In some ways I’ve genuinely changed; in other ways, I’ve just molted more of the not-me things that had been encasing me. The beliefs – some imposed by me, others by others – that molded my growth, that constrained my ideas, that paralyzed my ambition, that exaggerated my every smallest mistake into an unforgivable catastrophe. Through it all, I’ve cobbled together a sense of self, a sense of identity, a sense of will. And now, as I write in this blog, as I write my short story collection, as I write my character guides, as I write my roleplays, as I edit an upcoming RPG, as I prepare to go for some much-belated sleep before I work from home a while, game a while, eat a while, and continue another day of life… I realize I’m finally developing a sense of agency. I realize that there are things I can do, not just in the abstract potentiality sense – you know, that bullshit sense that we use to tell kids that they “can be the President someday,” or that they “can be whatever they want when they grow up.” No, I realize that here and now, in the actual world as it is, with the actual me as I am, I can actually DO these things. And I am. Multiple such things at any given time, in fact.
I know that all these things will pass, too. The online community I have now, the one that lets me reach out, write, be reached to, tell stories, meet people, grow… it will be another Connection Failed someday. The friends may fade – if just because I do that awkward thing where I essentially assume they don’t want to talk to them anymore, try not to “bother” them, and go years without contact. But, who knows. Even The Boyfriend could decide that all this stupid “feelings” crap I try to impose on his life is only getting in the way of his work, and he could tell me to leave one day. Maybe nothing in my life right now will last, not even a little bit – it isn’t some glorious, shining future that will see me through to my old age, and maybe it won’t even last the next year. For all my ostensible agency, I really don’t get to decide. Regardless of how long it may be, it’s still a chapter, and it too will see its end.
Still. It’s an undeniable fact that the span of my life that could be written about and posted on OpenDiary… is over. Completely and forever.
It gives me… a sense of closure, really.
It feels as if the ME that was written about in OpenDiary is also over. That melodramatic high school kid. That anxious, overwhelmed freshman. That emboldened sophomore. The sallow, hounded years that followed, cloistered like a hermit alchemist trying to turn lead to gold, apathy to love. Those fitful, transitional years of first living alone, trying to hold a job and scrape together a future when I was still just barely feeling like I was allowed to exist in my own present. I’m not the type to burn their whiny high school diary. That’s no less emotional and maudlin than anything that might have been written in there. This, I want to save. I never knew who I was writing it for. Me in the future? Some future kid I knew I didn’t really want to have, but half-assumed I’d end up having anyway because That’s What Adults Do? Maybe my nieces, I thought, once the first one emerged. I still don’t know, honestly. But I’m keeping the whole shebang. I may never trust it to the Internet again. I may never share it with anyone. But it’s my past, and I’m not about to just delete it. It was me. Though even the Internet doesn’t know that anymore.
I realize now that, though I may struggle – though finances are a horror, and job prospects are grim, though I struggle to reach toward what I want to do and be, though I still sometimes question whether I even deserve what I have now, much less what I want… I’m no longer grappling with existence itself. I’m no longer trying, and so often failing, to justify my presence to the world and to myself. I no longer feel so constantly judged, as if every person held an invisible dagger to my skull before I ever said a word – as if my existence alone was an invasion they had to defend themselves from. I no longer fear mistakes so profoundly. To try and to err does not disqualify me from trying again, does not disqualify me from being an acceptable entity, does not disqualify me from having any worth, merit, utility, or potential.
I know this invokes all the most horrible types of irony, but it’s true anyway: I accept my own existence. I accept my sense of self – as a thing that exists in the world, and is allowed to. I accept my sense of identity – as a thing that can be described in certain ways, that has certain characteristics, that exhibits certain behaviors, and is allowed to. I accept my sense of will – as a thing that can wish that things and circumstances were other than they are, a thing that can express opinions and preferences, can make choices, can argue for its desires, can want to have an impact upon the world surrounding it by means of its choices, intents, and decisions, and does not need external justification or permission to do so. And, though slowly, I’m accepting my sense of agency – as a thing that can actually act upon that will, a thing that can attempt art, share its ideas with others, collaborate to bring events and stories into being, and can otherwise manipulate its surroundings in order to cultivate circumstances it believes it would find more preferable. Through so much of the time of that journal, I tried so hard not to be seen, not to be judged, not to BE – and now, I’m capable of asking other people if I could work with them in order to bring things into being. I still feel riddled with hubris, often. I still feel I’m pushing my luck. I still worry about bothering people.
But it has been a long time now since I questioned whether or not I was really permitted to want, to feel, to think, or to exist.
I know I can still backslide. That it may always be there, waiting for a moment of despondence, of confusion, of indulgent self-castigation, and I’ll lay myself back into the slow, sucking mire and, perhaps, never again convince myself I’m allowed to stand up again, never believe in another proffered hand, never be offered such a hand in the first place. I worry, still. I hold back, still. Still, yes, but less. I know that the things I am wanting, the things I am doing, are – very often – not good, or at the least, they could always be better.
But I am doing them.
And, by this, the Me that is creating and influencing its world – if crudely – has walked away from the Me that waited for hope to happen.
This isn’t me telling my past self, or telling other present or future selves, “See, you can do it if you put your mind to it! All you have to do is try!” It’s a reminder of the long road I’ve walked to even become a person capable of trying. It was not okay to be wrong, or to be unprepared, or to be caught off guard; I could not make myself try when I was not certain beyond all doubt that I’d succeed. And my capacity for doubt is mighty. And that vigilance is wearying. I did not have much, but I thought it would all be lost if I made any sort of mistake. On anything. Ever.
I don’t think I could have been able to get here if I didn’t have this social structure I have now, this way of seeing myself reflected in others’ eyes, and reflecting them to themselves. Each of us standing on the other’s shoulders in that non-Euclidean geometry of friendship. Mirrors reflecting mirrors, wheels within wheels, turtles all the way down. It’s alarming how much different it’s made things – and a little scary to realize that, if that social scaffolding were to collapse, I’m not sure how well I could go back to that mire of silent isolation, now that I’ve been permitted an alternative.
The road to get here has been long and tiring. And I’ve found that, even once you reach Agency, there’s even more road left to walk, but you don’t know where it goes, and you may even have to create it from nothing.
I think you only get to find out by going there anyway.
Given an infinite Universe — or, perhaps, even a finite one — I’ll discover it for myself.
Off I go.