I opened the notes app on my phone to find a blank screen. I froze, agape, like you do when you just realise you’ve sent an email to the wrong person or left your favourite item of clothing in a hotel room miles away.
I’d gone to find something I’d written about my home town after a recent visit, a scant thought at the time. The app was empty.
Days earlier, my father had changed a setting on our family iCloud, and the notes disappeared. It was an innocent mistake. But it also left him – a boomer! – incredulous that I hadn’t backed up my phone since February 2020.
Over the past three years, and possibly longer, I have used the notes app as an “always with me” diary. There was no order, no folders, no method to the madness.
It housed everything from drafts of Christmas cards to an itinerary for a recent trip to Melbourne to the speech I wrote for my best friend’s university graduation on Zoom. There were movie recommendations, books to read and restaurants to try. There would have been a drafts of important text messages in there somewhere, right next to a list of rentals I’d inspected and why almost all of them were bad. I wrote down the questions I was asked in my job interview so I could remember what caught me off guard. To the astonishment of my father, the app also contained several passwords.
These recorded moments were seemingly insignificant and occasionally important. Yes, there were shopping lists, but there was also far-flung ideas for a book I could write one day and comments overheard while people-watching.
Perhaps most tragically, there were observations on the first year of Covid, when daily life completely changed. When a couple in the supermarket were trying to decide whether or not to panic-buy pasta and tinned tomatoes like everyone else, I wrote down what they said. There were also the good things: kids in dinosaur pyjamas eating croissants by the beach early in the morning because their parents weren’t rushing to work and just how nice that was. But I can’t ever revisit exactly what I wrote, or exactly when it was.
Some instantly understood my grief at this loss. One friend pulled out her phone unprompted, opened her notes app and read out a stream of inane thoughts she had written down, many of which had no meaning any more. She likened reading some back as far as 2017 to reliving the person she used to be. Another friend immediately replied to my panicked texts with expletives in all caps.
It may be hard for some to grasp the gravity of the situation. Surely you can’t use notes that much? What about good old pen and paper? But like Carrie’s laptop dying in Sex and the City, or Amy burning Jo’s manuscript in Little Women, my collection of seemingly insignificant moments mattered like a magnum opus. To anyone that doesn’t, the question “You don’t back up?” is somehow still infuriating.
Whether or not it is a generational thing, everyone has a time capsule they couldn’t bear to lose, digital or otherwise. We fear losing hard drives that store years’ worth of photos (how many back-ups of back-ups is it realistic to do?) or travel journals that are irreplaceable.
While gut wrenching, this experience has been a come-to-Jesus moment. After exhausting all options of retrieving my lost notes, including downloading questionable iPhone rescue software, I immediately backed everything up, twice. I severed ties with my family’s iCloud account so I could have sole control over, and sole responsibility for, any repeat event of this nature.
But like finishing a really good book and not wanting to dive straight into a new read, I couldn’t face the blank canvas of the app in the days that followed. Almost a week later, I reflexively opened it to write down a list of things to do on the weekend. I need not keep that one forever, but I might think of something on the bus to work tomorrow that is worth preserving.
I don’t know how many notes I had or whether there were any pearls of wisdom to be found in my streams of consciousness. It won’t take me long to build up a new collection. But take note, because I do have one piece of advice: don’t learn the hard way that your to-do lists matter as much as your musings on life’s big moments. Back up your phone!