As I wrote last year, I am incredibly particular about my personal journals. I am perhaps even more picky about the notebooks I use for schoolwork. To my absolute horror, at the beginning of this semester, I purchased a beautiful teal Moleskine . . . without lines.
I opened it in my first class and was shocked. Opening its covers, I was confronted by the most beautiful yet terrifying sight know to writer-kind: a blank page.
I am a disciplined and regimented person. I write along lines to prevent disordered notes or random doodling. I follow schedules to maximize my productivity. I have my regular breakfast down to a science (complex carb + nut butter + fruit + black coffee, in case anyone was wondering). If I had my way, my entire life would follow the same hourly, bell-governed schedule of my high school years.
However, the lineless pages of this notebook came to symbolize my first semester of graduate school: beautiful and terrifying in its unscheduled unfamiliarity.
My undergraduate years, in their insanity, kept me sane. 18 unit semesters (plus 0 unit courses), constant rehearsals, several part-time jobs, a regular exercise schedule, and church engagements meant that almost every second of my time was regulated. And, as much as I complained, I thrived in this environment of deadlines and determinants. (Does “Deadlines and Determinants” sound like one of Jane Austen’s less-popular works?) This semester, however, not only did I find myself in a foreign country with a completely different academic system, but I was permitted a daunting amount of free time.
I kept busy working music jobs and studying organ at a gorgeous local church, and my coursework was challenging enough to keep me occupied. However, with class only two days a week, I had to construct routines when previously they were thrust upon me by necessity. For my regimented soul, this became depressing, for I came to realize that I depended on my busy schedule to keep me motivated, as well as to provide a regular social life. Living alone in a new country with a surprising lack of time constraints, however, I found that I had to seek these things out myself.
Taking notes on blank pages was nearly the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It aggravated me when my handwriting slanted diagonally, or when I doodled coffee cups among my reading notes. It caused physical discomfort to see the varying sizes of my notes. The freedom was too much for me.
However, something began to happen as I doggedly continued filling that void of a notebook. I began to realize that I loved being able to draw in it when my mind wandered and that I actually liked that I could take notes in different styles. I learned to enjoy the potential of crisp white pages, just as I learned to see the loveliness of late-morning frost despite my hatred of the cold.
I learned to adapt, though I cannot say it was with pleasure. I learned to let myself doodle and to be gracious when my handwriting was not a perfect font. In life beyond the notebook, I grew accustomed to freedom. I certainly enjoyed being able to go on long runs without worrying about being late for rehearsals, for instance. Still, it was overall an uncomfortable semester without the comforting tethers of a set schedule.
Throughout my undergraduate, I rose early and worked late. I was filled with a sense of purpose every day. Perhaps I was tired from launching into another degree so quickly. Perhaps it was that the sun barely makes an appearance during the Scottish winter. Perhaps it was the loneliness of having to make all new acquaintances and no longer living with my best friends. More likely, though, it was the “lack of lines” that caused me to feel a sense of unsettled ennui throughout my first semester abroad.
But I am grateful for the lineless living. Even in this uncomfortable freedom, I accomplished more than I realized. I have learned so much new music. I have written several large papers (not without some tears), each better than the last. I can now use unnecessarily complicated words like “apophatic” in a sentence. I learned how to make some pretty killer soup. And, despite my initial anxiety and continual discomfort, I finished the blank journal.
It is filled with lecture notes, as well as the frustrated outlines of academic papers that did not go according to plan but ended up much more interesting for that. If flipped upside down and read backward, it is also filled with story drafts, poetry fragments, and whistful doodles of my favorite SoCal café.
It is perhaps my most marvelous notebook and, although often filled with the resounding emptiness of a frosty morning, this semester became a thing of great beauty. The best words to describe the growth I experienced are perhaps found in my old sonnet “To Travel.” I am grateful for the blank spaces I experienced, and for the work and words that filled them.
To my great relief, though, my next notebook has lines.