Lineless Living

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.

Every.

Single.

Page.

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.

Modulations

A modulation is a “change from one key to another in a piece of music.” Seems simple enough. Often they are, and, being a rather lazy songwriter, I’m a huge fan of a common-tone modulation, where a single note is sufficient to transpose one key into another, often in a single beat.

Right now, though, I am undergoing a much more dissonant modulation: Some notes are familiar, some brand new, many just sound different than before because the chords have been inverted or augmented. Just as in a creative modulation in a piece of music, I can anticipate where the piece is going and can predict the new key, but in the meantime am kept in suspense as I play on and wonder how the music will work itself out.

As a composer, my biggest weakness is modulating. I wrote a rather lovely nocturne a few months ago, but let it fade away when I realized that it was stagnating in a single key. When I was challenged to write a cadenza for a Mozart piano concerto, I came up with one that stayed comfortably in the dominant key, but had to scrap it because it didn’t feature enough movement.

Modulations, in life as in music, are strenuous, and I envy those to whom they come naturally.

This summer is a time of modulation. In May, I graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree and in August I’ll be moving to Scotland to pursue a Master’s in “Theology and the Arts.” Right now, though, I am bouncing between familiar and unfamiliar. A week ago I was home, but found home to be different…too small. Now I am back in Southern California, but am housesitting and working rather than studying and living in an apartment with my best friend. My car is here as a little refuge. A few of my friends are still around. My favorite coffee shops never change, thank goodness.

But it is not the same.

There is a tension between these old-familiars and the new life that I am exploring. All of this, too, is tinted with the knowledge that I am leaving soon for a completely new experience. Soon, I’ll have to find a new coffee shop…in Scotland. All of the familiar things are tinged with the sorrowful knowledge that they will pass away and all of the new things are jarring, mundane though they might actually be.

Accidentals and augmentations.

I am doing my best to hold fast to the small things that keep me together: reading scripture with my breakfast, practicing piano at church, carting my ukulele anywhere and everywhere I go, posting ramblings to my blog instead of shouting into the void.

As I cling to these small rituals, I realize that this time of modulation is a blessing. When I discovered how to modulate in a song I wrote recently, it gave the entire final verse an extra kick of energy. While some notes might be held in dissonance, they do eventually resolve and settle into the new key. In the same way, though I am displaced now, this time will make settling into a new season even sweeter.

Furthermore, without modulations there is little room for development. I am quick to develop strong attachments to place, but if there is one thing I’ve learned from my extensive travels it is that although moving from place to place can be bittersweet, it expands one’s horizons exponentially. Learning to make a home wherever we are is one of the greatest lessons of life, and especially of the Christian life.

I remember the president of my university describing the Christian life as “in-tents.” As a lover of puns, this stuck with me. We are to pitch our tents and minister and grow wherever we may be, as “intense” as this process is.

Perhaps this can be expanded to include my modulation idea. Redeemed but not yet called to our final home, the Christian life is one of in-between, something which terrifies me. I like to be fully one place or another and find the transitions and tensions exhausting.

I am, once again, reminded of this passage from Philippians 3:12-16:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold to what we have attained.”

Maturity, according to Paul, lies in knowing that our future is secure and holding fast to this hope in the uncertain in-between. To put it in musical terms: We have left the original key behind, so must continue onward through the modulation until we settle into the next key. 

As I dwell in this modulation period, I look ahead to the future, both in Scotland and beyond, and strive to think of the past only with gratitude instead of a futile yearning to return. Part of the maturity that Paul writes of in Philippians is also letting go of the past so that we might more freely move into the future. I will cling to the beautiful themes of loved-ones and old homes, but only insofar as they foster this future hope.

Listening to my own songs as I write this, I have to laugh. While they might lack modulation, the lyrics I penned a month ago possess wisdom that I did not realize I had:

“Babe, we’re in the in-between:
Young but grown, just wait and see—
And try as best we can,
Making our little plans,
As we grow and hope
And drive away down those winding roads.”

It’s a love song, of course, but the same hope I am singing to its recipient I am also conveying to myself and all those in my situation. We are in the “in-between,” caught in the craziness of being young adults. But ultimately, we must keep “running the race,” knowing there is a sure destination both in this world and the next. In the meantime, we can do no better than to learn what we can, hope as best we can, and move forward.

We can do no better than to find beauty and opportunity in the modulation, taking delight in surprising tonalities instead of shrinking in fear, and looking forward to the next verse of our life songs. Without modulation, there can be no great development and, while it will not be comfortable, it will be beautiful.  

So, the least I can do is to find a coffee shop that feels like home and pray for the best.