First meditations

This month’s Domino magazine featured the works of several artists who are doing one small painting a day as an exercise. The idea is that you keep it small, don’t worry too much about perfection, but just do it daily so you’ll improve with practice. Taking a cue from these a-painting-a-day projects, I am going to try to do a version of my own with writing. Instead of having to mentally steel myself every now and then to Sit Down and Write, I’ll think of this as a freewrite, like what we did in Mr Thompson’s English class in ninth grade: just sit down each morning with your journal and a pen and write, whatever comes into your mind, never mind if it’s any good, never mind if it ends up being only a couple of sentences.

Well, what I have discovered with today’s bit of writing is that I’m now a sufficiently accomplished writer that once I get going, it won’t just be a couple of sentences. It’s astonishing what one can turn out once the pressure to produce a polished piece is off.

So, my first meditation-a-day (for lack of a better name)!

Since yesterday afternoon I’ve been sorting through my old papers: two file boxes of college and high school documents, and now, several shoeboxes and accordion files packed with cards and letters. I’m steeped in memory, like tea — only so far I’ve not got more bitter with longer steeping, only more thoughtful. Maybe it’s just the inner historian speaking, but when my thoughts are filled with contemplation of my future, it seems all the more poignant to delve into my past.

I was just flattening out the contents of a manila envelope, tens of letters on carefully folded sheets of binder paper, all from the same person. So much time went into that origami-esque folding, all different shapes, often with little drawings done strategically so a new one would emerge with each unfolding: the work of a bored high school student, or a devoted friend? Perhaps a bit of both. All I can remember of my friendship with this person is that it fizzled near the end of high school, for some reason now lost to my memory. I skim the notes and I find evidence of real affection there, real support and camaraderie, and I wonder what happened between us (or was it between my “group” and her “group”?). We were friends once, good friends; the letters show that. Could we be friends again? — was there a deeper and more timeless bond that once tied us, or were we were only, like so many high school friends, held together by common surroundings and convenience? I wonder, and yet I am not sure I really want to know.

Yesterday, I found my cache of college work, not the senior thesis I’ve since read many times over, but the assignments I have forgotten: a fifteen-page research paper on girlhood in ancient Greece. A ten-page report on veganism in our society. A one-page response paper on The Song of Roland, a poem I just taught to my own students this past quarter. More research papers, countless class notes, even a few exam papers and blue books. Lately, in my ambivalence about grad school, I have felt convinced of my own undergraduate mediocrity; feeling doubtful of my place as a PhD student, I have concluded that I was also not as good a college student as I thought I was. With this in mind, when I began sifting through my old school work, I thought I would end up throwing most of it away, but instead I have kept almost all. The paper on ancient Greece is superbly organized and so thoroughly researched I felt surprised at my own dedication. The report on veganism, likewise, held my attention so well I felt sorry to come to the end of it. But it was the short Roland response paper that surprised me most, because I have taught the poem myself so recently. It was such a good paper! Thoughtful, creative, cleanly structured and well written, and it wasn’t even a formal assignment. Strange as it sounds, I couldn’t believe it was my own writing. It was better than any of the papers I’d given As to this quarter. I don’t really know what to make of all this. If I was not, as I have been thinking myself, a mediocrely above-average college student, but a brilliant one, does that mean I am better prepared for grad school than I have been able to realize? That is a good thought. But also, if I used to love doing this work so much and was willing to put so much time into it, and I now feel that way only rarely if ever, then what does that mean?

Now that I come to think of it, it is very funny that I have spent much of this summer sighing over how I should be doing research. Unbeknownst to myself, I have been doing research, research into the subject that has most occupied my attention over the past few months: myself. What turns me on? What motivates me? What do I like, and what am I good at? I have searched for the answers to these questions with diligence and energy: I have cooked, decorated, and entertained; I have exercised and looked after my appearance; I have read; I have thought; I have dug up the documents and memories that can show me the key to my history. And now I write, perhaps the most useful activity of all.

Let us hope that all this research comes to something, before the next school term starts and once again I have no time to think of all these things.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]