Graduate school

The Transformational Archive (And Some Thoughts About Bullet Journaling)

[7 minute read]

As I’ve discussed in my last two posts, I recently visited the Rubenstein Library at Duke University to complete research on the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers. Visiting the archive helped me reorient myself towards my subject matter – the life and work of Abraham Joshua Heschel – and gave a much-needed boost of energy and excitement into my project at a time in the academic year – Spring Break – where my zeal for academic works often wanes in favor of other, more plebian pursuits (like sleeping a lot).

I struggle with academic labor. It’s not something that comes naturally or easily to me (although I’m not sure academia is an easy field for anyone!). But, as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, I often find both the individualistic nature of academic work and the reliance of one’s own thoughts to be a paradoxical recipe for disaster.

My depression and anxiety have been rearing their ugly head this year. It felt like it snuck up on me: I didn’t notice that these parts of my health were getting worse until I realized it was hard for me to drum up the energy to shower more than two times a week. Instead, I just wanted to sit in bed and tremble and worry. So I told myself I needed to shower more – every other day at minimum – and that self-imposed rule helped me.

“Getting outside of yourself” or “thinking about other people instead of yourself” are both adages for dealing with depression and anxiety. I suspect some people hate hearing this, as it may not be helpful for everyone. But this line of thinking (alongside medication and therapy, I should add) does help me. Get up. Move. Ask someone else how they are doing. Volunteer. Think about someone else.

And the archive helped me do that. While I did miss my family and friends during my solitary week at the archive, spending day after day reading someone’s personal papers, letters, photographs, I felt like I was communicating (communing, perhaps?) with Abraham Joshua Heschel in a different, more personal, way than when I read his published works.

Another thing the archive helped me do was to begin journaling again, by hand. Paging through the boxes upon boxes of largely handwritten materials caused me to spend some time thinking about the materiality of handwriting, as well as the personality of that materiality, that is becoming lost as we move to a more typed-based society.

This move towards handwriting and journaling has had a therapeutic effect on my own mental health. It helps me wind down before bed, or gets me more prepared for the morning. I love it.

One of the first things I looked at while spending time at archive were some small diaries by Uncle Jacob Heschel. I couldn’t read them; they were in Yiddish and I’m not proficient in that language. However, when I gingerly opened the cover of one and took a quick glance at it, I was bowled over.

It looked exactly like a small graph-paper Moleskine cahier.

I’m very familiar with the look and feel of Moleskine’s graph paper journals because they are very often used for bullet journaling. Bullet journaling, “the analog system for the digital age” is a very popular journaling system that combines lists, personalized symbols, and a personal calendar.


The above picture is an example of a basic, no-frills bullet-journal spread. If you look closely, that journal above is comprised of graph paper, just like Uncle Jacob’s small little cahiers.

But any search of “bullet journal” or the shortened, hashtag-appropriate version “BuJo” in Pinterest or Instagram will show much more artistic and self-reflexive bullet journal spreads.


Although this image bears the hashtag #plannertip and #plannercommunity instead of the typical #bulletjournal or #bujo hashtags, I did find if on a bullet journal board on Pinterest. Here we see that the bullet journal system has now morphed into a way to combine more traditional journaling or diary writing with the scheduling of daily life. “When you’re not feeling a 100% [sic] or having a rough day, it’s always a good idea to reflect on all the things that make YOU happy!” reads the caption of this image. Others besides myself have been turning, or are being encouraged to turn to handwritten journaling as a way to feel better.

I’ve tried bullet journaling in the past, but much to my surprise, it made me less productive. I missed some appointments and deadlines because I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the no-calendar calendric system of the bullet journal. Now I use a more traditional planner, but have been thinking of moving to a bullet journal for keeping track of long-term to-do lists, and for personal diary writing and journaling.

I’m not sure if I would have had the emotional energy to try journal writing (especially by hand) without looking at all the handwritten materials in the archive and deciding it might be worth it to force myself into the habit.

I feel thankful for the archive, and for Abraham Joshua Heschel, and even for Heschel’s Uncle Jacob, whose words I couldn’t even read! Thanks. Your memory helped me.

Dear Diary…

Dear Diary,

Today I find myself in graduate school, I look around and still wonder how it is that I came to be here. In the fourth grade I cried while reading The Lord of the Rings because I believed that one of my favorite characters died. I would sneak out of the lunchroom to read The Wheel of Time in middle school, escaping to a future world in which the moon landing was known as the time people learned to fly in the stomach of firebirds. Chuck Palahnuik nursed me through high school anxieties, Bukowski through post-bachelor part-time coffee shop employment. Some time later I interned at a Fortune 500 company and Woolf taught me that a cubicle was not a room. Arthur had a vassal who disrupted the court after obtaining the love of a Fair Queen; I compared labor strategies of multinational national companies between liberal and coordinated market economies – every mythos has its own magic.

Mythos are comforting; they provide a sense of stability that belies chaos.
A narrative of elisions asserting its authority over origin that must be taken on belief.

What little evidence remains of a body’s passage through time and space would do little to comfort an empiricist, but I choose to dream. In time I will come to question their authenticity, were they ever my dreams or an overexposure to fantasy novels as a child? This is really an anxiety over whether or not I have an interiority – a crack in my phone renders the seamless continuity between body and technology an illusion. Were the avant-garde the last of the humanists?  

…legs wrapped around your stomach kissing the back of your neck…despondent and watching little flakes of gold twirling in the wind – 50 degrees on 9th of November…

I found myself in graduate school, lucid enough to know that I was not dreaming. A semester spent discussing the permeation of melancholy, mornings spent at the diner down the street reading over coffee and hash browns. A car full of strangers traveled six hours to make their voices heard, nihilism would not be revolutionary.  

I will feel like a pastiche of the materials I confront, and take comfort in that we are all hybrids. I will grow sick of melancholy, consider returning to it for my next paper, settle on the fact that affect is separate from materiality and so it becomes a question of mediation.

Then I laugh.

I spend time pulling from the stacks, and although at times have emitted a small growl, find excitement when discovering more texts than I had expected. I cross paths with graduates in the physics department, we discuss the stars. I find myself confronting new stories, reading for materials and energies that shape, and cannot shape, our bodies.

Today I am in graduate school, the humanist project has not ended.

Dear Diary,

Today I find myself in graduate school, unsure if it is the translation or the theory that doesn’t make sense. I’m sitting in a class surrounded by people I just met. I’m wondering at what point I’ll feel like a graduate student—if I can even define “graduate student?” Graduate students look like the people around me. Allegedly, I look a lot like them.

Someone once told me individuals who hesitate when talking in a room full of people are afraid because everyone else looks like a complete human being, like they are in control of their bodies. I realize first-person perspective is nerve-wracking because I do not see a composed body. I can only see hands, gestures, flailing limbs that, I hope, are somehow clarifying my point. I can only hear how weak words sound when they are mumbled into my lap.

One day, we will talk about identity politics, about identification, and debate whether or not words have power. I don’t know yet that this will become relevant all too quickly. One Wednesday in November, I will walk onto campus and feel the tired breathing of bodies, like mine, that were up until 4 a.m. the night before.

I will spend this day and the coming weeks waiting for, hoping for, dreading the moment someone wants to talk. This anxiety will be more than just a product of introversion. I will interrogate the expectations attached to this side of the desk. There’s a frail aura of authority that comes with being the one already seated when someone enters a room.

Eventually, I will need to learn how to handle the guilt of looking away to get things done, to decompress, to not lose hope. I will fight back the feeling of sickness, the stomach acid associated with the privilege of being able to think about decompressing.

I will learn that so much of graduate school feels like learning how I’m probably being irresponsible. Why new historicism? Look what happens if you combine feminist criticism with that. Didn’t you have interest in class at one point? If you’re just looking at the feminist individual, are you inadvertently “reproducing the axioms of imperialism” in nineteenth-century British literature? I’m so uncomfortable with the idea of syphoning off problematic portions of texts to read other points I have personal investments in. How close is this to paranoia?

But then, I breathe.

One day, I will relish the feeling of breaking ground, of fingers flying over keys, the paradox of excited exhaustion. I will remember the way strangers’ smiles became familiar fixtures, and how I learned to read and laugh again.

Today, I find myself in graduate school. I say it is okay to feel fulfilled while still fulfilling.