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.