Tag Archives: thinking

The Annotated Nightstand

When I moved out of Wesleyan, I salvaged my old $12 particle board nightstand from Walmart and bought a pack of 30 sharpies.

Now, on this nightstand, between the short stack of books I flip through at night, is the careful calligraphy of a girl who grew up in the digital age (read: well-intentioned, scribbly cursive).  Sprawled across its white surface are colorful quotations from my favorite books, graphical renditions of my prayers and dreams, and what is pretty much the only surviving record of any attempt at poetry that I’ve ever made.

While my personal library rivals that of my two roommates combined, the stack of books on my nightstand occupy a coveted and elect space.  They’re the only ones within arms reach of my bed and thereby serve as the books I’m most likely to actually read on a quiet night.

One’s on entrepreneurship, another on deception and morality.  The others include a short how-to on leadership training from the perspective of a former Russian communist and a healthy collection of thinking theological texts.

Sometimes I go to the grocery store, and I become overwhelmed by capitalism.  The possibilities are practically endless, and yet, I just ate crackers and cheese for dinner.  Worse yet, it was the third time I’ve done that this week.

Something similar happens when I read.  Overwhelmed by how much I don’t know and understand, I read five chapters of everything and change books.  It’s like saying I’ve put munster, gouda, and cheddar cheese on my crackers this week, but still haven’t figured out that if you add deli meat, two slices of bread, and a pan you get a panini.  It’s also why my nightstand collection includes communist commentary, pop non-fiction, and Oswald Chambers.

This can be really bad.

I almost always did almost all of the reading for class.  One particular week in a post-imperial history tutorial, I got a paper back, one in which I had called a certain unnamed political transition “peaceable” in the introduction.  The professor circled the word and wrote, “Millions of people died.”

Yep, I’d missed an entire genocide.

That’s really terrible.

I say all this to say–I really miss my thesis research.  It provided focus, scope, and perspective on everything I read.  It also provided an insanely small nano-universe in which I was the so-called “expert” and served as the primary argument-maker.

My annotated nightstand speaks nothing about my research, but it says everything about a will to articulate, understand, and a life that meters progress by months and years instead of semesters.


Ink Blots and Achievements

20130609_183613A good half-dozen partial posts are sitting in my draft box.

Each begins with some creative quip or funny experience, but invariably they drop-off in quality at the part that I tie the opening paragraphs to the section that actually matters.

While it would be difficult to argue that my life has in any way significantly slowed since the pre-April 12th days (aka the days before my thesis was due), I am spending considerably less time undisturbed in a research cave.  Lack of human interaction encourages use of other outlets to process life…like blogging.  Hence the plethora of thesis-complaining posts and absence of anything since then.

But more importantly, I think there’s been less to record.  Despite finishing school, moving, and settling into what will be my life for as long as the immediately foreseeable future holds, everything simply is, and I’ve been waiting for it. 

I finished school sometime at the end of May, but my thesis eclipsed all other schoolwork in importance sometime in early October.  After thesis, none of it mattered any more.

By the spring, I started experiencing some kind of mental whiplash for attempting to fully live in the worlds that were work and school, knowing that I couldn’t fully commit to either.  I could remember everything on the church calendar for the next three weeks, but I’d consistently double-book my own schedule because school and work never merged in my head.   I willfully chose to try to make the most of what was left of school, but my friends were as aware as I was that my heart wasn’t in it anymore.

I’ve been teased for my lack of sentimentality, which is probably fair.  One of the last times I spoke with Prof. Elphick, I went to great lengths to assure him that I didn’t regret my Wesleyan education.  Near-complete lack of resources for anything I really cared to study is unfortunate, but learning how to ceaselessly defend and protect myself has got to count for something.

But the truth is, I love a challenge.  Sometimes, I love a challenge so much, I bypass the transitions, because what’s next or could be is always more exciting.

This doesn’t deny the importance of the present.  In fact, it elevates the importance of the present, because it articulates dreams that are still too splotchy to yet fully-explain as challenges instead of directionless aspiration.  It frames the present in the realistic context of what could be.

Some of what I’m working toward are very old dreams, some are clearer than they once were, and some I finally just know how to pursue; and while I’m still drawing the plans, there’s no doubt that it’s a beautiful place to be.

In the present

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWithin a four day window, I started a new job, start my final undergraduate semester, will “finish” a chapter of my thesis, and will travel to North Carolina to attend a seminar having nothing to do with any of three previous activities.

I said I’d go to the conference because I was invited in October.  I remember the distinct thought, “It’s the first weekend of the semester.  What could I possibly be missing out on?”  I now have no less than three places I need to be this Saturday afternoon.

Knowing that this week would be uncharacteristically busy, I remember thinking that the drive back to campus in the evenings would be long.  Instead, I find myself wanting the road to be longer and wishing I could script the thoughts that come when I drive.  They’re always the most eloquent.

When I drive home, ideas come out in organized phrases that get strung together and rearranged like they would on paper, and in them is the reason otherwise absent in the momentous chaos and excitement that characterize this last week.  Slipping into mechanized motion (not zoning out, I promise), it’s so much easier to shut off the processor and just be.  And rest.  And pray.

Funny thing is, I don’t even know what that road is called or which way it goes.  It’s just the way home.  This is a slightly embarrassing fact, and I probably ought to look it up in case I need to give somebody directions sometime.  But it all sortof speaks to the point.

To that end, I will cope with the new phone that wouldn’t activate, the possibility of not being able to port my number, and the fact that the library closed at 5pm with all my books in it.  In doing so, I’ll funnel this week’s emotion and stress away from tense joints and toward my fingertips, step away from WordPress and back to Word, and finish draft one of chapter two, tonight. 

Breaking without Recovery

Despite the affect of finals and furious thesis writing to my general health, the common, end-of-semester exhausted wave of immobility is yet to fall.  The last paper was completed with great expectation, but the familiarity of the end-of-semester load and realization that it isn’t actually done (thesis work and job searching this beautiful break) keeps that “what will I do with my life for the next month” feeling at bay.

Sometimes I just sit and think and write and think and draw and think some more, and now that colloquium is over, I can pretty much do this all I want.  My mind combs through books and conversations, ordering them and categorizing their arguments.  There are days where I will spend the whole day just trying to fill in the diagrams that I draw in my carrel, which are often a mix of color-coordinated arrows connecting loosely associated terms attached to a timeline.

These long days have a funny connection to graduation.  All this thesis work should be pulling me away from my job applications, career research, and networking opportunities, and who knows; maybe they are.  But it has been my evenings over these crazy old books (and sometimes the really old handwritten notes I find inside of them) that all those post-graduate life questions start to make the most sense.

I got the impression that second semester senior year was suppose to be frightening and disorderly.  After all, I am officially homeless in five months.  But instead, it is just very, very exciting.  My mind bubbles over with ideas and half formed sentences, but my heart races with the possibilities of where those ideas could take me.

It’s not how you go (Paris, Part III)

It’s who you meet while you’re there.

I love that moment, when everything you know is turned on its head and suddenly you realize everything you thought you understood wasn’t wrong, but oh so wholly incomplete.  You sit, not daring to speak, just listening to ideas expressed so articulately that it simultaneously fortifies and challenges the foundation of your every conception of the topic at hand.

With a blank expression, you sit as someone else explains everything you ever tried to say, but shorter and clearer than you could ever imagine.

And then, you speak.  And in doing so, you engage in the most mentally stimulating conversation you ever dared to enter.  It’s more than just academic wonder.  One can learn things anywhere, but there is some kind of excited, accelerating learning process that engages when someone who thinks just similarly enough to you to make the nuanced arguments lively and divisive.

It’s the most invigorating and safest place to ask new questions, because you can’t get away with anything, but the other person really isn’t interested in destroying the base of your thesis, just the structure your argument.

This kind of setting is almost surreal.  I don’t often get to spend much time with people who think like me, and even less who can truly understand how my experiences as a conservative at Wes have created a deep craving for this kind of company.

Take that feeling.  Transport it to Paris.  Talk about a humiliating (as in humbling, not embarrassing) experience.

Thursday night, I went to a meeting and ate dinner with several economists and what my friends only half-jokingly called the entire French (classical) liberal movement.  It’s hard to think of a country that could produce an author with such clarity as Frederick Bastiat could be what it is today, but as I sat and looked around the room during their meeting (I had nothing else to do, since I don’t speak French) I noticed a few things.

The framed photo of Milton Friedman on the fireplace mantle gave me the assurance that while I really had no idea what they were talking about, I really was at a gathering of classical liberals in France (something which I was would not have believed existed if I wasn’t friends with several of them).

I’ve had a lot of ugly thrown at me and dealt with even more stomach flipping anger and frustration, but these people deal with more on a daily basis than I have ever faced.  France is about the size of a million Wesleyans.

On the way home my friend’s husband explained to me how he’s able to communicate his classical liberal message in a way that people can begin to understand.  He does it through his work on France’s national security and emergency preparedness.  I didn’t initially get the connection he was making, but as he it explained it, it blew my mind.

The greatest obstacle in trying to explain why I think as I do to someone with an entirely different opinion is getting them to follow an argument argued from an entirely different perspective.  With different frames of mind, it’s hard to understand where someone is coming from.

I’ve worked hard to enter the (American version of the) liberal frame of mind, and while I have had many a eye rolling experience, I can respect it, however vehemently I disagree with it.

But getting people to follow where I’m coming from, that is so much harder.  To do so, you have to start where their thinking is at and succinctly work your way back to the conclusions you were making in the first place.

But that’s what everyone was doing that night.  Talking about who they should endorse for president, if anyone.  Discussing how to get their message across.  Listening to Jean-Baptiste explain how he is able to put his libertarian chalkboard economics into practice and communicate it in such a way that it can begin to be accepted by the non-Hayek loving French population made me smile inside.

It was like observing all the activism I learned at LI and the intellectualism I was exposed to at ISI working together, perfectly.

Though I doubt I would have fully understood the conversations, even if they had been in entirely in English, the topics discussed, questions posed, and problems addressed that night made me feel more at home than I’ve been in such a long time.

I always counted myself among the big dreamers, but hanging out with these guys made me think that just maybe my little five-point plan for my life might be selling myself short.  Because however far I might have already come means nothing in comparison to where I can go from here.

While reflecting on all I had done that day, an after dinner, midnight walk down the Champs Elysee with Coralie, Jean-Baptiste, and one of the guys I met that night made me realize whether it’s Wesleyan, New York, Madrid, or Paris, it really doesn’t matter how you go; just who you meet while you’re there.