Continuing a 32-Year Conversation With Myself

I’ve always been a fan of what I call “found object journaling.” While most of my journals use freshly purchased wirebound notebooks, I sometimes find and use notebooks discarded by others for my thoughts. Like a crab finding an abandoned shell, I move right in and make somebody else’s notebook my literary home for a few months. These notebooks are often from school classes, tossed away as soon as a class ends. They’re rare, but they exist.

My latest find is a real gem. I know, because it’s my very last class notebook from Princeton University, “Spring ’80” written on its yellow cover. After I graduated I held on to it as a record of my closing months at Old Nassau. I knew I had it, but never paid much attention to it until I finished up a volume and decided to use the 40 or so open pages in the massive 130-page, narrow-ruled notebook now. So the classes of the 22 year old me are mixing with the daily thoughts of the 54 year old me. I think of it as a single conversation with a 32-year gap in it.

My classes were the History and Philosophy of Science, English 313 on Literary Criticism (I would have been better off taken a plain old English course rather than one on the criticism of literature), and Religion 348 on Modern Judaism with Ellen Umansky, an excellent teacher who is now a professor of religious studies and the Director of the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

My notes from Umansky’s class are riveting because the lectures and precepts marked my first rigorous, academic study of Judaism. Until that point, I had been completely self-taught as I meandered my way into some understanding of Judaism. Now, I had some badly needed guidance.

Writing in an impossibly compact handwriting I can’t duplicate now, I jotted notes on the rise of the Jewish Enlightenment. Haskalah, maskilim, the Besht (Isaac Baal Shem Tov), mitnagdim, the Mussar movement, Moses Mendelssohn — they were all covered in just one lecture. As the notebook rolls on, I can sense the solid organization and the enormous territory covered. A March 3 discussion covered “forerunners of Zionism,” going all the way back to the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE and marching ahead to the 18th and 19th centuries. Leo Pinsker, Herzl, Peretz Smolenskin, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, Ahad Ha-Am:  the names keep rolling on and coming in between other lectures and classes featuring Coleridge, Hazlitt, Chaucer, Dryden, Johnson, Baudelaire and scientific equations that are completely incomprehensible to me — did I actually understand them at one point?

The notebook marks my keen awareness of the closing of a tumultuous four years of college. I note the months and then days before my senior thesis was due on May 11, 1980. The inside cover has the phone numbers of publications to which I would apply for jobs — the New York Times, the Journal of Commerce, Fortune and Forbes. The inside cover also had the contact for an internship in the office of New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, where I indeed had an interview in Washington with his senior legislative assistant Chester Finn, Jr., now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution focusing on K-12 education issues. He was baffled about why a guy from Texas wanted to work in the office of a New York senator.

Even my doodles are full of meaning, from a drawing I called the “Laughing Centaur” to Grateful Dead song titles “St. Stephen” and “Dark Star” to wistful scribbles of the names Christie, Esther and Barbara (my mind was wandering to romantic daydreams that 30 years later I would turn into a book). There’s even a thumbnail-sized sketch of Texas with dots indicating my home town of Mission, no doubt meant to show a classmate where I was from and where I really hoped I would not be immediately returning.

In May, I started the laborious handwritten process of composing “Modern Judaism paper (last one!)” that started with the line, “A hesitant mysticism pervades the Zionist thinking of Mordecai Kaplan and Ahad Ha-Am.” That essay concluded my undergraduate education on a high note.

The future relentlessly barreled down on me in the spring of 1980. As challenging as Princeton had been, that future would be even more chaotic when I plunged into the real world of New York life and high-stakes business journalism just days after graduating. The very last page of the notebook has notes on “apartment survival techniques” and hints like “check Salvation Army, places for clothing, furniture” and the almost-poetic “if trouble get lawyer.”

And now, 32 years later, I’m still doodling names in margins of notebooks, although I tend to do so in Hebrew and Russian. I still read about Judaism and build on what I learned in Religion 348, and I even attend the outstanding speaker series that Ellen Umansky organizes at Fairfield University. I still like the Grateful Dead and I’m not above picking up a good bargain at Salvation Army and Goodwill stores.

And I’m still writing in notebooks, although these days I prefer the wide-rule format — they work much better for 50-something handwriting.

 

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