Monday, September 29, 2008


My upper-division students are watching Into Great Silence tonight, and therefore while showing them the ritual lives of Carthusian monks, my Monday rituals are interrupted. Noel is taking over my usual TV blogging duties while I'm here for three hours after closing time.

The month of October is upon us, and my routine is being eaten up by the sudden influx of urgent tasks. Freshman papers must be graded quickly, and then conferences scheduled with each student. A paper must be written for the conference in Denmark, a few remarks for the conference in Chicago. Soon the book of documents to be reviewed before the board of directors meeting will arrive. I'm in the midst of the unit I'm leading in our team-taught class, which means presentations to prepare, discussion questions to share with my colleagues, the organization of the class mostly on my shoulders. A grant application must be delivered next week.

I'm most productive when time pressures are the heaviest. Yet watching this movie, I could wish for a life of pure routine -- nothing to be done except observe the hours of the day. No extraordinary tasks. Only what always has to be accomplished: eat, sleep, pray, read, clean, grow, think.

We all long for such a completely dictated life at our moments of greatest freedom, when the responsibilities we have voluntarily taken on and the accomplishments we've so carefully nurtured drive us too hard. We want to give it all up for simple obedience.

I'm more susceptible than most because I've never minded repetitive work. I still remember fondly the summer I spent cutting, trimming, and gluing carpet samples into books at my uncle's factory. It was brainless labor, few choices to be made, no thought required. And so I thought about anything and everything while I worked. I contemplated the country songs on the radio. I composed poetry in my head. I let my mind wander and felt intensely alive in my own skin.

Naturally there's a big difference between a summer on the factory floor and a lifetime of unmitigated repetition. But my high tolerance for drudgery can probably also be seen in my passion for knitting. Nevertheless, I've clearly chosen against obedience and in favor of freedom and self-directedess. And in my most creative, productive moments, there's no way I would choose differently. I romanticize simpler ways, and who knows -- perhaps someday I'll live them. For now I'm too jazzed by what I can do when pushed, when I put my mind to it, when inspired.

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