I don’t know how universal the experience is, but nothing has made me feel like more of a novice than graduating with my PhD. I can imagine that might surprise my family and friends who have sweated out the last eight years with me and accordingly celebrated the close of this chapter of being a student a mere three months ago. And yet, there it is: I’m thirty years old, have three fancy diplomas hanging on a wall, and I’m a novice, once again.
Today, I learned how to write again. Sounding out the alphabet, painstakingly tracing with a pencil on broad lined paper the up- and down-sweep of 27 characters.* Just lowercase, today. If any readers share my imagination’s penchant for disaster, let me assure you: no accident or physical ailment has deprived me of my fine motor skills. I am typing this myself, and could write it to you on pen and paper, if necessary. Today’s exercise in monotonous repetition was nothing short of time travel.
I’m writing from Bethania, North Carolina, where I am attending an institute for learning to read a style of handwriting that hasn’t been taught in schools for nearly 60 years. Deutsche Schrift, Sütterlin, alte Schrift, Current, the style goes by many names; not surprising when one considers it was in practice for some 400 years across German-speaking Europe. Our instructor has found that the best tool for reading this handwriting is the reader’s own motor memory from having learned to write it. So before we settle down to decipher texts from the quill of the authors in my dissertation, written about 200 years ago, we are learning to write again. Letter by letter, stroke by stroke. Fortunately, we did not have to begin by learning to cut our own quill, or we wouldn’t have gotten to the first letter for quite some time! Pencils, while less elegant, work just as well.
Muscle memory is a funny thing to be made aware of. As an academic, or even just well educated adult, we like to imagine our memories, our consciousness, residing in folds of grey matter, safely tucked below the helmet of our skull. Brain on a stick, etc. We take our muscle memory for granted in each step we take, each glass we reach for, each key we press. Outside of work, over the past two weeks I’ve been developing new memories with muscles I to whom I had hardly been introduced, aside from a too-frequent back ache. With the aid of a physical therapist, I have been logging hours of quality time with hip abductors, transverse abdominals, and psoas muscles. It’s startling how quickly unfamiliar stretches and patterns have become a part of my morning and evening routine, a habit that gets me out of a comfortable bed after a long day’s drive and on to a yoga mat, to put to rest the part of my memory that lives in my thighs in counts of 15, to the left and to the right.
I think if I wasn’t currently training other, larger muscles at the same time, I would be less convinced that today’s writing lesson would bring any results. Oh sure, a, b, c, were great, I was even in good spirits through m. P, on the other hand, looks far to much the way g ought to, and w brought me to the brink of despair, or at least, of extreme frustration with my poor penmanship. How frustrating to not be master of a skill I’d taken for granted for so long! To learn, as an adult, what I had battled in another time, at another desk, with a different pencil and ruled paper, some 25 years ago! And yet, even as I type this, only hours later, I feel the restlessness in my fingers and knuckles. The muscles have a memory of their own, which fights the quietly doubting grey, hidden folds of my privileged, cerebral memory.
And so, I have no doubt that tomorrow morning at 9 I will be at my desk, sharpened pencil in hand, eager to get that w down to a science, once and for all. It’s a funny thing, to cull up wisps of memories of school and learning that are so remote from the pomp and circumstance of earlier this May. And yet, it also feels extremely fitting: baby steps to approaching my research – the other writing I feel I am learning again for the first time. This time, as “PhD in hand” – Dr. Riviere. She wrote enough to get the title, but what will she write after that? Tonight: these reflections. Tomorrow: upper case letters. After that? Well, I have a few ideas, and we’ll see where it goes from there.
* yes, 27. There are two versions of lower case s, depending on where in the word or syllable the s occurs. Even doing just the basic alphabet is 27 different shapes.