Just Right: The Theme System Journal

“Mary dislikes regimentation,” Mrs. Gold, my teacher, noted on one of my first-grade report cards (in perfect Palmer Method cursive, I recall). She was right. I do. I tend to rebel when too much structure is imposed on me, but I also flounder when there’s not enough. It’s all very “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” The amount of structure needs to be “JUST RIGHT.”


That’s why the Theme System Journal appealed to me. There’s just enough framework, balanced by just enough freedom. Nothing is set in stone. I don’t feel hemmed in by an overly prescribed system, but I’m also not flailing around in a blank notebook.

Truth be told, I bought my Theme System Journal the first time it was offered—quite some time ago—then stored it in a box, still wrapped in its protective plastic. You could accuse me of procrastinating—heck, I’ve repeatedly accused myself of that over the past few months—but I think I just wasn’t ready to do the work necessary to use the Theme System Journal in a meaningful way. I didn’t want to go into it all willy-nilly, but I also knew that a journal wrapped in plastic wasn’t doing me any good.

There’s nothing like a new year to jumpstart your self-reflection. 2020, I decided, was to be the year of the Theme System Journal. Which meant that I needed A THEME.

I mulled over all kinds of words and wishes and goals and emotions, but nothing felt quite right. I frequently take lunchtime walks with a good friend where we have these meandering and wonderful conversations about nothing and everything. I was jabbering on about my need for a theme and how I was grinding trying to come up with one. She quietly and wisely said, “Maybe your theme will find you.”

As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.

One of the “Take Note” podcast hosts noted, on Twitter, how reading The Daily Stoic has helped him immensely. This tweet reminded me that I bought the book last January but didn’t read it for more than a few days. Then I stumbled onto SBREBrown’s YouTube series on Stoicism, and I fell right down that rabbit hole. A switch flipped in my brain and I knew that I’d found my theme.

2020: The Year of Stoicism


It was finally time to take the plastic off of that Theme System Journal. I unwrapped it and then my perfectionism kicked in. I needed to do a little more work. What were my ideal outcomes? What goals would I track on a daily basis? I grabbed a pen and a pad and wrote and rewrote all of the possibilities until I distilled everything down to eight desired outcomes and ten daily actions/goals. Time to actually write in the book.

I recorded my theme and my desired outcomes.


I recorded the specific actions I’d be tracking on a daily basis.


I began the practice of evening reflection.


Though I’m only five days in, I already feel mentally lighter because of the Stoicism practices and because of this journal. I’ve had themes in the past, but didn’t record them anywhere so they were abstract and out-of-reach most of the time, especially when I was under duress and needed them the most. Because I’m looking at, and writing about, my theme and goals and actions every day, I’m able to call on them in times of stress, duress, and overwhelm. The positive practices are right at my fingertips. This feels, honestly, like a miracle.


Nothing is perfect, of course, so I have just a couple of suggestions for future iterations of the Theme System Journal. I’d love to have at least a few lined pages simply for notes. I’ve been using the Index pages at the back of the book for this, but that means that I can’t use them for their intended purpose. I’d also like a way to find each section without flipping through the pages. I’ve been using book darts to mark my current pages, and those work fine, but integrated bookmarks would be really handy. Those are two very minor wishes for something that is overwhelming well thought out and solidly constructed.


My second Theme System Journal arrived yesterday and is waiting in the wings. I’m in this for the long haul.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Myke and Grey.

Starting From Scratch

My right shoulder has been giving me grief since April. Not so bad during the day but pretty awful at night. I have no idea what I did to piss off this particular body part. It’s probably just protesting 60+ years of having to do right shoulder things. In any case, once it became apparent that I couldn’t cure myself with liniments and potions and strategically placed pillows, I sought professional help. Wherein I was put through the medical wringer. I had x-rays, which never show anything unless your arm is hanging by a thread. An EMG test, where needles are placed in your arm to determine how your nerves are conducting electrical impulses. (It’s not as fun as it sounds.) I did a dozen sessions of PT, which helped with my IT band problem in 2018, but to which my shoulder said pfffffftt. Time and money evaporated while my physical therapist applied ice and electrical stimulation (kind of nice!), and had me pull on stretchy bands, tug on pulleys, do stretches with a cane, and pedal a bike with my arms—all to no avail. Then I had a couple of cortisone shots—which made a difference only briefly. I had high hopes for those shots. Finally, finally, finally, insurance bestowed an MRI upon me, and I heard the angels sing. Well, whadda ya know, there are torn things in said shoulder. (Ironically, the insurance company thinks that they are saving money by allowing an MRI only as a last resort, but you will note that they’ve now paid for an MRI PLUS a million other things, so the cost-effectiveness of this approach escapes me. But what do I know.)

I was making slow slow progress towards getting this pain figured out, when my orthopedist, who I really liked/respected, informed me that she was leaving town. GAH!! Was it something I said?!?!

So then I waited for a referral. Meanwhile, my shoulder continued to picket and protest and make loud pain speeches while I tried to sleep.

In early December, after becoming a phone pest about the logy referral process, I was seen by the new guy who is very nice and well-reviewed. You have two options, he said, “Live with it, or have surgery.” So surgery it is.

[Audience participation portion: Try saying “shoulder surgery” three times fast. It’s hard. Or am I weird?]

So I’ve been scheduled for arthroscopic surgery at the end of February. There’s a chance that the rotator cuff tear isn’t too bad and can simply be reinforced with a piece of cow Achilles tendon that’s apparently all the rage these days. (Who knew?!) If they can go that route, recovery should be quicker than the expected 6-8 weeks.

This weekend, it started dawning on me how much I do with my right arm, and ohmigod, I better start training the other side of my brain/body to start pulling its weight. Especially when it comes to writing. Which is my favorite and most necessary right-handed thing. I enter the following into evidence:





I’m feeling a little (a lot, actually) panicky at the thought of not being able to journal, make lists, jot down quotes and ideas, and write letters—especially since I’ll be home for a spell with plenty of time on my hands.

What’s a girl to do??!!

This girl is trying to teach herself to write with her LEFT HAND. Day one of what I vow will be a daily practice commenced yesterday.



The clock is ticking, but I’m starting over, like a kindergartener learning to form letters for the first time. (An interesting observation—my WHOLE BODY feels tense after I write a single line of letters.)

Is there hope? Has anyone else done this?

Stay tuned for regular updates.

The Notebook

About once a week I have my breakfast at Panera. It’s on my way to work so I like getting there early, while it’s still quiet, to eat my oatmeal and read. Creature of habit that I am, I sit at the same table, and have gotten used to seeing a bunch of other regulars, also in their same seats. There’s an older gentleman who sits at a nearby table and always orders coffee and toast. After he finishes his toast, he scrolls through his phone, props it up, and starts sketching on a napkin. Without fail. I circled by on my way to the trash one time so that I could catch at peek at what he sketches. Cars. He sketches cars. On napkins. One day recently I had an idea. I wonder if he’d like a pocket notebook for his drawings. (You may recall I have a few.) Is that weird?, I wondered. To offer a stranger a notebook? Maybe so, but Thursday morning I did it anyway. At first I got a a gruff little “huh?” out of him, then I explained that I noticed that he’s always drawing and I have all of these notebooks and maybe he’d like one. To draw in. Or for grocery lists or something.

He LIT UP. We talked about the “olden days,” when there were things like party lines and wonderful little stores downtown. I heard about his hernia surgery, and how he’s originally from Frankfort. And did I remember The Windsor beauty shop in South Utica because that was his aunt’s.

Thanks to a simple pocket notebook, I made a friend.

His name is Bruce and he’s 77.


Never underestimate the power of a simple notebook.


Diving In

The weather wasn’t the best today—a drizzly rain settled in after lunch—so I decided to take a longer stab at tackling the stationery decluttering project than the few minutes I’ve spent on it during the week. In a fortunate coincidence, the well-being practice for the Whole Life Challenge (I’m starting week #3 of the six-week wellness challenge) is to avoid all social media for the week. Had that not been the case, I KNOW I would’ve been running to my phone as a way to procrastinate and soothe my overwhelmed nerves. But I’ve removed the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram apps, so without that pull, I dug in for a few uninterrupted hours this afternoon.


The starting point

Step one is “macro” sorting—grouping like items together. I’m separating pencils, notebooks, fountain pens, ballpoints, gel pens, pen sets, Retro 51s (they get their own category), etc. into separate cartons. This isn’t their final destination, but it’s giving me a better sense of how much I have of each major category.



The tip of the Retro 51 iceberg

So many thoughts are passing through my head as I tackle this project.

  • How did this get so far out of hand?
  • My notebook/pencil stash will certainly outlast me. (Fun thought.)
  • Ooooo…I forgot about this pen! (Repeat about 15 times. Maybe more.)
  • What do I do with all of these empty pen boxes?
  • How can I ramp up my use of all of this?
  • Should I put some notebooks and/or pens up for sale?
  • Should I toss a match into the room and call it good?
  • And the critical one…DO NOT ACQUIRE ANY MORE STUFF!!


Midway through the afternoon, I cancelled my Log+Jotter monthly subscription (despite how much I enjoy their notebooks), because really, there is no justification for adding to this.


I’m still hanging onto my CW Pencil subscription for the time being because I truly enjoy the quarterly, beautifully curated surprise, but, I dunno, does that make sense when you are already knee-deep in pencils?

Right now I feel very much like a toddler at the dinner table who’s pushing peas and carrots around their plate to make it look like they’re disappearing. The vegetables are in different places but are all still there.


It’s kind of a shell game.

Progress? Maybe?



A Public Declaration

I’m fixing this.


I know it’ll take time, and that I’ll have to make a bigger mess to make it better, but I’m tackling this…uh…situation. The Easter basket should be easy. (???) I’ve made this pledge before and taken half-hearted stabs at restoring back order to this corner of the dining room, but this time I’m sticking with it (like that morning journaling in a previous post).


Sorting is step #1. I took a baby step forward tonight and already found something I was missing.

I’m doing this. Want to come along? I could use the moral support.

Expect monthly updates. Ahhhh…this feels better already.

Dearly Departed

CLINTON, NY- The bullet pencil affectionately known as “Mr. Bear,” passed on to the eternal desk drawer on September 11, 2019.  Though approximately 80 years of age, Mr. Bear was still living life to the fullest at the time of his passing, with no thought of retirement. Created as a souvenir for Crawford Notch State Park in New Hampshire, Mr. Bear enjoyed life with a variety of owners and worked tirelessly without complaint. Eventually worn to a nub by this fierce work ethic, Mr. Bear was lovingly restored to full vitality by the expert hands of bullet pencil aficionado Randy Ragan. Most recently adopted by Mary Collis, Mr. Bear was happiest knocking around in a pocket, always ready to jot down a note, write out a grocery list, or to sketch out an impromptu idea. In his spare time, Mr. Bear was fond of solving Cryptogram word puzzles, where his beefy eraser came in particularly handy. He was so proud of that eraser. Whether attending a departmental meeting, logging workout details into a pocket notebook, or balancing a checkbook, Mr. Bear gave and gave without any thought of himself—never fearing the uncomfortable grind of the pencil sharpener. If there is any consolation in his passing, it is that the end came quickly. Crushed by a maintenance van after being accidentally dropped, Mr. Bear never knew what hit him, and that brings a bit of peace to his heartbroken survivors.


Warning: Graphic injuries!

“If there ever comes a day where we can’t be together, keep me in your heart. I’ll stay there forever.” —From Winnie the Pooh (a favorite book of Mr. Bear’s, for obvious reasons)


In happier times, with other pocket friends.

Stickin’ With It*

* With credit to Ted Walker and Adam Webb, hosts of the Take Note podcast.

I recently started listening to Take Note, thanks to Tim Wasem’s recommendation on a recent episode of the Erasable podcast. I especially enjoy how the hosts chat about what they write rather than focusing so much on what they write with or on. Sometimes they feature a segment called “Stickin’ With It” where they talk about the things in their lives—sometimes stationery, sometimes not—that they find themselves enjoying over and over again. As someone who, for the most part, has the stationery attention span of an eight-week-old puppy, this has been inspiring. Instead of constantly flitting through pencils, pens, and inks, maybe I should try a less frenetic approach. Rather than becoming enamored with the newest and shiniest thing, maybe I’d enjoy some consistency with what I’m using—a single pencil (à la Caroline Weaver), or just one or two fountain pens instead of the herd that I currently have inked. Oh attention span, I hardly knew ye.

Just as I was feeling guilty about all of this stationery polygamy, I hit a milestone worthy of my own “Stickin’ With It” segment. On Thursday morning, I filled up my fifth Nanami Paper Seven Seas Tomoe River Notebook. That’s 2400 pages since June 2016. I wonder how many milliliters of ink I’ve used and how many miles of words I’ve written by practicing “butt in chair” (to quote Anne Lamott) at 4:45 am.


This is my morning practice—my writing meditation—the one place in my life where I am truly stickin’ with it.


Oh that Sailor Grenade sheen! That’ll perk you right up!

Without fail.