I missed the 39¢ notebooks at Target.

This is not normal for me. I had the system figured out. Print out the school supply lists and get to Target at least two weeks before school starts. Everything will be there, in the seasonal section, and there will be plenty of options at good prices.

But this year is different. Shifting from summer’s leisurely pace to school’s early mornings and packed schedules has the added drama of emerging from a year and a half of staying home. And what are we stepping into? An onslaught of ten emails per day from school, forms to sign, supplies to buy, dates to schedule—all things that used to be normal. Add to that, seeing people for the first time in a couple years, kids now unrecognizably mature and taller than me, as well as meeting new teachers and administrators. Did I mention my youngest is starting high school? That’s also a thing. It’s all a bit of a shock to the system really.

So here’s the thing about the notebooks. High schools don’t provide supply lists. They ask you to wait until school starts and purchase supplies according to teacher requests. Because of the A/B day schedules, you don’t know the full story until the second day. It’s been years since I waited this late to buy school supplies. Could it really be that bad?

Oh, yes. Yes, it can.

By the second day of school, most bins in the seasonal section were cleared out. Entire shelves were as empty as toilet paper aisles at the beginning of a pandemic. Luckily, my son needed very little. I was astonished to find him a planner at a reasonable price. But a white eraser? No. Empty pegs outnumbered the populated ones, even in the regular stationary aisle. I’m not the only one who thought to check there.

He’s fine though. After fifteen years of having at least one child in school, our home is well-stocked with school supplies. There’s enough for him until Target refills their shelves.

But since there was not a single cheap spiral notebook to be had, I find myself at a crossroads. I may need to change my writing setup this year. Why not buck up and buy a $5.99 six-subject notebook? Am I really that cheap that I will only buy the bargain basement version?

Well, sort of. Many years ago, I read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, in which she encourages a free and unfettered writing practice. As part of this approach to writing, she recommends stocking up on cheap notebooks during back-to-school season. It makes each blank page less precious and more inviting to messy scrawling. I took her advice to heart, and have purchased a pile of cheap writing notebooks each August for many years.

So, yes, I could buy a thick expensive notebook, but my world has changed since I first read Writing Down the Bones (which I highly recommend, by the way.)

  • I have an established writing practice
  • I can better afford nicer notebooks
  • I’ve gotten used to using nice notebooks for my bullet journal
  • I’ve come to realize how much I appreciate pretty things

It’s time to re-evaluate my notebook philosophy. Do I continue to buy cheap notebooks, even though I have an established writing practice and am not shy about using up paper? Do I switch to nicer notebooks and risk not being able to use my beloved notebook cover, which has built-in bookmarks and pockets for pens, sticky notes and index cards?

As I take stock of my notebook situation in the midst of so much transition, I realize that I am facing many crossroads, not just one of writing implements. Now that I’m rising at 6:00 am, my work times and play times need to change. With my son in high school, our lives will reshape themselves around marching band practices, football games, and who knows what else. And how will all of us re-enter the world as we adjust to the stuttering COVID pandemic?

Back-to-school has always been a time for transition. This year, with a bigger scale of change at play, I feel extra conscious about my choices, from the type of notebook I use to how to protect my son from COVID in a crowded school. After so much time sheltered at home, I feel like my relationship to the world is starting over. The world is by no means a blank slate, but how I engage with the world feels new. It’s more obvious than ever that the choices I make now will shape the habits and routines I carry into my future.

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