This academic year, my classmates and I applied to and heard back from colleges. Over the past decade or so, the application process has become, in many respects, messy and circuitous. It asks more of us than some are willing to give; it can foster undesired animosity between the closest of friends; it breeds a brand of subjective, decisive judgment that can cripple even the most robust of egos.
The year is a masterpiece emotional paradox: we pour into it the acute precision of a da Vinci, and we leave it, clutching fragments of a canvas whose deliberate randomness closely resembles a Jackson Pollock piece. But in all its chaos, the process makes way for profound reflection and true personal growth. The year is an important one.
Below is the five hundred and fifty-three word piece that I wrote as my ‘personal statement’ for the Common Application. I hope you’ll find it meaningful. I wrote the bulk of it when I sat down for three focused hours in a West Los Angeles café.
It’s 106 degrees and I’m wearing a suit, strolling down an asphalt street in Phoenix. I’ve done this before: Every autumn my mother, a rabbi, leads a different congregation for the High Holy Days. We go where she goes, and – just as we do every Saturday – we walk to synagogue. In Redlands, California, we strode past the few remaining orange groves. In Portland, Oregon, we trekked into verdant hills. At home, we walked amid the dim glow of the city’s billboards and in the shadows of its highest skyscrapers.
When I was young, I would protest: Why did we always have to walk? The response was always the same: We’re observant Jews. In time, my complaining ebbed. Walking became my routine, and as we walked, we shared stories, songs, and thoughts.
My memories of some walks faded in with the years; but more than a few remain snapshots in time: the Saturday morning I stopped on the sidewalk to listen to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech blaring from a TV inside somebody’s apartment; the day we bumped into a friend who told us her fiancé had been struck by a car hours earlier. Somehow, everything was different on foot. When I watched on TV, or picked up the phone, I was a passerby. But when I walked, the moment gripped me. I saw what I couldn’t from a car: dandelions growing out of cracks in the cement, or the faces of the homeless hidden away under storefront canopies.
With each walk came a new question: why had it taken Hillary so long to give up? What must it have been like to be one of the Chilean miners trapped underground? The answers were less important; the process – the journey, the walk itself – made the questions fascinating, and transformed them into intellectual pursuits.
Then my questions changed. I asked myself whether I was really an observant Jew and the foundations of my faith began to tremble. Into adolescence, my religiosity waned. I stood among the remains of a crematorium at Auschwitz. I grappled with the writings of theologians like Martin Buber. And I moved from a sound and consistent religious connection to transient depths of non-belief, and back again. My once petty complaints became theological challenges. But my family walked, so I kept walking.
One Monday a classmate stopped me to ask why I had been so late to an event the previous Saturday. I explained that I’d had to cover the four miles from home on foot.
“Wouldn’t it be easier,” she asked, “to just get into a car?”
I began to ask myself: Wouldn’t it? Of course. But should convenience – or my doubts – eclipse all that I’ve derived from my walks? The walks fueled my curiosity. The paths they took me down didn’t lead only to temple; they also led to introspection and growth.
Because I walked, I click on my New York Times bookmark before I click on Facebook. Because I walked, I know what the House Minority Whip does. I’ve pondered the dire straits of the Chilean miners, I know the lyrics to American Pie, and I’ve wondered how cacti survive in 106 degrees. Because I walked, I know what my great grandparents were like. Because I walked, I’m able to wonder and grapple with why I walk at all.