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A Commonplace Book

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Synchronicity. Serendipity. Something in the air.

I am (we are) taking a seminar at our UU titled “Making Time for the Inner Life” and in the course of the seminar we were asked to find (or develop) a mantra or a poem that reflects some core belief or aspiration we hold. I have a pretty contentious relationship with poetry. I don’t read it for pleasure, generally speaking, but I teach it often enough that I feel pretty competent when it comes to analyzing poems and breaking them down in order to talk about the interrelationship between structure and meaning. Mantras are completely foreign to me. I don’t meditate. (Maybe I should.)

So over the weekend, I mulled over what a poem or mantra for me might look like. I almost immediately thought of the final lines of E.B. White’s children’s classic Charlotte’s Web: “She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” I love that ending! It refocuses the entire story for me, making Charlotte’s whole tale one of writing and words as much as it is one of friendship and love. (duh?) As a mantra, those lines remind me of the (sometimes nascent) qualities in myself that need attention and celebration.

As I was mulling on Charlotte’s exemplary qualities I clicked on my friend Phil Nel’s blog Nine Kinds of Pie. Phil is a children’s literature scholar, Crockett Johnson expert, Dr. Seuss explicator, etc. etc. His blogging this week is on the old practice of people keeping “commonplace books.” These were personal, handwritten collections of poems, quotations, recipes, notes, things to remember and reflect upon that people kept back before everything was copied and scanned and filed away. Phil listed many quotations from literature–not all of it children’s lit–for his first commonplace book blog post, but not my E.B. White quote. However, his first commenter did mention it–thereby cementing in my own mind the rightness of my new-found mantra.

Now I find myself inspired a bit. I have a lovely little blank book I received as a parting gift from friends in Germany. It is full of lovely paper and will make a perfect little companion, to fill with things I want to remember, think of, and reflect on. I may not follow Phil’s lead and list them all on the blog, but I will share my second and third quotations with you here, to follow up on E.B. White.

The last lines of Leonhard Cohen’s “I Have not Lingered in European Monastaries”

I have not lingered in European monasteries
and discovered among the tall grasses tombs of knights
who fell as beautifully as their ballads tell;
I have not parted the grasses
or purposefully left them thatched.

I have not held my breath
so that I might hear the breathing of God
or tamed my heartbeat with an exercise,
or starved for visions.
Although I have watched him often
I have not become the heron,
leaving my body on the shore,
and I have not become the luminous trout,
leaving my body in the air.

I have not worshipped wounds and relics,
or combs of iron,
or bodies wrapped and burnt in scrolls.

I have not been unhappy for ten thousands years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals,
my body cleans and repairs itself,
and all my work goes well.

I appreciate the joyful secularism of the sentiments here. Many ways to come in contact with the divine have been celebrated in religion and literature. From medieval ascetics to the sweaty middle aged in pursuit of the runner’s high (guilty), the assumption is that one has to defeat or subdue the body in order to nourish the spirit. Cohen’s last lines here celebrate the joy to be found in our corporeal existence, which, let’s face it, can be pretty awesome.

The final quotation to find its way into my commonplace book this week is from Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s novella Die Judenbuche (The Jew’s Beech Tree), published in 1842. The story is about the awkward intersections between moral right and wrong and legal right and wrong and is framed by an excursus on that topic. She sets the stage for the story’s moral dilemma with the following words:

“Denn wer nach seiner Überzeugung handelt, und sei sie noch so mangelhaft, kann nie ganz zugrunde gehen, wogegen nichts seelentötender wirkt, als gegen das innere Rechtsgefühl das äußere Recht in Anspruch nehmen.”

(Trans: “For he who acts according to his convictions, however deficient they may be, can never be quite lost, but nothing is more soul-destroying than invoking external laws in defiance of one’s inner sense of right.”) Short translation: follow your convictions, even when you do not have to. This appears to be a platitude but for the addition “even when you don’t have to.” Even when no one is looking (not even god, natch)

What would be in your commonplace book?

Written by Jennifer

November 4, 2010 at 8:37 am

Posted in books, German, life

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