Fast Away the Old Year Passes

December 31, 2004

Fast away the old year passes,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la la, la la!
Hail the new ye lads and lasses!
               — melody of ancient Welsh origin, words probably 19th century American

Holidailies 2004During the Renaissance, the practice of keeping a book called a “commonplace” sprang up. Aristocratic readers used leather-bound volumes to copy out favorite passages of poetry or prose that they encountered in their reading. It was a way to organize what was regarded as “information overload” in those days. Most books belonged to libraries rather than to individuals, so a reader couldn’t underline a portion of text or stick a bookmark in a favorite spot and come back to it later. Nor were there mechanical copying devices that would allow a person to cut and paste a notebook of the words of others.

A man I taught with for many years kept commonplace books. He was a sweet, gentle soul who never called much attention to himself, lived alone, and attended the same men’s bible study every week for more than fifty years. At his funeral his sisters displayed some of the notebooks he’d kept, each a commonplace with the day and date noted and one or two passages copied out in his spidery hand each day. I was familiar with that hand from the notes he’d sent me from time to time after his retirement, and seeing his books made me feel close to him again.

I keep my commonplace along with my personal journal. I use a plain 8½ x 11 top-bound spiral notebook with lined pages. I like a messy, organic quality to my journal. (Well, maybe I don’t like it, exactly, but it is the only process that works for me.) I keep the notebook with me and open nearly all the time. So my pages have copied out passages of other people’s thoughts from whatever I’m reading that day, pasted-in scraps of things I can cut out of magazines and such, passages of writing practice, as well as personal thoughts and observations and the traditional “I had a pork chop for dinner” diary notations*. That’s how the Buechner quotation I led the Feast of Stephen piece with came to be the heading for December 26, 1995. I was either using Listening to Your Life, a daybook made up of brief passages selected from all of his work, or reading Telling Secrets, the third volume of his autobiography, that day.

During this month of participating in Holidailies I’ve been reading around in the other journals kept by those who joined the portal. One is Watermark, an elegant set of pages by poet Sharon Brogan, who lives in Montana, the landscape that calls to me. One section of her site she has set up as a commonplace, and she intends to transcribe the bits of wisdom she has accumulated in her paper journals.

I’ve taken inspiration from this. I have space at TypePad, a service that offers blogging capability to people who don’t want to (or, like me, can’t figure out how to) do it on their own. I started it when I was on the road in August and couldn’t use the transfer protocols my traditional site requires because I was using public connections. I called my blog The Open Page, which sounds like a nifty name for a commonplace book. The space is paid for through next August, but I haven’t done anything with it since my last post from Vermont. I think it’s time to make some use of it again.

The first set of quotations, all the epigraphs I’ve used for my year-end letter, will go up dated January 1, 2005. Please, do visit.

*Once again, I honor Mona Simpson’s wonderful short story, “Lawns,” for this image.

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