Commonplacing January 23, 2013

Encore Guest Post by Ann Conway

Here in central Maine, the world has come down to bone. The songbirds are gone and crows, which poet Mary Oliver terms “the deep muscle of the world,” have taken over my street. The landscape seems empty; the ground, a carpet of desiccated leaves.

One longs for the blanketing stillness of snow. The world, dark at four, appears grim.

I’ve started keeping a commonplace book in the hope of seeing better.

Most wintry day thus far, 43 degrees in a dark gray sky. Gunmetal black river with brown lawns silhouetted against it. Gulls float over downtown…at the hoarders’ house, shrunken tomatoes still cling to the vines.

I first learned of commonplacing in David Plante’s American Ghosts, a memoir set in our mutual birthplace, a neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island.

As Plante recalled his religious upbringing, he recorded a series of images that occurred to him—a lit bulb at the back of a closed shop, a tennis ball on an empty beach. He then connected the images to his youthful studies of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas, Plante remarked, had no sense of the unconscious, believing that “the objects of consciousness all came into consciousness by way of outside stimulation of the senses.” We are born tabula rasa—everything that makes us comes from outside, to be inscribed on the empty slate. Aquinas suggested that a sense beyond the five senses—a transcending awareness—gives coherence to what we take in.

In my warm house: The pleasure of measuring, water, oil, honey with flour, salt, yeast and powdered milk. Outside my kitchen window, the freshet brook tumbling under fallen trees from the ice storm.

I could use some coherence. I’ve kept a diary since my freshman year in college, a commonplace book in one of its classic forms—a compendium, or hodgepodge, of quotations, reflections, clippings.

Now I have a hodgepodge of a memoir about my childhood—quotations, outlines, drafts. I have too much information and too cloudy a lens with which to view it. These days I’m more interested in a commonplace book’s other form—a distillation of experience that awakens the reader to something more universal.

But how do I get there? Perhaps a commonplace book will clear my thoughts and provide an antidote to the darkest months. So I write of my quiet life.

Debris on the lawn from high winds, the yellow maple leaves quivering. The old dog that once ran up the dark hills? Now he sits at the top of the back yard’s stone stairs, sniffing the breeze.

“Isn’t it odd how the term ‘commonplace’ has gone out of style?” a friend noted a few weeks ago—perhaps because our life these days increasingly consists of sitting alone before a screen, where images flit by at lightning speed, but still seem to demand something from us.

My commonplace observations are different. I feel an ease, a release in simply noticing what is available in my life. It seems blessedly amoral. I don’t have to be good, to feel “grateful” for or “astonished” by it. What I observe just is.

The memoir still consists of folders, scraps and pieces. Still a mess, I think. Recently, however, I read that the novelist Paul Harding, whose gorgeous Tinkers recently won the Pulitzer, has a pretty frenetic life as the parent of two small children. He wrote Tinkers using the hodgepodge method—scraps of paper, loose leaf, legal pads—which he stuffed in his pockets, then folders. Eventually he took them out and spread them on the living room floor.

In the process, he found his story.

How is it we never notice the great bowl of sky above us? In their trucks going to work at the State, every third person smokes. Layoffs projected. The blue smoke going up through the cracked windows, making its way to the heedless clouds.

I continue to keep my commonplace book of the everyday, which, strangely, is helping me understand the memoir. The latter’s images: a church like a Byzantine jewel box in a city of thundering mills. The blood of a small boy run over by a snowplow. A Eucharistic monstrance created from the gold of melted wedding rings. The close air of old Kate’s Mohan’s tenement, her parlor’s marble-topped mahogany table. The wild Atlantic waves beating a spit of land called Galilee.

Something coheres here, I think, spreading my work on the floor, something arising from the darkness, something luminous. Perhaps it is what Plante calls, “a Thomistic sense of something whole, something whole outside and around me.”

Something, I think, worth describing.


A former regular contributor to Good Letters, Ann Conway is a sociologist as well as a writer. She has published in Maine Times, Commonweal, Maine Arts Magazine, Faith and Leadership and other venues. Her forthcoming memoir is based on the essay, “The Rosary,” originally published in Image, which was placed on the notable list of Best Spiritual Writing 2011.

This Good Letters post originally appeared on December 9, 2010.

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  • Gina Tollini

    This is lovely, and food for my spirit as I explore issues of faith and meaning and making sense of it all. Thank you.

  • I love these descriptive fragments. These bits are the ones I generally draw to most.