Last night I had the privilege of being interviewed by Michael Brightside for an episode of his podcast. On top of being a kid and and gracious host, he’s a smart and creative writer, which made for a fun, comfortable, and highly engaging conversation.
One of things we talked about is my use of a common place book. Keeping a common place book has become an integral part of my creative process and my spiritual practice. A common place book at it’s most basic is simply a notebook used to collect, store, and organize all the minutia of things we come across in our day to day lives that grab our attention, strike our curiosity, peak our interest, and that ultimately enliven some part of us in some unknown and inexplicable way: quotes, book passages, song lyrics, random thoughts, questions, and ideas, lines from movies, interesting points made on a podcast, anything and everything that seems resonant and meaningful that we’d like to remember and re-access.
Nearly everything I think about and write about emerges from that primordial common place. The more I use it the more it becomes a place where ideas mystically mix and mingle into an alchemical concoction that is both effervescent and wholly unexpected. Passages and phrases from a vast and divergent range sources begin to talk, touch, and commune in the sacredity of shared space; a wild and unruly conversation comes to life and I get to participate in it.
Keeping a common place book is also a kind of meditative practice. When something manages to cut through the mostly unconscious mindlessness of our daily default mode of operating, it’s like a bell sounding in a meditation hall announcing that it is time to be present to something happening in ourselves and in the world around us. That thing that caught our attention is inviting us to be attentive to the liveliness of our here and now. Stopping to write it down forces us to step out of our habitual obliviousness, and it allows us to be fully present with whatever has stirred our dormancy towards awakening.
A common place book can also be a tremendous source of consolation when we are nearly inconsolable. I’ve been open and honest about my ongoing struggles with depression, and the past few weeks have proven to be especially difficult. I have friends and family that are always ready, willing, and able to lend aid and support when I need it. But, there are times when I become so closed that the compassionate care and concern of those closest to me, can’t get though. That’s where I’ve been lately.
As I was writing something down into my common place book, I noticed several passages from two incredibly dissimilar sources, that had been unintentionally strung together. Reading them jointly, in a combinative sequence, they became the sage and salient wisdom from an unforeseen friend:
What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was also what for me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was? – Cheryl Strayed
If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiments, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown. – Rainer Maria Rilke