I keep a commonplace book. Essentially a method of recording interesting things from larger works, commonplace books have been popular since, well, pretty much the beginning of the written word. Marcus Aurelius, Petrarch, John Milton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bill Gates… all kept (or keep) commonplace books.
I was taught that the practice originated because people long ago didn’t own books but still wanted to remember what was written in them. Books were expensive or, depending on the century, rare, so scholarly-minded individuals would copy down passages they wanted to refer to later. I couldn’t find anything on the internet (i.e. Wikipedia) that confirmed that story, so maybe a Calvin professor made it up. Who knows. Regardless, the habit of keeping commonplace books is an old one.
Mine is obviously not as profound or culturally important as Milton’s, but I have to say I’m quite fond of it. My extensive reading habit combined with my abysmal short-term memory means I come across a lot of brilliant material and promptly forget it. Having a notebook nearby where I can write down interesting sentences or copy down a poem is great mostly because I can go back later and find inspiration or track down the poem I know I read last year but can’t quite think of.
In fact, I was paging through for something holiday-related to write about for this post when I decided to write about the book itself instead.
As I thumbed through page after page of wisdom, I got a little… weary, I guess. Suddenly, all the power and insight I had once seen in these quips was just too much. Like a table still laden with Christmas sweets after a whole day spent snacking, nothing really looked good anymore. These bits and pieces I had gathered for myself as reminders had lost their charm.
I’m pretty sure it’s Christmas’ fault. We’ve entered the season when everyone and their mothers has something inspirational or encouraging to say. We hear it at church, on TV, at the mall, on the radio, on Facebook, at work, in our favorite Christmas movies…
“Peace on Earth.”
“Home for the holidays.”
“The true reason for the season.”
“Give to those less fortunate.”
“The best way to spread Christmas cheer is by singing loud for all to hear.”
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
“God bless us, every one!”
“Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.”
And meaningful gifts and silver bells and shepherds and red pots we drop coins in because it makes us feel good and family and friends and glad tidings and hark the herald angels.
I’m not usually this much of a cynic, I promise. Let’s be honest, though—don’t you ever get tired of Christmas? Sure, it’s festive and exciting and warm fuzzy inducing. But it’s also a bizarre alternate reality where everyone is merry and bright, and our conversations feel scripted for us by a bald, yellow-shirted cartoon kid, an optimistic little boy with a crutch, and a green hairy monster.
Can we somehow avoid this Christmas malaise? There’s no reindeer-shaped cookie cutter answer, I suppose, but I’ve landed on one perhaps-solution.
In my case, at least, this weariness of Christmas comes from an oversaturation of cheer. I just don’t have that much cheer in me, okay?! By trying to focus on just one sentiment, however, I can tune out the other noise. I know there’s good stuff in that noise, but the chatter is overwhelming. I’m putting away my commonplace book for the month, keeping those aphoristic snippets in a drawer. I’m letting my eyes glaze over during commercial breaks and turning the radio off every time that stupid “Christmas Shoes” song comes on.
Choosing just one theme for the season brings me focus and quiet. I’m centering myself on Dickens’ words of transformation for good old Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. “I will honor Christmas in my heart,” he finally resolves, “And try to keep it all the year.”
I really don’t have anything against Christmas. The merry and bright we often feel during the season is nothing to scoff at. If only it lasted longer, and the Christmas spirit were sprinkled on more judiciously. If only Christmas lasted all year.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.