I have been commonplacing since my youth. The first book of commonplace I created was when I was 10 years old, war was raging all around me and I spent the best part of a full academic year hiding in an underground shelter with no other company than a heavy stack of books, a substantial pile of candles and battery-powered lights, a thick notebook, a lead pencil and 5 coloured pencils. I read to immerse myself in other people’s lives. I read to create another reality which ran parallel to the atrocities around me. I opted for the longer volumes, irrationally believing that I wouldn’t die if I was in the middle of a story. If I felt hungry, I read; thirsty, I read; sleepy, I read; lonely, bored, excited, angry, vengeful, thoughtful, claustrophobic, empty…whatever the feeling, a book appeased it.
So I began keeping a log of what I read. Sometimes I’d write a book review, other times I’d copy a line, a poem, a saying. I also became obsessed with leaving a record of my existence in case the building collapsed and all that could be recovered was this thick notebook. This obsession consumed me. It enthused me. It stopped me sleeping because I didn’t know how much time I had left before the building collapsed. I needed to write about everything. I wanted to record my life and that of my beautiful, tired mother; the life of my courageous, imprisoned father; the life of my young brother whose first experience of life, forty days after he was born was a coup d’etat that triggered a war which has become part of the fabric of his everyday experience. And what about the many lives of grandma Laurisse? how did this proud wife of the village mayor, proud sister to six brothers, educated pillars of society, how did she end up huddled in a damp corner under a five-story building, her heart missing a beat with every loud explosion on the street…
So I began writing my own book of commonplace. I recorded every aspect of our daily life in the city. I wrote about our language, our stories, our passions, our dress sense, the sounds and the smells and the colours that surround us. I wrote about our relationship to the Mediterranean. That warm, calm heavenly blue sea where we bathe, play and sail. That expanse of water with waves lapping against the mountain cliffs in the North and against fine white sands in the South. That sea that gives us a warm breeze and defines us as Mediterranean. I wrote about the Mediterranean whose calm waters enabled boats, loaded with guns and bombs to moor comfortably on its shores; that warm sunshine that illuminated our city allowed the aircraft carrier to aim, ready, fire at us; some soldiers sun bathed while others ensured that the constant bombing kept the citizens indoors….and so I wrote…I recorded recipes of my favourite meals and I interviewed my neighbours in the shelter about theirs.
For many years of my life, even after I left the worn-torn city and moved to the City of Angels, I recorded everything about my existence. The fact that my books were often lost because our homes were invaded, looted, burnt or destroyed did not deter me. I spent a year in the city of pilgrimage, another year in the country of the Pope, another year discovering the city of the twelve arrondissements and a few months admiring the city along the Amstel river before I arrived to the City of Angels where I would settle for a decade. Here I kept more records of life in the Western World.
My first night in my uncle’s home in the downtown was disconcerting. No war. No fear. No worry. Electricity, Check. Water–cold and hot–Check. Food, Check. Telephone line, Check. Could I fall asleep and everything would still be here in the morning? or should I take a quick shower, phone loved ones now, wash my clothes while water and electricity are on, cook the perishable food while the fridge is on? no, no, there is no need. No need to stay up late to record the world around me, tomorrow it will still be here.
And so I went shopping. I bought books and started reading again, and commonplacing. I read books for pleasure enjoying words, pondering ideas and reflecting on my relationship to this land of The Dream. Did I have a dream? a real dream, one that is worth pursuing? the yearning for peace, for security, for stability, for the sun, for grandma’s stories, for hot water baths, for milk in bottles not lumpy and powdery and yellow…these were not dreams. I needed to learn how to dream and what to dream. So I read about other people’s dreams and I recorded them.
And the years passed, and I studied, and graduated, then studied some more and graduated some more. 5 degrees and two decades later, I have a random record of my ordered life. I have random samples and extracts from what I’ve read and what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard. These books of commonplace are less ordered than the ones I wrote in the shelter in the midst of chaos and death but that is because my life has become ordered. So I shift my need for disorder onto the page and I store chaos where I can control it, interpret it and comment on it.
I have now decided to transfer as much of my commonplace books onto my blog…not sure what the process will reveal but I’m intrigued enough to take the time to do it.