Commonplace book

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I’ve been experimenting with commonplacing. In the 1600s through the early 1900s, the commonplace book was a system of gathering texts and quotations in one place, usually a blank notebook, for the purpose of recollecting information and remembering key ideas about virtue, truth, health, leadership or what have you.

Doctors used them for recording “pearls”, key ideas about a pair or triad of symptoms and a specific diagnosis. Politicians used them to note useful quotations for speeches, and historians used them to categorize events and trends in the age before statistical analysis made more nuanced discussions possible.

I’m using a Moleskine/Evernote-branded softcover notebook to record poetry that I’m trying to memorize; pieces go into the book in the order that I’ve memorized them or intend to commit them to memory.  I attended a Burns Night supper in January last year; and I made an effort to memorize Robert Burns’ Epigram on Bad Roads, which is the first poem in the book, as you can see.

“I’ve now arrived —
thank all the gods!
Through pathways both rough and muddy;
a certain sign that makin’ roads
is no’ this people’s study.
Though I’m not with Scripture crammed
I know the Bible says
that heedless sinners shall be damn’d —
unless they mend their ways.”

It was nice and useful to memorize a funny poem for a change, instead of a serious one.  Most of my poetry tends to be pretty serious; and I tend to memorize serious poetry.  It’s a useful reminder that I should from time to time work on funny poetry as a form — both to memorize, and to write.  Something to practice!img_5468

Further on in the book, in the last three pages or so, is an index page listing the poetry and other elements I’ve put in the book.  Here’s part of that index, listing on page 1 the Epigram on Bad Roads, and Langston Hughes, and John Keats, and so on.   William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence takes up pages 7-11. You can see that I’m working on memorizing quite a lot of Thomas Taylor’s translations of the Orphic Hymns, as well, and the Aleister Crowley hymn for Coffee (not Covfefe).  The index continues; I’ve listed all of the pages, even if I haven’t filled them yet.  It’s rather more similar to the Digital Ambler’s Vademecum, really, or an Enchiridion, than a true commonplace book. A true commonplace book should not only have a table of contents at the beginning, but also an index by subject, such as hope or valor or kindness or coffee. Such an index would help one find appropriate material within the book more rapidly and easily.

img_5469Not everything in the book is poetic. Two pages include a list of all of the U.S. Presidents in order, which I’m working on memorizing, not just with their names but also their years.  It’s occurred to me frequently that this list serves a useful purpose as a time-counter; it’s much easier to remember when something occurred in time if you remember who was president at the same time.  That’s part of the reason why I also have the similar list of the Kings and Queens of England a few pages on from this — The English royal list extends back in time to 1066, and it creates a useful parallel list for European affairs.  Maybe I should also work on the list of the Emperors of Japan…


A Talk on Memory Palaces


Yesterday, at the District 53 Toastmasters Spring Conference (part of Toastmasters International), I delivered a talk on the Palace of Memory technique. These were my working notes and my slideshows.


A New Type of Writing?


Kalagni posted a piece on her blog just recently that left me awed.  It was, in essence, a series of short sentences, each of which contained a link to a story or news item. Some of them came from the Onion, a parody news site, while others came from reputable sources.  It’s worth a look, even if you’re not particularly into magic, meditation, or related issues.  And, I felt that I could discern a story within them — a thread of what her thinking was, and what was on her mind.

No, what struck me was the degree to which she made a sort-of frame of ideas that formed a narrative of sorts about what she was thinking, and what was flowing through her mind.  And I realized that I’ve admired writers who can do this easily, like Gordon, who integrate links from all over the web into their writing — so that you can follow up on the the story that they’re telling you.

I don’t really know that I know how to do that.  I mean, it’s not like the web-resources pages that I used to put together on Canossa or the Roman Army or Galileo or other historical events or figures. For one thing, those are just web-links; there’s very little of my own writing in them, and there’s no effort to tell a larger story.  And, I largely abandoned that format because no one really read them.

But then this article on teaching evolution at the University of Kentucky comes to mind, and I think maybe I can write something in this “let me lead you through my thought process” style.  After all, if students from one of the most Creationist states in the country can be led into a decent understanding of the work of Charles Darwin and his successors, then maybe there’s hope for my ability to change.  Even so, I find myself wondering if this new form of writing is something that I’l be good at.  Some of it, though, comes down to being willing to silence our inner critic.

So, what am I thinking about these days?  Well, I’m trying to find my own way of describing what John Michael Greer calls the view from the outside.  Or maybe, the somewhat different view from the inside, as these Indiana prisoners discovered. Or the viewpoint that becomes possible when video cameras come into spaces formerly only recorded in an audio- or even printed-text-only format:

Like, for example, my classroom.  My classroom is an unrecorded space; and the times that it’s been a recorded space have felt personally disastrous to me.  It doesn’t mean they were disastrous, but they felt that way. I’m sure I could get used to it in time, of course. Why didn’t I like it?  For one, I don’t think I look good on camera; for another, it’s upsetting to not have control of your identity; and for another it’s easy to be made to look the fool when someone else controls the start, stop and pause buttons.  The efforts to establish classrooms as recorded spaces has not always gone well.  Now, I’m not threatening some Monsanto or Big Oil lobbyist with a requirement to drink pesticides or fracking-region groundwater.  But I have to wonder, cui bono if my classroom is recorded? The sellers of the cameras, certainly.  My students? Me? Cameras might benefit conformists, but not outsiders.  They benefit from being able to find their own spaces and carve their own niches.

And that’s were my time has been spent lately. On things and matters quite outside the traditional realm of traditional teaching, like on building workbenches and tables. Or learning to make scroll sawn gears. or a metal foundry, or how to make molds without fussing with lost-wax techniques. Or building French cleats, and finding out what they are. These are not the common concerns of a teacher who started off as an ancient history teacher and writing tutor. 🙂

Of course, I am reading. Like any good magician, I have my grimoire close at hand… well aware of what I want to be able to do at the very end of my studies, and knowing that I’m not very far along the learning curve.  (Well, to be fair, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest isn’t exactly a grimoire, but I do have one of those close at hand, as well. Two, in fact, if you count Caveman Chemistry.  Well, three or even four, but I’m not really ready to these quite yet.

But in truth, there’s really only one way to learn HOW to do something, and that’s to make a lot of pots and learn from each of them.  Or to make a lot of tool chests, and learn from each of them. Or a lot of ceremonial sashes, and to learn from those (is it cheating if I throw in a link to my own website?).

But underlying all of this is a recognition that, even if the internet is not really here to stay, that online learning has an underlying methodology and discipline to it, and it’s important to recognize it.  It’s also important to recognize that there’s a key distinction between knowing about some subject, and knowing how to do some skill or action (I am learning a lot about carpentry, but I’m not very good at carpentering yet, if you follow the distinction). Reading all the books in the world won’t help you do it if you don’t actually go to the workbench or the sewing machine or the alchemist’s workshop and do it.  Even brewing mead requires a little bit of effort.

(I’m not sure that there’s a story in here yet, either of the refinement of Gordon’s, or of the shorthand of Kalagni’s… but I have a sense of what I’m trying to do, even if you don’t.  Further refinement and experimentation to follow).

Poem: For the Mighty Dead


composed 25 October 2014, for the Earthspirit Community’s perpetual but non-exclusive use.  

The Earthspirit Community, an earth-based spiritual group in western Massachusetts, asked me to compose a poem of invocation for the ancestors, for their annual ‘Open Samhain’ event yesterday (Sunday) evening in Northampton, MA.

All you Mighty Dead, silent and unseen,
now gather at this crossroads of the worlds,
to walk these barren fields that once grew green
ere changing to the hues of harvest golds.
Come, you Mighty Dead, you sepulchral throng,
you company of those who’ve gone before.
Come, ye shades, ye ghosts, ye ancestors bright:
This time is yours; in this place, you belong.
For we invite you from the farther shore,
and ask your presence in this place, this night.

Come, Honored Dead of our own kin and blood,
fathers of our fathers who labored long
hammering hot steel, digging in cold mud,
loving, fighting — sometimes right, often wrong.
Mothers of mothers, across Time’s oceans,
birthing children, and spinning out the thread
of the long lineage back to the start
of our kindred: we greet with devotions
aunts and uncles of our own family’s dead,
those buried and burned closest to our heart.

We turn to the heroes, renowned in name,
both makers of myths and doers of deed:
we call you, lawgivers of honest fame;
soldiers who brought peace, who in times of need
brought safety to the people and the land;
sages and inventors, whose art and skill
gave insight, light and life; healers who found
the cures; teachers who spoke truth with command;
musicians whose harmonies reach us still.
We name and call you to this sacred ground!

And likewise, the Nameless, in teeming crowds,
the ancestors of every tribe and race,
the spirit-host that fills each street, and floods
the city square, and the remotest place,
and every wood and furrow in between —
that undiscovered country without breath,
whose subjects made language, and kindled flame,
the  first to sharpen steel with edge so keen;
the first to laugh — the first to laugh at death;
the first to love — the first to speak Love’s name.

Come, Mighty Dead, our families, heroes, friends.
Impart you wisdom to us in the dark.
For your presence frightens us, and yet mends
our hearts much, for wounds from Death’s scythe cuts sharp.
Now we must choose, for the hour is here:
a bloom, to feed the dearly-departed;
a stone to seek guidance from ghostly guest;
a seed, as an oath to an ancient ear.
With flowers, seeds, or stones are paths charted,
to claim the aid of the dead in their rest.

And when we, the Living, depart this hall,
you Ancestors, return to your custom:
between us and you stands an ancient wall,
a border to which we all are destined.
We’ll stand on our side, and you on yours,
until our turn comes to cross that bridge of sighs.
Great Ancestors, aid us, but not so near.
As this rite ends, retreat behind your doors,
and do not linger. With gentle good-byes,
depart from us — knowing we hold you dear.

Notes (below the cut): More

Magical Book Review: Advanced Planetary Magic


I’m always slightly reluctant to break radio silence about magic on my own blog. This blog started out as a blog about teaching and learning in middle school and there are some readers who disapprove of me coming out and saying “I practice magic”, and I’ve lost other readers completely. It’s always a risk, balancing the daily tai chi work against the school stuff against the magical and ritual work. Oh well.

I’ve been an off-and-on student of magic for a long time now, more than a decade I’d say — the art of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. In all of my work, there’s been five things that I’ve found that really work for me, reliably again and again: tai chi, DOGD-style druidry, Rufus Opus‘s brand of Hermetic ritual, and Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery. Even the book on Tantric Thelema, which I so liked, has not influenced my work in magical studies nearly as much as Jason has. So when Jason announced he had a new book out, and effectively a new kind of book, on advanced planetary magic, I bought it. I especially like that it comes with links to audio files that demonstrate pronunciations.

And I have to say, this is an elegant little collection of magic. For one thing, as Jason says, it’s advanced. Yes, he includes the calculations for the planetary hours, and lets you know which hours are which and why; yes, he explains Chaldean order of planets, and why it matters. That’s in dozens of other books.

No, what’s valuable here is the wealth of ritual material for daily and even hourly practice. Jason has quite cleverly linked reasonable and useful seals for the planetary forces (and these seals have hung in my own temple space, so I feel that they work) with a series of forty-nine calls: calls that cover every astrological hour of day and night in a week (and he explains how to spread the work over two weeks).

I just bought the book. I have had the chance to recite two or three calls: not much; and to read cover to cover, because it’s short. But I can already say that this is a rich collection of material to dive into. It’s sometimes said that the magician’s four powers are memory, imagination, courage and will. Jason has created a collection of magic that draws on these four powers in new and intriguing ways, and useful ways as well. But more than that: the practice of this planetary magic will have many effects, but the most important effect is that it will awaken those four powers in you. You’ll be taking a step into a larger universe, and you’ll find yourself learning, growing, and projecting powers in unexpected ways you could never have imagined.

In Progress: “Black Pillar”

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I’m almost done with this second painting in the “black pillar” and “white pillar” series. I’ve put a coat of varnish on the inside/right side of the painting, so it will have a bit of a sheen or glimmer to it. I plan to do the same to the “White Pillar” too. I still haven’t decided if either painting needs any texts around time. My original thought was no, now I’m leaning toward “yes”, which means picking those texts and a contrasting color to paint them in.

Tai Chi Y2D67: on the grass

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This morning I was teaching an hour-long workshop, and I was hugely sleep-deprived. I’d had coffee too late in the day, so that I could work on a poster for today’s session…. But then I was up until 3:30am, tossing & turning.

So, when I awoke officially, I didn’t dare go back to sleep. I might have missed my workshop. I drove down early (so I wouldn’t get lost) and did my tai chi at the workshop site.

I’ve been badly affected the last few days by the pollen counts. I never get seasonal allergies — or at least, not until now. Argh. The last few days I’ve been a snot machine. And it’s not been pleasant. Nothing has really worked to keep my breathing passages open.

Today though was finally better. Things eased up a bit as I did tai chi in the garden at the workshop site. And now that I’ve had a nap and some food, post-workshop, I think that maybe my allergenic reaction is finally slowing down. Thank goodness.

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