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.


Giordano Bruno: Wheels in Wheels


I’ve been reading Scott Gosnell’s translations of Giordano Bruno, on Gordon’s recommendation over this holiday.  Giordano Bruno was an Italian, a Dominican monk, a university professor, a heretic, a scientist, and probably a magician of some great capacity, and was executed on February 17, 1600.


Caesar cipher (Wikimedia)

He was also an expert on memory palaces, and used the work of Raymond Llull, the 13th century logician, as a basis for developing his own ideas.  At the core of both Llull’s work and Bruno’s extension of that work is a paper machine similar to a Caesar cipher wheel, to find multiple combinations of images and attributes, to invent memory pictures for study and recall… More

Pop-Up Palace of Memory: Alhambra


Originally uploaded by anselm23

Gordon’s post about Al-Andalus from several months ago (update: ok, 2+ years ago!) has been on my mind (he has a great post today about 24 phone apps that can change the way you live and work, and I’ve already downloaded several of them).

Anyway, about Al-Andalus, Gordon writes:

Of course, it’s only an advantage on a group level but that is one of evolution’s many, many grey areas… Grey areas that Darwin himself freely admitted were there.

How does this relate to western magical history?

Because magic is like the gay giraffe. Whenever it has shown up -and it shows up everywhere- historians have brushed it aside. “That’s not a magic book. It’s an astronomy book.” And in the ninth century the difference was what, exactly? (By the way, pause to enjoy the mental image of a historian literally brushing aside a giraffe wearing lipstick and eyeliner.)

Whenever you see an historian referring to an ancient text as medical, mathematical or scientific you need to train your nose to smell out the conjure. Because, chances are, it’s right there under the surface.

So why is this old entry from two+ years ago on someone else’s blog tugging at my mind today? Well, it begins with a plan for a book. A colleague of mine is annoyed with how a specific project in her class has been going for a while, and I had the idea that I could assist her by combining it with the technology from all these pop-up books I’ve been buying about how to make pop-up books.

Pop-up books are an interesting technology. They’re easily made of simple paper, and yet with a combination of geometry and glue, you can make a 2D-ish surface become 3D-ish. The bends in the page become walls and roofs, and when combined with drawing and collage they can become tremendous vehicles for storytelling and imagination. (By names and images are all powers awakened and reawakened).

So of course, I had to provide “proof of concept”. And so I made this little layout as an exercise in creating a Spanish abcedarium, “A est por al-Andalus, y La Alhambra.” My Spanish is terrible, but you get the idea: her students would learn to build pop-up books by building fourteen pages akin to this one — each of which would teach a different pop-up structure, and one of the provinces or regions of España. Interesting proof of concept, no? Teach kids some engineering skills related to hinges, tabs, and folds; some mathematics and geometry; some paper-folding and drawing techniques; and a little bit of a language and culture that may be critical to their long-term survival…

Sounds familiar, no? Sounds an awful lot like grimoires, no? Or maybe more like a particular grimoire, one from al-Andalus at the height of that place’s power. No, we’re not going to brew goat piss and dog’s blood and mercury into an incense that will give eternal life; but maybe we combine art and mechanics and basic materials with a decidedly-odd symbol-system in order to teach kids things they didn’t know they needed to know — things about color and graphic design, about story and engineering, about mathematics and geometry and relationships and right angles, and wars in other times and places, and who are you, really? Are you the sort of person who gets stuff done? Or are you the sort of person who hangs back and lets others do all the work?

A Digression to Magic
I read somewhere that Israel Regardie, the mid-20th century magician, heard that someone was building the Enochian tablets as three-dimensional objects, with physical pyramids on the tablets, carved and painted and symbolified in a way that gave the powers of the tablets. He was horrified, and wondered why anyone would give the Enochian powers that much room — he said they were difficult enough to deal with as two-dimensional beings, much less having actual space in which to move.

My friend Scott says, “A picture is worth a thousand words; but a part is worth a thousand pictures.” And it turns out that a pop-up card can be sigilized just as easily as your notebook. In fact, it’s more so. It’s like squeezing your word-set into a machine: a machine that works every time you pop open the hinge. And so a how-to-build pop-up books pop-up book is potentially a very powerful grimoire indeed, because it will give you techniques for making your sigils three dimensional.

My life has gone into overdrive the last two weeks. The two weeks I’ve spent dabbling with pop-up cards.

Returning to Educational Theory
Gordon says, and I re-quote:

Whenever you see an historian referring to an ancient text as medical, mathematical or scientific you need to train your nose to smell out the conjure. Because, chances are, it’s right there under the surface.

Which means that most of the books in the Design Lab are actually magic books. They’re books about how to make mathematics do your bidding; they’re about how to make healing salves for your hands, and how to learn the stars. They’re about how to draw, and how to learn to memorize, and how to learn to relearn, and how to build machines that talk and fly, and how to cast metal, and how to build mechanisms that can move the world.

I’ve stocked a library for children (and adults) with books that belong in the Restricted Section at Hogwarts. And if your school has a design lab, or a design library, or even a how-to section in the regular library, so have you. You have a library shelf filled with grimoires, that will summon powerful spirits to aid and assist your students.

The Challenge…
Of course, the challenge is that these books must be used. You can’t simply wave students at a group of books on the shelf, and say, “follow the directions in those books to the letter.” It doesn’t work that way.

No, the challenge is that you, the teacher, have to go through the grimoires laboriously, and demonstrate that you are learning the skill. You are learning how to learn. You are building and managing the process that you are hoping to teach them. You are showing students, in front of them, that the skill with knife and glue stick and cutting board and rotary cutter and T-square, can be learned and practiced and improved upon.

… And the Palace
And yet. And yet, to have the grimoire is not enough. The medieval daemon-summoning books had a context, and so do we (whether as wizards like Gary Stager or as teachers like Jason Miller. Or did I mix those up?). One has to go into the palace, too. The Palace of Memory.

None of what I’ve told you about pop-up books is useful if you haven’t got something to say or show. One of my kids learned the basic technique shown in this Alhambra card in two minutes. It’s easy: make two parallel cuts equal in length to each other, perpendicular to the fold line of the page; and then score and fold the “hinges” at the outer edges of the cuts. Congratulations, you now know the basics of the box cut. Cut the upper line slightly longer than the lower, and pinch the triangle: you’ll get a triangle or a roofline.

But. But — currently — he doesn’t have the imaginative chops to take the basic box-cut and turn it into something else.  I make the basic box cut, and the triangle cut, and a world of options opens before me: this can be a house… oh, if I cut the paper right, this can be an arcade of a monastery, or a palace… oh, it can be in Spain… oh it can be the Alhambra, in Andalusia… which makes me think of that entry by Gordon… And as various potentials emerge, the potential for the reënchantment of the world comes along with it.  There’s a whole collection of stories that can be inspired by, and built by, the box-cut… but you must know the stories to tell them this way.

So, if you haven’t been teaching students how to retain information and store it in memory, both visually (by image) and by geography (by place), they’ll only have one piece of the necessary strategy for learning this engineering… this magic. Memory allows kids to have the ingrained symbolic context to read this as the red stone of the Alhambra and the fancy Moorish arches of the Court of Lions, no matter how poorly my penknife executed the work. The green paper becomes the paradis, the walled garden; the blue paper becomes the sky, with the surrounding lands of Al-Andalus forever hidden from the servants within the walls; the white, the mystery; and the square pavilion at the center, the place where the page folds, is the canopied space where imagination runs riot.

WIth the right Palace of Memory, you can say to students, “build me a pop-up book that shows the first seven Presidents of the United States” or “the ten Native American tribes you know” or “Seven stories from the adventures of Lewis and Clark.” You have fewer options if all they know is Pokemon and the prepositions.

Reclaiming Ourselves
Politicians, parents, students, colleagues, and “reformers” expect us teachers to be wizards – capable of protecting students from difficult truths, attacks on their physical bodies, and assaults on their mental capacities.

It sounds like we need to be wizards. So… let’s be wizards.

Via Flickr:
One of my colleagues teaches a foreign language unit on the regions or provinces of Spain. The kids make posters for the various regions. I thought, what if they made pop-up books instead? This is Andalucia, inspired by the Alhambra.

22nd Mansion of the Moon

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22nd Mansion of the Moon
Originally uploaded by anselm23

Today and part of yesterday, the Moon was in the 22nd Mansion: Fortune of the Sacrificers.

This is supposed to be an auspicious day to flee intolerable situations and difficult circumstances, and to break free of limitations. The name of the angel is actually Geliel, and I think the sigil or image turned out pretty well: it shows the interplay of Mercury, Venus and Mars forces pretty well, I think.

Via Flickr:
I wanted to work on this art project. But I don’t have a whiteboard at home. So I made do with a notebook. Here’s the 22nd mansion of the Moon: Geliel, the angel appointed to watch over swift escapes, ends to intolerable situations, rapid changes, and liberation from constraint.

I thought long and hard about drawing this image and then had a brief chat with a friend, who reminded me that I’m not charging the image, just making it.

20th Mansion of the Moon

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20th Mansion of the Moon

Originally uploaded by anselm23

Via Flickr:
Today is actually the 21st mansion. But I wanted the 20th mansion in kids’ notes. Plus, I brought notes about the 20th mansion to school today, and didn’t double-check my astrology program until I got to school. Oops.

Also, the planetary correspondences are wrong: The arrow "has the nature of Mars and the Moon," while the bow itself has the nature of "Mars and Jupiter." I read a promo for a book called Planet Narnia yesterday, which suggests that the Narnian Chronicles are in fact a thematic investigation of how Christology plays out through the seven heavens. Now I want to re-read the books, and play with those ideas myself.

12th mansion – man fighting dragon

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Via Flickr:
The Twelfth Mansion of the Moon, covering late Libra to early Virgo, gives prosperity to harvests and plantations but hinders sailors; and it is good for the betterment of servants, captives and companions.

I think this has to do with friendship. A man who fights dragons needs helpers and friends, and frankly, I need more friends in my life. I know lots of people, I help lots of people, but everybody needs a crew — and I’m of an age where a crew would be helpful. I’m also working on a lot of projects where I need to complete the harvest. So do my students — they need the opportunity to complete what they’ve begun. So, for all these reasons, this was the illuminated image they worked on today.

Again, deeply indebted to Chris Warnock for the book, the Mansions of the Moon

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