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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Sunday, September 25, 2022

Capture, preserve identity in print

They'll soon be here. The holidays'a time to be with family and friends, bundled together with warm familiarity. We feel at ease because they are the ones who know us, as the saying goes, better than we know ourselves.  




But is it true? 




Though these are the good people who have seen us grow and are our closest associates by blood or by choice, they don't really know us. 




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Yes, their eyes study our saddened faces. Their hands rest on our hands. Their lips form the words of condolence or congratulation. Yet they will never know what grows and creeps between the traffic in our minds. For as much as I care for my loved ones, I also realize now how little they know of a subject they have studied my entire life: me. 




If you haven't yet, read just one installment of The New York Times' daily \Portraits of Grief"" in its ""A Nation Challenged"" section. The Times plans to run a brief biography for every victim of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. It's a beautiful gesture, and it will take the Times almost a year to cover them all. How noble, I thought, as I sat in a recent journalism class reading a stack of the portraits. 




Some describe the deceased in the usual ways: a family man, a loving mother, a joy and an angel. Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Indians and British. They tell of kindness to strangers and quiet times at home. They tell of first kisses and last looks. 




Each eulogy, about 200 words, wraps around a mug shot the size of a postage stamp. Some are pedestrian pieces of journalism; others bring even the driest eyes to water. 




Indeed, the only thing I found consistent in the stories was inconsistency. Most of my classmates also found the quality of the biographies'in their writing and their content'to be grossly uneven. How unfair, I thought, to the victims and their voices suddenly silenced. 




Certainly, the friends and families of the deceased tried their best to paint these portraits from memory. They tried to describe to the Times their loved ones' best traits and moments. But what were the victims' innermost thoughts? What were their lives' richest details? Even their most intimate acquaintances cannot know. 




Then all the portraits are filtered through that strange sieve called ""the media."" The task of crafting the stories was divided among the Times' staff, and the varying abilities of the staffers are apparent in the final product. I can't help but pity the grieving families stuck with writers of lesser talent. And the victims, sadly, can only speak through a Times reporter's prose. 




I'm reminded of the Coen Brothers movie I saw last weekend, ""Barton Fink."" The title character is a writer who wants to pioneer a theater about the ""stuff of life""'the everyday experiences of the ""average working stiff.""  




""We all have stories; the hopes and dreams of the common man are as noble as those of any king,"" Fink insists, pontificating to an insurance salesman named Charlie. 




Charlie, an earnest man, tells the writer again and again: ""I could tell you some stories."" 




But Fink continues his tirade, sermonizing about ""real"" theater and demonizing those who insulate themselves from the masses. Fink never asks for Charlie's stories, and so Charlie's ""hope and dreams"" are lost to the world. Clearly we cannot rely on Barton Finks to pen our biographies. 




Thus, with friends and family an inevitably inaccurate source and the media an inevitably inadequate mouthpiece, how can our deepest thoughts survive past our passing? What should we leave as a reminder of our very existence? That is, who should tell our stories? 




Well, you and I. 




The best way to tell those stories, the epics of Fink's ""common man,"" is through something called the ""commonplace book."" The commonplace book, an invention developed by scholars and students of antiquity, is a journal of thought. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the commonplace book is just ""a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement."" 




This week, a graduate student whom I was interviewing introduced me to the concept. She said she had seen a professor fill a bookshelf with commonplace books, and was delighted to see a lifetime of learning captured in print. 




In this book, one would write meditations on readings, observations of nature and reflections on the things all around them. The passages need not be particularly grand. They merely need to be true to oneself. Realize the only things we can possibly leave, for the millions who will never meet us, are tracks of an intellect'the thoughts, great and small, of a human being endowed with a mind and the ability to express all its contents. 




If this fall's events have not yet stirred you to think through a wider window, it is time now. Awareness of the world begins from within, and starting this holiday season, take the time to wonder, to write and to share. 




And remember'a commonplace book entry doesn't have to be especially deep, uncommon or coherent. It can even be about a conversation with a graduate student, some reflections on a movie, an experience in journalism class or, maybe, a column read in a campus newspaper. 




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