June 5, 2013

The Poetry of the Everyday

In my high school sophomore English class, our desks were separated along the two long sides of the room facing each other, half of us with our backs to windows that looked out into a courtyard.  A walkway passed between the desks, and it was here one morning after the second bell rang at 7:35, that my teacher stood and read What the Living Do by Marie Howe. Before the last lines I was in my seat, facing two different boys I had crushes on, crying before 8AM.

That was seventeen years ago. How little we change, really. I thought of this recently when I climbed onto the brown leather seat of my bike and was filled with the same thrill I had on the sidewalks of Drexel Drive, streamers flying from my handle bars. We love what we love, and what we hold dear we hold dear, from the first moment on and on.

And so it is with Marie Howe. Each Friday, I have a long stretch of rote, yet time-consuming tasks to accomplish at work. I listen to On Being each week while I go through them. And guess who was on recently, speaking in a voice I never imagined would be so round and robust. She read her poems, and I was back in moment just like that one in 1996, breath caught in my throat like so much rushing life. Listen to it.

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

This is why I love On Being so much, and why, when I am programming modules on a webpage while I listen, it is an especially welcome distraction. I imagine Krista Tippett sitting in a dark studio with her guest, and Minnesota’s bright snow-sun or mosquitoes outside the room. There they talk about what we don’t always have time or energy or even the language to ask when we’re meeting someone for a coffee. What’s at the heart of meaning in your life? How do you create beauty and change and delight?

Or: Folding sheets, rinsing glasses, mustard sandwiches. What makes a thing suffused with so much more than it is? Why does it matter so much?

Later in the talk, Marie explains an assignment she gives her writing students. They must write ten observations. No metaphors, no interpretation, just life as it is.

It’s very hard for them. Tell me what you saw this morning, like in two lines. I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. But to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason. We want to say it was like this, it was like that, we want to look away. And then they say, well there’s nothing important enough, and that’s the whole thing. The this, whatever it is.

Weeks later, everything’s changed.

The fourth week or so, they come in and clinkety, clank, clank, clank, onto the table pours all this stuff, and it so thrilling. I mean it is thrilling. Everybody can feel it. Everyone is just like wow, you know. The slice of apple, and then that gleam of the knife, and the sound of the trashcan closing, and the maple tree outside, and the blue jay. I mean it almost comes clanking into the room. And it just, it’s just amazing, you know […] On the fifth or sixth week, I say OK, use metaphors. And they don’t want to. They don’t know how. Why would I? Why would I compare that to anything when it’s itself?

Why are the details of our world so important? Why do I love Marie Howe’s poetry, and care so much about the table set with low candles and sweet williams in jam jars, the begonias I planted  on Mother’s Day, and the streaks of mud still on my calf two days later? January’s soft-bright winter light, that the coffee is hot in its little white cup, and that the cherry trees down the block erupted in ruffles of prom dress pink and a few weeks ago turned into a thrash of green leaves just as suddenly.

Here’s the best I’ve come up: our lives are speeding forward on a timeline we may or may not find agreeable. Either way, there will never be a moment just like this one. Just as soon as we notice the light hitting the water glass in three places, we’ll be off: onto the late train, the to do list, the minutes on the clock. But if we can first just notice that thing, whatever little reality it is, the world around us becomes more animated and our connection to it moored there for a moment. Clinkety clank clank clank. Is that grace? I don’t know. Whatever it is, when I notice it, I feel alive from hair to heel.

Which brings me to this, as close to gentle instruction as I can come. I was returning home to Brooklyn after planting those begonias in a shady spot in front of my mom’s porch. We were saying goodbye in the dark cool of the TV room. “Don’t take anything for granted,” she told me as we hugged, and I answered into her shoulder, “That’s hard.” And she said, “Enjoy. It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

Related Posts with Thumbnails


  • Amy: I love your writing, always, but this…this took my breath away.5 years ago

  • Felicity: This “sacrament of the present moment” is exactly what stood out to me the most during my poetry studies this semester. Beautiful.5 years ago

  • Sizzle: This is beautiful- thank you.5 years ago

  • Claudia M: I love Marie Howe too. What a lovely post. Thank you!5 years ago

  • Anne: Beautiful writing, beautiful thoughts. I did not know about Maire Howe or On Being before this. Thank you.5 years ago

  • Kristina Strain: Wow. That’s all.5 years ago

  • Laureen: Oh Sarah, such an incredibly wise and beautifully written post. I think I’ll be stopping by throughout the day to remember and reread.5 years ago

  • Kelly Jeanne: Oh my. Yes. Just yes.5 years ago

  • Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams: This is so lovely and wise. I have you to thank for introducing me to Marie Howe (when you posted “What the Living Do” a while back). And these words – of hers and yours – are breathtaking.5 years ago

  • Melissa @ Hilltophausfrau: Love this. Interesting perspective…and great intro to a writer I’d never heard of! Great to hear your “voice” again…5 years ago

  • Amanda: Thank you for so perfectly articulating why I love On Being! Great post.5 years ago

  • Sarah Von: This is one of my best things I’ve read in ages <35 years ago

  • Alyssa: What a brilliantly amazing post. I love how you can bring us all back to the real essence of life with just one post.
    You have an amazing gift.
    I look forward to your next writing as soon as I finish reading the present one, as I’m sure we all do.
    Thank you, Sarah.5 years ago

  • Wow. Thanks for all the kind feedback. I’ve been working on this for weeks (hence all the silence), scratching my head and struggling to say what I really meant… It feels like it finally came together.

    Isn’t Marie Howe just the best?5 years ago

  • Nina Khosla: I love to notice too…5 years ago

  • Tracy: Sarah – If you haven’t, you should read The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. The refrain of the light hitting the glass in three places reminds me of her similar way of capturing the same feeling of glory in small moments.5 years ago

  • Shannah: Just read “What the Living Do” and cried over my egg salad sandwich. I guess that’s what the living do! I’m pregnant, so a little emotional at the moment. 🙂 What a beautiful poem!5 years ago

  • Doris: Oh my God, Sarah, I don’t know how you do it and how you manage to say all of this so beautifully. I am deeply moved by your way with words. This is so beautifully written. I will come back to re-read as well, it takes more than one read to take in the beauty and wisdom of this post. Thank you, you are absolutely amazing.5 years ago

  • Dana: So very lovely, Sarah.5 years ago

  • Designing Diva: Lovely post. I will have to check out Marie Howe’s work soon….This reminds me of “The Magic of Ordinary Days” –
    watch it when you have a chance – it’s a magical story!5 years ago

  • Blank Sheets, Full Glasses | Taste Life Twice: […] Since we’re rounding the corner of the first week of June, there’s also the newsletter hanging over my head. What to showcase, curate, gather up for a fun romp and some well-meaning reminders about living the good life? […]5 years ago

  • molly: Sarah,

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but this, again: thank you for being here. For doing what you do. For shining a light. On soaring words (HOW did I miss Howe?). On the vital ordinary. On muddy calves, and wise women, and, well, just showing up.

    I am so grateful for your presence here.

    Thank you.

    Molly5 years ago

  • Crystal: Beautiful, Sarah! Just beautiful. Mindfulness is such an under-rated state of being. We’re such a dynamic species; always reaching, striving, grasping for the next thing that I think we sometimes forget to just be. Be still. Be now. Be present. I know that when my time comes and my consciousness unspools, in and amongst all the hellos and good-byes, births and deaths, loves and losses will be the memory of that perfect October day when the sky was impossibly blue and the palmier we snacked on were so crisp and cinnamony and the funny little pumpkin we picked from the patch. Thank you for the gentle reminder that those moments of bliss are always there, it’s up to me to inhabit them and mark them and to not let them slip away, unappreciated.5 years ago

  • Patricia: What a beautiful post and lovely reminder! I had to stop and think for a moment of when I just really noticed everything around me without comparison.

    And I also think that’s a brilliant writing exercise. It’s something I think I may give a go. Thank you for sharing and for the reminder to just notice.5 years ago

  • Remembering Spain | Dinosaur Sweaters: […] my friend Sarah blogged about everyday things suffused with meaning. She wrote about an assignment the poet Marie Howe […]5 years ago

  • Cathy: I was inspired by your post to go find the interview with Marie Howe on On Being. It was wonderful and now I’m hooked on OnBeing! Thanks.4 years ago

Add a comment