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?”