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Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small—
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard.

–Kay Ryan

I’ve featured the work of current Poet Laureate Kay Ryan on this blog before. This poem captured me completely when I ran into it quite by accident.

But you know how that goes. Our minds are enormous filtering machines, sifting through the chaotic onslaught of information and stimuli to find that one piece of relevance, that one statement that brings a semblance of order, a sense of patterning.

I call this a “chop wood, carry water” poem. From its mystical tradition, the phrase was the answer the koan double question: What do you do before enlightenment, and what do you do after enlightenment? For many of us, chop wood, carry water is the mantra that describes creative labor, whatever its form.

In her small book, The Quotidian Mysteries, Kathleen Norris discusses the concept of acedia, a term that means spiritual torpor or apathy:

Any person called to a vocation that is inner-directed and requires one to spend a good deal of time alone is subject to periodic attacks of acedia. The writing process is notoriously cyclical—and dangerous if one is prone to either mania or depression or both. There is the “up” of an inspired bout of writing and a “down” of seemingly fruitless labor and revisions, and times when one is incapable of writing at all. When I was a very young writer, I hungered for more, always more. But deep down, I had so little faith in myself, let alone in my vocation as a writer, that I saw each poem as potentially my last. Having invested my psychic and emotional energies in a romantic notion of “inspiration.” I would panic whenever the ability to write seemed to leave me. Now, rather than succumb to despair during my dry spells, I generally employ a prairie metaphor and think of it as a lifesaver, a dying down to the roots during a drought. Although the grasses look dead, they are merely dormant, and the slightest bit of moisture will occasion a change.

How rejuvenating to read Norris’ idea, that the retreat to the roots is in fact a lifesaving strategy. And what a redemptive gift, reminding us that just the “slightest bit of moisture” changes everything.