A poem about nothing much happening. At least that’s what it seems when we first read this beautiful poem about a day in the life of a housewife, mother and wife. The daily rhythms of her life are like those of countless others like her across the world. Kids, school, baby, housework and so on. And, yet, those daily, routine moments, vastly different as they may be for each of us, men and women, is where we live out our lives, of course. All the other things that happen, wonderful or otherwise, are, eventually, digressions from the ordinary.
So, how often do we step back and just observe this everyday, ordinary life with mindfulness? Today’s poem, by Barbara Crooker, has a speaker who does that in a most engaging way. So, sit back and savor the lines slowly. Explore them in the context of the norms of your own life, different as they may be. And, let yourself appreciate that taken-for-granted quality, “ordinary”, for the extraordinary blessing that it really is.
I am also reminded of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s words from her landmark essay, ‘Modern Fiction‘ from the collection, ‘The Common Reader I‘. She was writing about how fiction writers need to consider the details of the ordinary day, but, I think it works for non-writers too because it speaks to the fact that even ordinary days are differentiated based on how and where we choose to highlight a moment of importance.
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit?
Back to our poem, which is from a beautiful collection also titled, ‘Ordinary Life‘. Sadly, at this present time, it is out of print. But, you might try your local library or check out some other collections by Barbara Crooker.
The opening line of “This was a day when nothing happened” is actually a very interesting setup because, with the rest of the poem, as the speaker unfolds her daily tasks/events chronologically, they play off that first line in showing us the wonder of what does actually happen: kids getting to school without any trouble; a bright morning with time to spend playing with her youngest, whose mealtime isn’t problematic and eases smoothly into naptime; being able to complete outstanding home tasks without a hitch; even having the time to then sit back and enjoy a cup of tea and just be in the moment, watching the birds outside; getting the evening meal on as the children return from school; the evening meal, together as a family, saying grace and having a proper conversation; kids going off to do their homework (wonder of wonders) and the baby amusing itself so that there is a quiet, together moment for the couple to steal a sweet kiss after dinner and in the light of a crescent moon.
All this is described so artfully. Notice how the rhythms of her activity descriptions are brisk at the day’s beginning, pausing in the middle with words like “sat” and “watched”, and then slowing down, at the end of the day, with words like “drift” and “slow”. Also, consider how the speaker describes the love that binds them all together, so that the children’s chatter on returning from school is “the murmur of their stories dappling the air” and how they wait for the father’s arrival, “we listen together for your wheels on the drive”.
Now, look deeper into the next few lines: “but this has been a day of grace / in the dead of winter, / the hard cold knuckle of the year, / a day that unwrapped itself / like an unexpected gift,” They reveal that it is, in fact, not a normal kind of day in the speaker’s ordinarily difficult life. To experience such a relatively effortless day in the middle of a hard winter is like getting an surprise gift so that even the stars seem to be turning on like celebratory lights to brighten up the dark night. Throughout the poem, there have been hints all along – e.g. how the children didn’t complain, as they normally would have, about going to school; how the speaker finally got to an overdue cleaning task and so on. This day is, indeed, a rare one with its little, unforeseen victories.
Again, note the poet’s mastery. That word, “grace”, shows up in its second occurrence. So, like the tradition of asking for blessing or giving thanks before a meal, it’s as if the speaker is giving thanks for the startling bliss that this day, with all its seemingly unimportant moments, has turned out to be. Also, in taking us from the concrete, finite images of remains of the eaten chicken to the abstract, infinite beauty of the stars in the sky, a beautiful connection is made between the keenly-observed, momentary pleasures from a single day to a greater, ethereal sense of joy in one’s ordinary life.
The repetitiveness of certain daily occurrences in our lives almost makes us undertake or experience them as automatons. And, yes, there is a necessity for that because, if we were to intensely experience everything as if for the first time, it would be too overwhelming and taxing for our poor human brains. Yet, some of us are afforded the luxury of being able to pause and consider the rhythms and cadences of a single day, find what makes it different from the rest and appreciate it for what it gives us before it slips into the oblivion of the past. Those single, precious moments of grace chanced upon here or there, through the course of our day, are the most brilliant and remarkable discoveries, the sheer poetry, of our ordinary lives.
This was a day when nothing happened
the children went off to school
without a murmur, remembering
their books, lunches, gloves.
All morning, the baby and I built block stacks
in the squares of light on the floor.
And lunch blended into naptime,
I cleaned out kitchen cupboards,
one of those jobs that never gets done,
then sat in a circle of sunlight
and drank ginger tea,
watched the birds at the feeder
jostle over lunch’s little scraps.
A pheasant strutted from the hedgerow,
preened and flashed his jeweled head.
Now a chicken roasts in the pan,
and the children return,
the murmur of their stories dappling the air.
I peel carrots and potatoes without paring my thumb.
We listen together for your wheels on the drive.
Grace before bread.
And at the table, actual conversation,
no bickering or pokes,
And then, the drift into homework.
The baby goes to his cars, drives them
along the sofa’s ridges and hills.
Leaning by the counter, we steal a long slow kiss,
tasting of coffee and cream.
The chicken’s diminished to skin & skeleton,
the moon to a comma, a sliver of white,
but this has been a day of grace
in the dead of winter,
the hard cold knuckle of the year,
a day that unwrapped itself
like an unexpected gift,
and the stars turn on,
into the winter night.
~ Barbara Crooker, from ‘Ordinary Life ‘