Wake butterfly –
it’s late, we’ve miles
to go together.
I am with you,
The Day 8 prompt for Robert Lee Brewer’s Poem A Day challenge was “write back to a dead poet.” I knew instantly that I would write to Basho, the only dead poet whose works I know, the haiku poet who helped turn my mid-life crisis into a mid-life awakening.
The year before our final relocation was an extremely trying one. We’d been on the move for 15 years, unsettled and with stress in our hearts. We were in our late 30s, with two kids, not knowing where we would end up, or how we would pay for our career decisions, numbly going through the motions of life, waiting for whatever would happen next. I grappled with an identity crisis – what the hell was I doing with my life? What in life matters to me? Who do I want to be when I grow up? Who am I now? I was lost, and despite its relative mildness, that Minnesota winter was a punishing one.
And then came Basho. I’m not sure I how I found him. When I re-read Elegance of the Hedgehog recently, I noticed that he appears briefly there. Or maybe I just found him after my poet friend, Greg Watson, showed me his own poems, and the world of poetry was opened to me. Poetry had never spoken to me before, but Greg’s did.
I remember a slow day at the book store, working the back registers, and, those registers being near the poetry section and all, I wandered over and browsed. I had already bought Greg’s book, and I wanted more. More of something that would make me feel. I remember specifically looking for haiku, though I don’t remember why. I pulled all the haiku, including a slim volume called On Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho. None of the others did a whole lot for me, but Basho’s tiny book? I devoured it, itching to mark it up with my pen, to draw stars next to my favorites, like
Spring rain –
a crystal stream.
It says so much, and with so few words. Each word is vital, evocative. And all together, they paint a moving picture, and make a burbling sound, and smell like wet forest, and taste cold on your tongue. When I arrived at the haiku at the top of this post – Wake butterfly – it’s late, we’ve miles to go together. – I counted the money in my wallet and I bought the book.
For several weeks, I read and re-read Basho’s haiku. I didn’t read the introduction, I didn’t read analysis, I didn’t try to write my own. His words were timeless, and weightless, sensitive, and in harmony with nature, and they tugged me gently toward truths that resonated with me, that I felt in my core. Art can do this to you. His poetry was gentle, encouraged me to take it slow, and through his haiku, I remembered the wonder I feel in the woods, by a stream, lying on a sun-warmed stone. Watching leaves fall, standing side by side with my husband, silent and at peace. I felt the deep and simple beauty in Basho’s haiku as it nudged me, quietly, awake.
It wasn’t until the kids and I were about to make our trip across country that a haiku rose out of me. Since then, I read somewhere that when writing, “each haiku should be a thousand times on the tongue.” And I think that first haiku of mine took nearly that many tries. I knew the image in my mind, the feeling I wanted to convey, of my transition from crisis to awakening, of the kids and me packing up our lives on a great adventure, an ending and a beginning, with no idea what was in store for us. But the words! As a verbose writer, it required great discipline to distill my idea into something so spare – six words, three lines, two pieces of punctuation:
Summer highway –
in the wind.
And so I began to rewrite my life. Once that haiku delivered itself, I learned more about the haiku form, and many more followed. The practice of plucking basic words became a form of meditation for me. With haiku, I am present. I am alive. I take a notebook outside, or in the case of Haiku from the road I have one in the passenger seat, and I am part of the beauty of the world. Selecting words requires care and deliberation, a respect for the light, the leaves, the droplets of water. I want very much to capture their lightness, and the lightness they make me feel, and each moment of that aware observation results in an awakening, and peace in my soul.
It turns out that Basho was a renaissance man in the world of haiku, reviving a rigid art form by breaking the rules, which is probably why his poems resonate so much with me and feel so fresh, even after 400 years. He concentrated on evoking a lightness (karumi) with his haiku, and a sense of solitary contentedness (sabi), and an appreciation for the commonplace (wabi). Those were his rules: karumi, sabi, and wabi. Not the syllabic rules we usually think of with haiku (three lines – 5/7/5 syllables). Basho considered the 17-syllable constraint to be too binding, resulting in artificial, forced poetry, and he focused instead on a freer form of traditional haiku structure: two elements – a condition (usually a natural, ordinary event) and a perception, a quiet “realization of a profoundly felt truth”¹ – separated by a break, either a “cutting” word or a mark of punctuation.
What I felt in his haiku, and what turned my life around, were those quiet realizations of profoundly felt truths. Truth: my core values include beauty, serenity, art, the natural world. Truth: these things make me feel, very deeply. Truth: Ditto language. Truth: despite stress, troubles, worries, a rock is a rock, a tree is a tree, there is beauty in the world, and we can find solace in that. Truth: it makes me happy to think of myself like a butterfly.
I’m still a complete amateur when it comes to writing haiku. But for once, I’m not concerned about being imperfect. I love the process, and the joy it brings me to practice. I am learning who I am and what is important to me.
But best of all, I am awake.
¹Basho. (1985). On Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho (L. Stryk, Trans.). London: Penguin Group.
5 thoughts on “How haiku saved me from a mid-life crisis”
Oh glory, I can’t quite express how much this post spoke to me. Really lovely. I was a poet in college (more of an essayist/novelist now, in between laundry and other mommy work) and have loved many poets, dreamed of being them even. About twenty years ago I dreamed that I rose out of the waters as Lucille Clifton, with a golden robe and a golden staff and writing truth all over the world. I didn’t know of Basho though, until I was reading the Magic Treehouse to my son. Reading a book to my son i discovered Basho…crazy, no? After reading your post, I’ll count the money in my billfold and see if I can find him at my favorite used bookstore. Thanks.
I hope you have enough money soon. This little book is such a treat. Thank you so much for letting me know how much this spoke to you. I really appreciate your comment – it was a big post for me. And I would love to read the Magic Treehouse book! Do you know which one it is? We have tons of them that I can look through when we move and unpack.
I love your blog, by the way 🙂
I think it is Red Dragon at Red Dawn. There are so many engaging books out there for kids now. Between Marcia Williams illustrated books, The Magic Tree House series and Sczieska’s Time Warp Trio my 6 year old son has discovered his love of history.
And thanks for loving my blog. It’s a new and meaningful endeavor for me.
Thank you for sharing this. I know nothing about poetry and no poem has ever shaped my life, however, I should spend some time with the greats. Keep it up!
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