Unveiling the Sacred in the Everyday: Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Daily”
By Crystal Hurd
It’s 5:30 A.M. and my alarm announces the arrival of another day with a blaring staccato. A wayward hand emerges from beneath layers of blankets and smacks the snooze bar, purchasing an additional nine minutes of pre-ritual solitude. But moments later, my metaphorical rooster is crowing again. I sigh and grab my athletic shoes for another session of Zumba, but not before packing the lunches. After Zumba, I take my three dogs outside and give my dog Eppy her thyroid pill. Shower. Work for several hours. Home. Dogs out again. Cook dinner. Feed dogs and humans. Collapse into bed about 8:30 or 9.
And then I start all over again the next morning.
For the last few years, I have been struggling with the pressure and time consumption of daily tasks. It’s not that they are particularly overwhelming. It’s not that I detest housework. Simply, I become exhausted. Worn down. Eroded. Small jobs pile upon my already long inventory of expectations and responsibilities. I often rush around and then there’s a nagging, suppressed resentment that sets in. It tugs at me and repeats a script of discouragement. When the cup is emptied and only partially filled, then you begin the following day with merely half a cup. After so many weeks of being semi-quenched, aggravation arouses. I mutter that I need rest. I’m short with people. I complain that others are “pulling at me and there’s nothing left for me.” I need you. I really need you, they plead. And I relent. General maintenance is what a home requires, but I feel so helpless when the dishes peek over the sink wall or the clothes hamper is belching socks and slacks.
Two years ago, I began teaching Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Daily” and began to see my tasks not as burdens but, with a poet’s acute awareness, something which in its quiet reverence reveals deeper aspects of life.
These shriveled seeds we plant,
corn kernel, dried bean,
poke into loosened soil,
cover over with measured fingertips
These T-shirts we fold into
perfect white squares
These tortillas we slice and fry to crisp strips
This rich egg scrambled in a gray clay bowl
This bed whose covers I straighten
smoothing edges till blue quilt fits brown blanket
and nothing hangs out
This envelope I address
so the name balances like a cloud
in the center of sky
This page I type and retype
This table I dust till the scarred wood shines
This bundle of clothes I wash and hang and wash again
like flags we share, a country so close
no one needs to name it
The days are nouns: touch them
The hands are churches that worship the world
I realized that the rather mundane activities in the poem have a sacred quality about them. One of the aspects of Robert Frost that I love so much is his finesse in creating vivid verse from trivial activities, like mending walls, mowing, and picking apples. See how Nye does this with her various trivial tasks: planting seeds, folding shirts, making foods, making beds, scribbling on envelopes, typing a poem, dusting furniture, and washing laundry.
But Nye’s point is that none of these things is truly trivial. They possess sanctity. The minute we are lost in our daily responsibilities, we ultimately find ourselves. C.S. Lewis once said that it was hard to write when your hands were submerged in dishwater. But do you know how many times inspiration strikes while my hands are occupied? So many great ideas buoy to the surface of the dishwater or washer tub. We understand our profound impact by achieving the little things. Words manifest into deeds. This is why the “days are nouns” – they represent the transcendence of our boring list into holy duties. Hands don’t worship the world in a sacrilegious sense, but rather highlight the fact that the “insignificant” jobs make the world better.
Consider the design of our bodies: respiratory system quietly laboring – filling and emptying our lungs without our permission, our heart beating steadily yet predictably within our chests and pumping blood throughout the vast real estate of our bodies (yes, even in the rural territory of our fingertips). All of these involuntary actions, as well as many others not mentioned, take place inside us with no deliberation. Yet, they are fundamental and necessary. Without the seemingly small events, our body as a whole would wither and cease altogether. Although they may be considered “boring” or ordinary, these processes contribute to the greater miracle of our existence.
So it is with our work. We toil day after day in ostensibly meaningless tasks. It isn’t until we step back and view the amalgamated whole do we understand how each dish we wash, each t-shirt we fold, each repeated chore we accomplish promotes the overall success of our household and our lives. Those “shriveled seeds” will one day become a bountiful harvest and with this hope, we labor another day.