New Year’s Reflections Inspired by Three Haiku Poets

To inspire you in the new year, here are four haiku with my commentary.

Posted Jan 02, 2018

Wikimedia Commons
Basho by Kinkoku Yokoi (1761-1832)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In mid-December, I got out my favorite book of haiku, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa, edited by Robert Hass. I opened it randomly and there was a haiku by Issa about New Year’s morning. With the new year approaching, I looked through the book and found four haiku with the new year as their theme. Here they are, along with commentary from me. My commentary focuses on chronic illness (which includes chronic pain), but this piece is for everyone.

I don't expect all of us to interpret these poems the same way. That’s perfectly fine! Enjoy.  

From Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Year after year

on the monkey’s face

a monkey’s face.

I laughed out loud when I first read this haiku. Then that laughter turned sour as I immediately thought of the chronic illness that turned my life upside down 16 ½ years ago. I found myself rewording the poem to read: “Year after year, the face of chronic illness is the face of chronic illness.”

That rewording made me sad until I realized that my only chance at finding a measure of peace is to stop expecting the face of chronic illness to be anything but the face of chronic illness. Yes, I could wake up one morning with my health suddenly restored and that would be wonderful; I haven’t given up hope on that score. But to keep expecting to see anything but the face of chronic illness every new year only causes me the pain of disappointment and resentment.

I don’t want to live that way. So if mine is to be a life of chronic illness, then so be it…year after year after year.

Another year—

hat in hand,

sandals on my feet.

I write a lot about impermanence—how nothing stays the same for long. That said, there is this word “chronic,” which suggests permanence. And when the word “chronic” is followed by “illness,” it’s not the type of permanence we’d choose for ourselves or our loved ones.

And so, yes, it’s been “another year” to quote the haiku—another year of struggling with my health, sometimes mightily. And although “hat in hand, sandals on my feet” may suggest monotony to some, to me it suggests that life is taking care of me—protecting me with “hat and sandals” on this unexpected journey.

From Yosa Buson (1716-1783)

The old calendar

fills me with gratitude

like a song.

This past year was a particularly rough one for some of my friends and family. They’re quite ready to trade the “old calendar” for a new one. Still, I hope all of us take the time to call to mind the good things that happened in the past year. The good is always there; sometimes we have to stop and take the time to remember it, just like remembering a beloved song.

From Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827)

New Year’s morning:

the ducks on the pond

quack and quack.

We may think of New Year’s Day as a special one and that’s fine, but I like to keep in mind that it's a human-made designation. I’m reminded of something I call my “hound dog test” in my second book, How to Wake Up.

I raise the “test” during a discussion of the identities we create for ourselves and then believe without question. For me, one of those identities is often “sick person.” It can be a source of frustration and resentment. But does my dog think of me as a sick person? No! I’ve had three dogs during the time I’ve been chronically ill and to them, this is just how I am. 

I find it comforting to remember that, to my dogs, each day is just another day with me, their faithful companion—just like, to the ducks, New Year’s Day is just another day.

Quack quack…and my best to everyone in the new year!

© 2018 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. Issa is my favorite poet. Here’s a piece I wrote about how his haiku accompanies me on my chronic illness journey: “Issa: My Life Through the Pen of a Haiku Master.”