2021 New Year’s Reflections Inspired by Four Haiku Poems

Let these poems and my commentary give you hope for the new year.

Posted Jan 09, 2021

Wikipedia Commons
Issa's portrait drawn by Muramatsu Shunpo 1772-1858
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Haiku is my favorite form of poetry. I admit it’s partly because they’re short. But, it’s mostly because of the poets’ ability to shake up my mind, which opens new possibilities in my thinking. My favorite translations are by Robert Hass in his book The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa. With 2021 in mind, I looked through the book and found four haiku with the new year as their themes. Here they are, along with commentary from me. I don’t expect all of us to interpret the poems the same way, and that’s fine. 

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 thought of how, so far, 2021 isn’t much different than 2020. I found myself rewording the poem to read: “Year after year, the face of the pandemic is the face of the pandemic.”

That made me feel sad until I realized that my only chance to find a measure of peace in life is to stop expecting the face of the pandemic to be anything but the face of pandemic. Yes, there are vaccines on the horizon and, when they’re readily available, it will be a huge relief. But to keep expecting to see anything but the everyday effects the of pandemic at this point (masks, social distancing, isolation) causes me the pain of disappointment and frustration. 

I don’t want to constantly be experiencing those painful emotions. So, if 2021 is to be another year of protecting the health of myself and those around me, so be it. I’ll look for joy within the limitations that all of us are facing right now.

Another year—

hat in hand,

sandals on my feet.

We know about the universal law of impermanence—how nothing stays the same for long. That said, there is this word “pandemic,” which suggests that things may stay the same for longer than usual. It’s not what we’d choose if we had a say in the matter. 

And so, yes, so far it’s been “another year” to quote the haiku—another year of coping with the stress and limitations imposed by the pandemic. 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 tough for almost all of us. If you’re like me, you’re glad to have traded the “old calendar” for a new one. Still, I hope you’ll take the time to think about the good things that happened in 2020. A dear friend of mine found love, after years of assuming that romance was in her past. The good is always there; sometimes we have to stop and consciously call it to mind, 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—which reminds me of something I call the “hound dog test” in my book How to Wake Up

I raise my invented test when I’m discussing the identities we create for ourselves and then believe without question. As an example, for me, one of those identities is “sick person” because I’ve been chronically ill for almost 20 years. That identity can be a source of deep emotional suffering for me. I’ve had three dogs during the time I’ve been chronically ill (obviously, one of them was a hound dog). Have any of them ever thought of me as “sick person”? No! 

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

I hope you’ll think of some identities that you feel “stuck” in that are no longer serving you well. And then, with a quack and a quack, discard them and find something to enjoy in each new day of 2021.