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QUINTESSENCE

Life With Soap and Needles


I see you washing my handkerchiefs,
hanging at the window
my worn-out socks,
your figure on which everything,
all pleasure like a flare-up,
fell without destroying you,
again,
little wife
of every day,
again a human being,
humbly human,
proudly poor,
as you have to be in order to be
not the swift rose
that love's ash dissolves
but all of life,
all of life with soap and needles,
with the smell that I love
of the kitchen that perhaps we shall not have
and in which your hand among the fried potatoes
and your mouth singing in the winter
until the roast arrives
would be for me the permanence
of happiness on earth.


- "Not Only the Fire," Pablo Neruda, THE CAPTAIN'S VERSES, 1952

This stanza, from a longer poem by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, is subversive, subtle. The poet moves from love note to his lover into an intimate song to the same woman, the woman he has made his life with - "little wife of every day." I think often of this phrase and its aching tender recognition of the dignity of daily life. The hours, or perhaps years, past the fiery affair filled by the plain, sweet mundane. Neruda's recognition of his own joy in the simple wrenching domesticity of his life asks me to consider my ordinary tasks today.

Today's list of things to do is nothing fancy. My heart is not in them but is instead thinking of words and pages, the revising and editing I've still to complete. At the top of my list, dealing with bills that are due, then gathering the last of the tax data, followed by a trip to the post office to forward on packets of mail to my kids. A drop off at the dry cleaner, the return of an item to a store, and oh yes, getting in a work out. A chunk of time. A chunk of time not writing.

I read the list again, slowly this time. Where is the love here? In everything. Dropping this passport in the mail for a trip to South Korea and Japan will thrill the recipient, the tax help marks a new graduate's first professional job, the rose-patterned dress to return nonetheless reminds me of spring. I think of my family, their dear faces, the laughter and moments together. Aren't these humble tasks Neruda's "worn-out socks," the "hand among the fried potatoes," my celebration of "life with soap and needles"?

Hello chore list, little wife of every day. There is life to be lived here.
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