Simple Attendance by Charles Wm. Preble: on the art and joy of simple gratitude (or how to stay sane during a quarantine)

Slowly and thoughtfully reading Simple Attendance by Charles Wm. Preble, I’ve discovered that contemplating these poems is like folding down the hurricane shutters and making myself cozy. Yes, the pandemic-storm is raging, but these poems muffle the howl and minimize breakage.

There’s no rule book for how to stay sane during a quarantine, Stefanie Sarkis, writing for Forbes, tells us. So she offers some tips: limit your news intake; get outside; keep a routine; accept this as our “new normal;” and be easy on yourself. Yes, to all that. These are principles that enable us to thrive, to live well, no matter what’s going on in the world around us. 

This pandemic is going to test our mettle—as individuals, and as a society. Will we respond with kindness, gratitude, joy, generosity and wisdom? Or will panic cause us to react in miserly, ornery, dissatisfied, mean and stupid ways?    

High ideals are admirable, but not easily put into action. Fear sabotages our best intentions. Fear, psychologists tell us, begets a host of negative emotions including anger, disgust, shame and envy, which, in turn, generate a nasty disposition and self-centered actions.

During World War II, FDR famously inspired a nation to bravery when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” If that’s true, then while we need to take sensible precautions to keep ourselves safe from COVID-19, we ought to recognize the real  threat, against which each one of us needs to defend, is our own fear. 

I like to think I’m on the side of kindness and wisdom, that I stand firmly against idiocy and cruelty, but I’ve been around the sun enough times to recognize I’m only human. If I let my fear run amok, I will probably make our problems worse instead of better. 

When battling fear in hard times, bad news is like rain. If it’s pouring and I dash out the door without an umbrella, I’m going to get soaked. Consuming the news these days is like heading into a cloudburst with nothing to shield me. The media is raining down accusation, blame, defense, and dire predictions. Going into that mess unprotected, or for longer than a quick dash to get somewhere important, is to invite anxiety to soak us to the bone. 

I’ve found an umbrella for when it’s raining bad news. To practice “the art and joy of simple gratitude,” is protection from the fears that drench me. I’ve been trying to do the “attitude-of-gratitude” thing for twenty-some years, and have been told I’m good at it. But news in a time of pandemic and quarantine is no April shower. It’s a category-2 hurricane. 

These past few weeks, while slowly and thoughtfully reading Simple Attendance by Charles Wm. Preble, I’ve discovered that contemplating these poems is like folding down the hurricane shutters and making myself cozy. Yes, the pandemic-storm is raging, but these poems muffle the howl and minimize breakage. 

The poem “Ubiquitous” reminds me I have choices. I can either gripe about cabin fever and grow ornery, or I can delight in this slow-down, cherishing the sweet simplicity of my beloved’s nearness. I can “fete simplicity’s fest.” I can choose to

…bow to the earth,
to Love’s grandeur,
to Love always
revealed in the details. 

I can wake up and pay attention to what is good, right here, right now. Even in times like these, I can ignite joy with gratitude. The poem “Awkward” reminds me that all my favorite comforts are available—books, music, nature. 

Nature? Wait —isn’t COVID-19 an act of nature? The virus mutated from wild animals to humans.  

Yes, nature can delight and console our lives, but nature can also confound our desires, bringing death and destruction. For example, in the poem “Apparition,” we being by rejoicing, in “awakened delight,” with the poet and his beloved spouse of 57 years, when they discover a nest in a yew near their entry door.

A mystery, we say:
the intimacy of golden grass
woven, cemented with delicate
tucks of mud, empty, perfectly
ready, the enclosure so close
to our path it begs
our now awakened delight. 

We watch the female faithfully incubate the eggs. When an unseasonal snow falls and “weighs down / the yew’s boughs,” the poet gently brushes the snow away so the bough rises again. With anticipation, we await the emergence of chicks from their shells. But one day

Suddenly two eggs are missing.
Hours later the other two are gone.
Days later we find the bare and broken
blue shells on the gravel drive.
There is no return—
or attempt 
to try again. 
Only we two
remain—two empty

Simple Attendance is a tonic for hard times precisely because it is not toxic optimism. Charles Wm. Preble does not promote the foolishness of shutting one’s eyes to reality. To deny suffering is to lie. When we’re grappling with the really hard stuff, lies, half-truths, and the false optimism that denies pain and grief, may manage to temporarily make us feel “better” or “more positive. But only comfort grounded in truth will truly console us and make us whole. Toxic optimism is an opiate, a sham of temporary relief. It treats the symptom (the uncomfortable feeling), but  fails to minister to the source of our pain. 

Simple Attendance consoles because it pays attention to what actually is. By attending to all things, the light and the heavy, the blissful and the tragic, it allows us to register and bear the hard truth, that lives have been, and will continue to be compromised and spoiled by “meaner times.” To attend to life, is to accept contradictions and paradoxes. Therefore, along with showing us the joy found in creative work, the beauty found in dusk’s particular light, this poet also prompts us  

to remember
Wounded Knee, the Trail of Tears,
Ojibwe children taken 
from their parents

In addition to writing poetry, Charles Wm. Preble is an artisan and a priest. He has lived in St. Joseph, Minnesota on a nineteenth-century farmstead surrounded by woods and fields since 1986. He writes, “It is this place with its solitude, quiet and wildness which inspires the daily wonder of writing and reading poetry.” I know from a growing friendship with Charles and Jana, that these poems do not spring from a philosophy or mere ideas. They grow organically out of a wisdom stemming from in their decades-long daily practice of simple attendance—paying attention to and nurturing love in its myriad forms. 

Clearly, love is the soil these poems grew up in. That’s why they contain the power to sustain our faith in goodness and our response of gratitude as we journey through these unprecedented days. This is the wisdom, which in the poem “Like Words,” calls us to see that

Perhaps our lives are like words: no one
complete by oneself yet linked to others
through conversations even though flawed,
but what blood and sweat make up the mud we speak. 

May this wisdom encourage us to believe in and cultivate

the closeness that adversity
can bring if we are willing to be love. 

Oh, my friends, let’s do this! Let us seek inspiration in books, music, and nature. Now more than ever, let us practice being artful, joyful and grateful.

And always, above all, let us be willing to be love


Order Simple Attendance from Charles Wm. Preble at Etsy.

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