In 17 Syllables: A daily spiritual practice

I never knew 17 syllables could become a spiritual practice. In fact, writing a haiku poem, a traditional form of Japanese poetry, was something I dreaded in grammar school. The pattern of three lines of poetry—five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third—dates to the thirteenth century. But in elementary school, counting repeatedly on my fingers to find the right word was tedious.

Fast forward to the early part of the pandemic, when my kitchen table was my office and my son’s classroom, I remember having to teach him how to write a haiku in between two Zoom work calls and a pressing deadline. He didn’t see the point in counting syllables either. His frustration mixed with my impatience, and I lost my cool. The rest, as we say, is a family legend in which I yelled: “Stupid, stupid, stupid poem.” My son, who was in second grade at the time, reminded me that the “s-word” is on the naughty list. I had to apologize on many levels that day.

But now, in 2023, I have committed to writing a haiku every day, counting on my fingers to find just the right word or combination of words to honor the maximum of 17-syllable rule. It doesn’t feel tedious. Nor stupid, for that matter. It feels oddly peaceful and enriching.

Walking down the hall
Softness of my mother’s hand
Another goodbye.

Why? O why? O why?
Can I only doze in sound bites?
Want to sleep for days.

Two nights in a row
Swapping stories at kitchen table
Hunger, satisfied.

The idea came to me on New Year’s Day, not that I was looking for a new year’s resolution. A friend had seen an article about this daily practice and texted it to me, saying: “Thought of you.” Over the years, I’ve tried many different strategies to write more: every day word counts, timed pieces, accountability partners. The goal is less about writing better (although that is always the end goal), and more about just making yourself do it regularly. Sheer volume, I’ve come to understand, is what seems to propel you forward as a writer. (The experts say the same).

It is a lot like prayer. The more regularly and intentionally you pray, the more honest and natural it becomes. The more you see and attend to the divine moving in your life—and intentionally respond.

While I’m only on haiku 38, and still more than 300 to go, I can already see how the daily practice forces me to distill the essence of my day. I have only 17 syllables to be real.

Energized? Or
a fleeting sense of control?
Which one do I want?

God, I ask, when does
his doubt dissipate? Never?
you say. Just listen.

Sweet kisses, fast mad
Swinging from one to the other.
“Mama, can we redo?”

Theologians suggest that any practice can be a spiritual practice so long as it brings you closer to the divine. St. Ignatius taught that very idea in the 15th century, that our faith is nothing more than the constant invitation to go deeper in our relationship with God. Thankfully, there are many ways to do that. There are rosaries, pilgrimages, and labyrinths to aide us. There are centering prayer groups, Taize services, and Bible studies too. What matters is that we find what works for us, and that we allow it to change over time, to recapture our imagination and rekindle our sense of awe and gratitude.

Wish I knew your story.
What led you to this moment?
Praying for your life.

“Head down all day.”
Did not stop to notice, sadly.
What love did I miss?

Experience God
In the joy, in the sorrow.
Trusting I am held.