Yuka Saji

When I was a little girl, growing up in Wisconsin, my mother read to me. At the end of the night, before tucking me in and turning out the light, she’d crawl under the covers and pick the book from the bedside table and with my head settled on her shoulder, she’d begin, her voice soft and slow. Other children had Johannes Brahms before bed; I had Wendell Berry.

Each night, I fell asleep to the music of my mother’s voice. I remember the comfort of her cotton nightgown pressed against my cheek, The Peace of Wild Things perched in her hand, and the echo of the last line as she let it linger and I held on, clinging to the final syllables—

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Even as a child, I found the poem distinctly beautiful. When my father read to me, I begged for Shel Silverstein, for poems like “Skin Stealer” and “Dirty Face” that rhymed at the end of each break. But Wendell Berry was different. I didn’t know all the words in the poem,  and the meaning was mostly lost on me, but in a roundabout way, I felt I understood it. Grace was the prayer my family would say before dinner when we’d bow our heads and recite a blessing in German. The wood drake was what my dad hunted in the marsh when we’d sit in the wet grass and he’d blow his duck call to bring the birds in. (Fore)thought was the look in my mother’s eyes as she finished reading, closed the book, and, without a word, took my hand in hers, pressing it to her lips.

I loved the poem not because I understood it, but because it was familiar. My world was the world of the wood drakes, of still water, of the blue heron feeding in the back bay. I knew nothing of despair. But for my mother, the poem had another meaning. She began reading it to me in the wake of 9/11, just a few months after we had left New York City for Wisconsin. My mom turned to the poem as an antidote to grief.  She pinned a copy of it to the refrigerator and read it to me almost every night. For her, the Peace of Wild Things was a daily reminder of the beauty in the world.

At the time, I knew none of this. For many years, the poem was more of a childhood memory than anything. It stayed on the fridge where my mother had put it until I left for college, when she folded it up and stuck it in my luggage. Days later as I unpacked in my new dorm room at Yale, more than a thousand miles from my mom and home, I found it tucked away in the corner of my suitcase.

I didn’t have a fridge to hang it on, and I no longer had time to read poetry before bed, so I shoved it into a drawer. I couldn’t imagine a need for it. In general, I was happy. I was studying at my dream school, and for the first time in my life, I was living in a city — a city rich in culture and cuisine. A city big enough to nurture my dreams but small enough that I could come to know it as my own. I was no longer in the world of wood drakes and still waters, but despair still seemed distant and far away.

And then, like the tide, it crept up on me. I didn’t leave campus every weekend as my roommate did. I didn’t keep count of the days until break. I didn’t call my mom every night like the boy on the other side of my wall.  And yet at night, I’d wake in the bottom bunk with the sudden and strange desire to cry. I was in mourning, though what for, I wasn’t sure. For a childhood spent in the arms of tall trees, for a sky filled with stars, for parents who read me poetry at night. At Yale, the stars in New Haven were washed out and the still water in the salt marshes along the bay was stagnant.

If there was peace, I couldn’t find it. Every night, I came into the room, and, out of habit, cracked open the window as I had done for the past 18 years of my life. I’d lean out over the street and listen to the sounds below, my ears peeled for something familiar: the hooting of barn owls or the peeping of crickets hidden in the long grass. From my perch, I could hear a man talking to himself on the bench below, a group of girls coming back from a late night at Toad’s, an ambulance speeding past, running the stop on Elm Street. The world outside was full of life, and yet somehow I felt lonelier than I’d ever been before. I longed for peace, for wild things, for the familiar sounds and rhythms of home.  If there was poetry in the street below, it did not belong to me. But would it become mine? Would the sounds of the street sing me to sleep as my mother’s voice once had? Would this be the music my children would come to know, carried up into an apartment window? Would they recognize the call of the blue heron, the hush of the marsh in the half-morning light, the emerald crown of the wood drake floating over the still surface of the water? Would my world be theirs?

These were the fears that woke me. I was in mourning, not for my past, but for my future, a future I felt was so different from what I’d known. It was not separation that scared me; it was betrayal.

And then, one night, as I sifted through papers in my drawer, I came upon Wendell Berry’s poem. Alone in my dorm, my suitemates away for the weekend, I read it, and for a moment the sounds of the street muted and my mother’s voice returned to me—

…I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Later, lying in my bed, listening to the city still awake, I felt the grace of the world around me. I didn’t need to go and lie where the wood drake rests. Perhaps, like my mother, I needed only to read those words and remember that such a place existed. That, like her, I had once lay in the long grass, looking up at the day-blind stars, and known a beauty greater than any grief. That just as my mother had, I would one day give my children this gift.

Aidan Campbell | aidan.campbell@yale.edu .