Hunkering Down with Haikus


By Jock Lauterer

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how to hunker.

We’ve been hunkered down since mid-March and have learned by necessity hunkering techniques. Out of curiosity, I looked up the word: “Hunker: to crouch, cower, to get on all fours.”

Prior to 2020, I would have said hunkering was mostly about a physical stance: a defensive crouch aspect, something about getting down low, to avoid a blow, to go in your cave, to hide out, either alone or with your tribe. Phrases come to mind: “Batten down the hatches,” “Katy, bar the door,” and “Brace for impact.”

But now after hunkering for the better part of a year in COVID world, I’d say hunkering has more of an emotional, intellectual and mental aspect to it, because in our survival-mode isolation, there is the danger sub-consciously dialing back our mental acuity —  a sort of intellectual hibernation, if you will.

As challenging as hunkering down has been, there has been a (forgive me) silver lining aspect — if it lets us get in touch with our inner poet. And not just your regular old AA BB iambic pentameter stuff, but the ancient Japanese art poetry called haiku.

“Haiku is the shortest form of poetry known in world literature,” writes David Schiller in his book, “The Little Zen Companion,” adding, “but its three little lines of 5-7-5 syllables are capable of expressing deep feeling and sudden flashes of intuition.”

Simple, elegant, moving, often ending with a reference to nature or some little epiphany, haiku “shows us how to see into the life of things and gain a glimpse of enlightenment,” Schiller says.

Enter our old friend Jessiann McCarthy, who regularly spends the week after Christmas at our cabin in Western North Carolina. Jessiann, an old Penn State friend of my wife’s from the ‘80s, is hunkered down at home in Paducah, Kentucky. I consider the former professor of early childhood at UNC-Asheville my spirit sister.

When Jessiann realized she couldn’t make the annual pilgrimage, eight hours and 458 miles, to the cabin this holiday, she proposed an alternative form of hooking up: tag haiku.  For every haiku she emailed me, I’d respond in kind, perhaps that same day.  This is how it went, beginning with her Christmas offering.


            Red, white candy cane
            Gripped tightly in a small hand
            Hoping for a ‘yes’



            Playing haiku tag
            With an old friend from afar
            Small poem restores soul



            Rain instead of snow
            Bleak, gray, cloudy winter days
            Good books are my friends   



            The ball drops, bells ring
            Hopes and dreams for a New Year
            Waiting patiently


            Pray for COVID’s end
            This is my haiku for you
            Fog lifts as I kneel



            When we hear the sound
            Of the impeded, blocked stream
            Life’s journey begins


            So this is New Years
            Our poor nation needs to heal
            Twenty twenty, scat!


            Shadows on the wall
            Moonlight playing in the night
            Sleep, be not disturbed


            Spaceship earth in flight
            Here we go again around
            Capricorn rising


            Clouds circle the moon
            Lighting the night in a haze
           An owl sings his song


            Decluttering woodshed
            Marie Kondo would be proud
            Ancient wood on pyre

In response to the chaos in D.C. on Jan. 6, we had this exchange:


            I am so appalled
            Democracy in danger
            Trump caused and owns this


            Anarchy in DC
            Proud Boys do US wrong 
            Democracy wins


And finally, Jessiann writes an introduction to her final haiku that is so useful and pertinent to our life situation, I have to quote it in full:

“I know haikus are meant to be self-explanatory, but I might need to explain this one. I have a large jar in the kitchen.  At least once a week, and usually more often, I write a short description (no more than one or two sentences) of something that brought me joy, and I put it in the jar. It can be something really big but usually it is something small; a call from a grandchild , watching a sunset at the lake with a friend, seeing a beautiful butterfly on my zinnias, etc. At the end of the year, I get out the jar, get a mug of coffee, and read all the notes. They are random, of course, and not in chronological order when I pull them. The notes remind me of all the joys I had during the past year and how I want to continue to enjoy the little things in life during the coming year. I have been doing this for the last five years. These little notes become my New Year’s Resolution; to always enjoy the little things in life.” 

            A jar full of notes
            Expressing moments of joy
            Read with gratitude

Jock Lauterer began selling newspapers for Jim Shumaker and Roland Giduz on the streets of Chapel Hill at the age of 8. For the last 20 years, he has served as a senior lecturer and adjunct professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, teaching photojournalism and community journalism.

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1 Comment on "Hunkering Down with Haikus"

  1. Good stuff, Jock.

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