2020 Countdown, day 22: Can’t shop for this gift

Day 22 of the 2020 countdown finds us on a small pond in a nature center, contemplating contemplation. One of the biggest gifts this year brought us is time and space for contemplation.


poem is taped to dock


Priceless Gifts

by Anna Swir

translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan


An empty day without events.

And that is why

it grew immense

as space. And suddenly

happiness of being

entered me.


I heard

in my heartbeat

the birth of time

and each instant of life

one after the other

came rushing in

like priceless gifts.



If someone designed a Rorschach test using poetry instead of inkblots, here would be the first question:


Does the phrase an empty day without events fill you with

  1. existential horror
  2. relief
  3. I don’t even understand what that means


The pandemic has emptied our schedules. We leave the house on a need-to-go basis. We said goodbye to our usual distractions—shopping, movies, coffee shops, concerts—and embraced a new one, at least in the massive increase in attention we give it. Screen time.


But to experience the priceless gifts Anna Swir describes, empty time has to stay empty. I’m lucky to have experienced such soul-opening more than once, most recently this fall on a long walk on a hilly country road. Cool air, sunshine on yellow trees, wide open fields, and suddenly my heart opened, just as Swir describes. It’s almost a physical event. Unfortunately, in the middle of this rapture, the phone in my fleece pocket rang. It was my daughter, crying. She had tested positive for COVID, she didn’t feel well, and she was scared.


That pretty much sums up 2020.


I love this poem, I love the careful, precise way Swir illuminates a delicate emotional state. If you’ve ever experienced transcendent joy and tried to describe it to someone, you’ll appreciate the craft in this deceptively simple poem. Swir is the master of marrying complex internal events with clean and clear language. (Her poem “The Same Inside” is another example. It moved me near to tears, so deeply did I relate to it.)




Here’s a biography of Swir from a previous post:


Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1909. Her family was poor but artistic. Her father was a painter, her mother a former singer. Swir worked from the time she was young, and paid her way through university where she studied medieval Polish literature.


She worked as a waitress during WWII and began writing for underground journals. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, she joined the resistance. I read that she was arrested at one point during the war and told she would be executed in an hour, but I can’t find any details of her reprieve. During the bloody Warsaw Uprising (in which Poles attempted to liberate the city), she worked as a military nurse.


Although she began publishing poetry in the thirties, her poems weren’t available in English until the late seventies. In addition to writing poetry, she wrote children’s plays and directed a children’s theater. She lived in Krakow until her death from cancer in 1984.





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