Praise in Disheartening Days

During this quarantine without life’s usual distractions, anxiety follows me like my puppy. I’m safe, but the Earth trembles. I smother one flaming fear by reminding myself I’m OK. Then another flares.

When my husband was dying, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus helped me find beauty and solace. This spring is nearly as difficult as those years, but a poet friend shared a Rilke poem I had never read. It’s the message I needed, an antidote to despair.

O, tell us, poet, what you do?
I praise.
But the deadly and the violent days,
how do you undergo them, take them in?
I praise…*

Covid-19 invades crowded cities and residences where people live at close quarters, the most vulnerable and confined in jails, long-term care facilities, and senior residences. It’s silent, hidden, and devious, and we don’t know where or how it will show up next. When I was a kid, adults whispered about polio and TB. No one knew what to do about those illnesses either, but I remember the fear.

melting polar ice, wikimedia

Climate catastrophe is here and, like the virus, we didn’t face it when we could. The ice caps melt and coral reefs die. Extinction and suffering increase while our government cancels protective measures we hoped would help. The earth takes a deep breath while we stay home.

Many elected officials in Washington—I can’t call them leaders—lie and profit from each crisis. They live for money and power, not compassionate service.

We can’t touch each other or hug. Even hospice volunteering is cancelled. I don’t know how to help other than give donations and keep myself well so I don’t clog the medical system. I feel useless, but this poem reminds me of my purpose. Praise, like witnessing, is needed.

I can praise.

My son feeds the soil with natural nutrients so I can grow vegetables to eat and share. What I can’t grow, I buy locally. Praise the giving Earth.

By planting native flowers, I grow food for butterflies and birds. Let each yellow trumpet lily and purple aster be a poem of praise

tree swallow eggs

I provide nesting boxes for bluebirds and tree swallows, protect them from predators, and share their beauty through photographs. Surely, this is high praise.

In June, I collect tiny Monarch eggs, feed them milkweed leaves, and watch caterpillars transform into butterflies. Most exalted miraculous praise.

trout lily



When my writing falls flat, I practice acceptance and share what inspires me, like this Rilke poem. When my writing touches or inspires someone, I honor the healing power of words. May we all write poems of praise.

In this season of budding and greening, nesting and growing, I praise life while accepting death, praise beauty in days of destruction, praise love in times of hate, praise kindness in days of greed.

I praise.


O, tell us, poet, what you do?
I praise.
But the deadly and the violent days,
how do you undergo them, take them in?
I praise.
But the namelessness — how do you raise
that, invoke the unnameable?
I praise.
What right have you, through every phase,
in every mask, to remain true?
I praise.
— and that both stillness and the wild affray
know you, like star and storm?
Because I praise.

*Rainer Maria Rilke, On Love and Other Difficulties, 1921
(trans. Denise Levertov)

“Rilke in Moscow,” L Pasternak, 1928

John J.L. Mood wrote a different translation of this poem in a book published by Norton in 1975.


With gratitude to the poet Sarah Ragsdale for introducing me to this poem when I needed a lift out of darkness. Sarah’s poems are in the permanent collection of contemporary poetry at Poets House in New York City. There are many ways to praise in hard times–prayer, meditating, yoga, making masks, gardening, reading scripture and poetry, painting, writing, listening to music, being still. How do you praise during hard times?

For another post about reading Rilke, see Let Everything Happen to You. I shared many quotes from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus in my book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief. I also used one of his poems in the post Poems to Grieve By.

  1. Dear Elaine,

    Oh, how I needed this poem today! Following yesterday, when out on a walk with my wife, who has just recovered from the coronavirus herself, she collapsed and lost consciousness in the middle of a wood two miles away from any road. I had to carry her across two stiles and a railway line in order to reach the ambulance. Worse still, due to the COVID-19 situation, I was unable to visit her in our local hospital. Unbelievably the phone in A&E was broken too so I had no way of contacting her. So I had to sit and wait until I got the phone call at 10pm last night to say I could come up and collect her. They’re still not sure what’s happened but her bloods and tests satisfied them enough to release her. I wept in joy, in terror, in praise!

    Today, I type in tears at the truth of this poem. For as I weep, I’m watching the busy wrens preparing a new nest in my old box. It’s such a flurry of activity! My wife is very poorly still and we’re not sure another ambulance won’t be needed by the end of the day. Yet, praise it shall be as we both look out of the window at the opening daisies, bluebells and cornflowers standing tall, and all the other plants and flowers and trees shooting up. The garden is full of birdsong and last night on the way home, we spotted the beautiful crescent moon. Thank you so much my dear friend for offering us poetic sanctuary during these tough times. As always your photos and images compliment your kindhearted, insightful words.

    Love and light, Deborah.

    • Dearest Deborah, I’m so sorry you and your wife are going through this terrible experience. It sounds like the darkest tale, including Baba Yaga in the forest. I’m glad you got out and got help. Of course the phones wouldn’t work just at that time. I hope you’ll both stick close to home for a while. I’ve heard of so many people who feel better and then take a sudden crash. This is a rough mysterious virus. I praise and weep with you. I hope you got through yesterday without the need of rescue and hospitals.

      I got through Vic’s illness with the help of other Rilke poems reminding me to look for beauty and love in every situation. I love the Dutch writer Etty Hillesum who died at Auschwitz because she held on to praise at the worst of times. She was also a lover of Rilke’s poetry and Jung. (Wasn’t that moon spectacular and also Venus at her brightest in the western sky.) May all be well in your world with lots of deep breathing and healing. And I hope you’re being very careful to not get sick, Deborah, although it must be almost impossible when caring for someone. Hugs and prayers for you.

      • Thank you Elaine for your kind and generous reply. I thought after the recent deaths of two dear friends that would be our personal “coronavirus” story (we’re all going to have these stories I realise) but alas no.

        Yesterday, (thankfully) was quiet and uneventful, just perfect. No, there will be no wanderings far away from the sanctuary of home which prompts me to return to an old dream and a new poem that waits to be written.

        • I’m so glad to hear that all was well yesterday, Deborah, and you don’t have to live in fear. I’m sure you’ll blossom with poems from these experiences. And I hope Lin will rest and rest and rest–drink more warm tea and rest more.

  2. Thank you Elaine for your thoughts.It is good to hear from you.I just wrote you a poem . I thought of calling it “wheetabix with crunchy nut cornflakes” as I have just finished my breakfast . This seemed trivial to start with but on reflection,even something so small is also a blessing.In the end I named it after the time and day.Best wishes, Gary

    7.58am 29th April 2020 ( on reading Elaine Mansfield blog)

    The blessed life we have been given
    has days un-numbered
    the blessings of our time
    will run it’s course
    and we will be done

    until then let us respect
    the time of others
    the days of flight
    the tides
    and storms
    the starry nights
    of other

    Let us hold gently
    the beating heart
    of creation
    and see beyond today’s

    Let us remember
    we are guests on this earth
    and before we leave
    light a candle
    for those who remain.

    • Thank you, Gary. I bow my head to the beauty of your poem which you wrote after breakfast and I read after breakfast here. I’ll think of these words as “The Blessed Life” and I’ll think of these lines all day: “Let us hold gently/ the beating heart/ of creation.” That will be my goal for today. With love and gratitude.

  3. Thank you for teaching me that planting, sowing, is a form of praise. You’ve broadened my definition and I am grateful.

    • It’s certainly a form of praise for me, Janet. It’s been cold here, but I Keep watching for vegetable seeds to sprout. The arugula popped up a few days ago and yesterday I found snow peas pushing above the ground. It’s hard to imagine they’ll climb to the top of the fence, but with warm days, they will. Surely, this is praise!

  4. It’s the wildflowers that finally did it for me. It’s been hard to find my gratitude and praise during These Times, Elaine. Grumbling about ticks and limes disease, too much mud on the trails, having to wear masks in public and avoiding people and the virus … but hiking in the hills and finding these little jewels – that always makes me feel goozy-all over with gratitude, and maybe even praise. Being able to blossom in the midst of These Times is pretty amazing.

    • I agree, Robin. Being able to blossom in these times is quite an accomplishment. I have all those same responses as you to ticks, mud, and rain. I get discouraged about this life. I have masks, but don’t wear them because I don’t see anyone. And still I’m so fortunate to have two dog companions (speaking of mud!), people who have been willing to shop for me without me asking, and no one close to me sick. The virus is always on my mind with the recent death of my friend’s uncle and a few others who are sick, but I can praise the good job people are doing here by following the safety rules to protect themselves and protect others. That’s high praise! I don’t think praise obliterates the discouragement and despair, but they can accompany each other.

  5. Elaine, Your writing today didn’t fall flat for me. It lifted me spirits! I choose to praise today, in the midst of chaos and uncertainty that certainly leaves many of us with fears; I will praise! Thank you. With much gratitude and love, Wendy

    • This is something we can do, Wendy! Rilke wrote this poem not long after World War I which was horrible (as wars are). He hung on to the idea that in the darkest times, we can find beauty and joy. I knew this idea from other poems of his, but never so clear as in this one. I’m working on praise and so are you.

  6. I read it, comforting for these times

  7. Elaine, thank you so much for this much-needed reminder to behold the beauty and goodness in this life and praise it.

    I love your postings on Facebook of your walks with the dogs, butterflies, trees, and plants.

    • Thank you, Lynne. Your paintings must be your mode of high praise. You celebrate life in them. Thanks for feedback about my daily photos (taken by my inadequate but easy to carry around SONY camera). It’s good for me to look for something beautiful and joyful every day. April cold and snow made that a challenge, but spring unfolds slowly and color returns to the Earth.

  8. Thank you Elaine for the reminder that there is beauty in the darkest times and that we can indeed offer praise for those moments of sparkling joy. Maybe it takes the darkness to show us the light or to allow light to be shone on those shadows. Maybe this is what it takes to remind us that the sacred is everywhere, no less than in the mundane. I was watering the garden the other day and when I turned around there was a sunbird sipping and quivering on the flowers of a cactus in a large pot by the swimming pool. I couldn’t believe it, so close by. And then 10 minutes later there it was again. So bright and colourful. Today, looking over the balcony with my husband, I saw it again and so did he. We sometimes catch a glimpse of a sunbird but usually well hidden by the branches and foliage of a bushy tree. This was in plain sight in the bright sunlight.

    Praise be to all that is. Gary’s poem is lovely –

    • Thank you, Susan, for your kind words and for introducing me to a sunbird. I learned by googling that the sunbird is a relative of our hummingbirds, but what magic colors they have! Hummingbirds here are not so bright, but they have many species in other parts of the US with incredible colors. It sounds like you had a sunbird blessing. I learned when Vic was sick and I spent lots of time in hospitals in seemingly hopeless circumstances to find something that made me grateful. A man holding his wife’s hand or helping her sip tea. A mom enduring the grumpiness of her son who had cancer with a grace that amazed me. Flowers, color, rays of light coming through windows, the murals in the children’s wing of the hospital where I often did laps at night. There was always something.

      I agree that Gary’s poem is beautiful. Somehow we’ll hold “the beating heart of creation” and get through this. Love to you in South Africa.

  9. Like many of your other readers, I needed this today too. I was awake for three hours last night for no apparent reason. This morning I awoke from a dream that depicted a narrow canyon path between us and some friends. The path was blocked with a cluster of large rust-colored metal spheres with spikes coming out of them. Even in the dream it reminded my dream ego of the red images I’ve been seeing on the media of the coronavirus. I think the general anxiety that pervades the airwaves and collective consciousness subtly makes its way into our unconscious selves. Social distancing may protect our bodies, but it’s not protecting my psyche.

    I shall make praise my practice for the rest of the day and if sleeplessness comes to me again tonight, i shall praise it. Thank you for sharing your practice and the beautiful poem. Love, Jeanie

    • Jeanie, as you know, there are plenty of reasons to be awake at night although maybe not personal ones. What a dream! I can’t escape the general anxiety either and I’m struggling with isolation, partly because Zoom meetings are a hearing stress. My poor brain is already processing one level of electronic sound and adding another on top of that, often distorted, is a neurological wipe out. I continue my weekly dream work and my writing group (on different days on Zoom), but have cancelled many other things. So we will praise our sleeplessness and our comfortable beds and night lights.

      Now it seems like good fortune that your book is coming out a little later than planned. I feel for people releasing books right now. May the world be calmer–or may we humans be calmer–when your valuable book arrives.

  10. Your post of praise cheered me this evening. After two eye injections today, my eyes are brimming with tears, a reaction to the shots, not sorrow. Often your posts evoke scripture I remember. This time, though, a poem I enjoyed with students:

    Glory be to God for dappled things —
    For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
    Landscape plotted |&| pieced — fold, fallow, |&| plough;
    And {‘a}ll trades, their gear |&| tackle |&| trim.
    All things counter, original, sp{‘a}re, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, freckl{`e}d, (who knows how?)
    With sw{‘i}ft, sl{‘o}w; sweet, s{‘o}ur; ad{‘a}zzle, d{‘i}m;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is p{‘a}st change:
    Pr{‘a}ise h{‘i}m.
    ~ Gerard Manley Hopkins

    Lover or nature, you can appreciate this. Perhaps you may remember it from a college lit class. Thank you for the loving snapshots of nature and the Rilke poem. I’m glad you are choose praise this day. It’s always a choice, you know. 🙂

    • Marian, two eye injections? Hmmm… An infection, macular degeneration, or ??? I hope you’re OK today. These bodies require more and more of us. Thank you for the poem. I vaguely remember it from many years ago, but I get it now. The world is dappled and brindled and mottled and stippled–inner and outer.

      I agree that praise is a choice, and it’s one I try to make. I also believe in giving voice to the side that can’t rise to praise every time–through writing, through active imagination (another kind of writing), through tending the scary images that show up in my dreams. I have an easier time staying with praise when I allow those voices to be part of the chorus. Sending healing love and safety to you.

  11. I think the odd meter I liked about Hopkins’ poem was called “sprung rhythm.”

    Yes, I have macular degeneration, which requires eye injections usually once monthly. It’s not a pleasant experience but I must endure it if I want to continue to SEE and maintain independence, the better alternative. Thanks for the good thoughts, Elaine!

    • I’m sorry to hear this, Marian, and glad you’re taking the medicine which I know is difficult. Good thing is it works and I agree it’s the best alternative. Fortunately, for now, my eyes are hanging in there although all this screen time isn’t good.

  12. Poetry to the rescue of us all! For the last three Sunday mornings I have been sitting with the Irish poet David Whyte via zoom for a wonderful experience of finding breath and solace with his poetry within performance & and the dance of words. I have traveled to San Francisco twice to see him and this “gift” that he has given all 4000 plus of us around the world who journeyed away to another world with him I’ve taken to calling my Sundays of Milk & Honey or Sweet Wine & Wild Clover. I breath, I listen, I weep, I smile and find contact in the mysterious feeling of being blessed by the wild at heart of darkness and light. These sessions, of The Courage In Poetry, Reassessing and Emboldening Our Lives (An Invitation to Solace, Companionship and Courage) have given me such an uplifting and centering of soul spirit bringing my north star into focus. During the last session I was feeling rather bereft with the thought that I would have no more sacred Sunday mornings with David when he announced at the end that he would be offering three more sessions in May – Just Beyond Yourself, The Poetry of Robust Vulnerability – oh joy! Certainly Praise. I can now march on into May knowing that I will once again be accompanied and transported in my isolation to placed of consolation, sanctuary and praise.

    • David Whyte is wonderful, Jan. I love reading his poetry and often share it Facebook. I’m glad you’re getting so much out of this and hope a few more people will learn about it by reading your comment. With a cochlear implant (100% electronic), Zoom and other online sound systems are exhausting and give me vertigo (a Meniere’s Disease symptom I’ve struggled with since 2013). Zoom or Skype sound is often distorted (a person with good hearing wouldn’t mind) because these apps are overloaded. I have to limit my online listening (like a whining kid who’s told she can only watch TV for an hour a day). I save Zoom for my weekly writing group and, on another day, my discussion with my dream therapist and other things that feel essential such as friends who are far away. Fortunately nature sounds like birds and spring peepers are comfortable and enjoyable and don’t cause problems with my cochlear implant. Human voices are fine in person, but most talking is over the phone or on Zoom now. If the person I’m talking to is masked and standing in my front yard, I can’t read lips. It’s a challenging time for those of us with severe hearing issues. Thanks for sharing the information about David Whyte’s Zoom broadcasts because someone else will want to know.

      • Hello Elaine, As you know, I have similar issues, esp. now as masks become more widespread. I know some people have made much of those transparent masks but really, are you going to hand one out to anyone you come into contact with that wants to say something to you? I found an app that will transcribe speech into text–imperfectly, but it works. I gather you have a “smartphone” so if you haven’t already checked it out, this could be a lifesaver in a pinch. As for Zoom, all of the issues you describe are true, but I don’t think hearing people really realize how jarring it is to have the screen flip toward whatever sound or noise happens in the midst of someone speaking. A chair creaks, a dog barks, someone clears their throat, and bam! Instantly, concentration is broken. It’s fine if it’s just one other person but not a group. Interesting how, just as when in a live/in person group, I fade into the background with Zoom. Being an introvert, this time isn’t greatly different than life before in most ways, but it’s increasingly hard as spring struggles in (frost warning tonight) and we want to make the most of our short summer. A new friend stopped by last weekend to give me books he had written and it was–there’s that word again– jarring to have to stand apart outside, talking across the yard.

        You asked, how do I praise? I do so by noticing the spring ephemerals currently blooming: Dutchman’s breeches (always first), trillium, Virginia bluebells, dicentra/bleeding heart, woodland phlox coming up quickly, followed by wild geranium and columbine and lady fern. They’ll be gone soon, most of them, withering back as other things step up. I must enjoy them while I can.

        • Joe, please send me the name of that app. I never use zoom on my cell phone but on my desktop. I talked to other users of Cochlear Americas implants at their FB support group and heard solid complaints. Some people have luck streaming through their phone, but my hearing aid won’t allow me to stream in my hearing aid ear and cochlear implant ear at the same time. I plan to contact my audiologist to see if that has changed, but I haven’t wanted to take the two hour drive and visit a medical setting. I may need to go soon. We assumed I’d need a CI in my R ear, but I still have too much correctable hearing with a hearing aid. I’m also finding it’s easier with one person and more difficult with groups, but my writing group is controlled with most mics off most the time. The teacher has become a good Zoom moderator.

          It’s supposed to snow and freeze here tonight, too. I just took an at a distance walk with a friend who lived here in the winter. My hearing feels relaxing in that situation. She’s willing to speak in a loud voice. Your wildflower season is way ahead of mine. The trillium buds are tightly closed here which means they may make it through the freezing snap. A local organic grower told me this morning that he may lose his asparagus crop and he seemed fairly relaxed about it. Farmers need to be relaxed. I still have many of the plants you named coming in my future. It’s sweet to hear from you and know that you understand the hearing struggles I face in this super-electronic world. Best to you and good health.

          • is the one I am using currently but I am sure it’s evolving and new ones will appear. It’s 80% accurate but better than nothing.

          • I’ll look into it. Thanks, Joe. Sometimes nothing is better for me than poor captions. My voice and word recognition work well in person–so without Zoom distortion. My son suggests my computer needs to be replaced. It’s 6 years old and becoming more flaky. We’ll get through this one way or other.

      • Elaine, I truly hadn’t considered, or had knowledge of how disorientating and disturbing zoom would be for someone with a cochlear implant. I’ve only worked with toddler age children who have them and I imagine that is quite a different experience, with the addition that they aren’t very articulate yet in their responses to the implant. It becomes all about the reading of body language. I will say that David’s setting is very quiet, just him in a room and no one else is speaking during his presentation. They are recorded and then available afterward to listen to again and I think the recorded videos are actually of better quality.
        You however are blessed with bird song and spring peepers that I miss very much living in the city, they are here but their praise of the day is muffled within the competition of human made sound.

        • I had no idea about this Zoom world either, Jan. I knew phones were hard for me but this is a whole new level of hard because Zoom is overused and sound is often slightly distorted. I’m hanging in there. I agree that recorded talks are better if the recording is excellent. After a few struggling Zoom experiences, I left the meeting and listening to TED talks to see what was going on with my hearing and realized well recorded talks were still easy for me to understand and hear. Not a bit like Zoom or some podcasts.

          Last week, I spoke to a Cornell class about giving a TED style talk and was fine because I did most of the talking–and the class professor was in our Zoom meeting so I could relax knowing she would hear anything I missed. I can still give a talk, but don’t always hear responses clearly. I’m grateful I hear nature’s simple unmuffled sounds with less stress and more enjoyment. The birds are having a concert this morning to celebrate a sunny morning.

  13. Dear Elaine,

    I read your entry a week ago. It touched and eased my heart, and I have been musing about praise since then. At first I thought of the psalms (though I was raised by staunch atheists) and looked up a bit about them on the Internet: “The verb hālal means “praise” and “The word [Hallelujah] rings throughout the Psalms in one mighty panoply of praise”(I love that phrase “panoply of praise”). And then I remembered Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, listened to it, and found what he had written about it:

    “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can… reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah’. The song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value. It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”

    I also thought of Mary Oliver and how much her poetry seems to be an expression of praise. And then I found this quote by her: “I did not think of language as the means to self-description,” she wrote in her essay “Staying Alive,” about discovering poetry as a means of coping with a troubled childhood. “I thought of it as the door—a thousand opening doors!—past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.”

    I love how your writing has expanded my sense of praise, reminding me that we can all find ways to praise this precious life, no matter how difficult the times be. Thank you, thank you.

    • Thank you, Anne. I love the quotes you shared–and the sense that we can praise knowing whatever our egos want or love won’t be final. So the sense of praising the moment, as I did this morning when opening the shades in my bedroom and seeing two male bluebirds. Their mates chose to nest close to each other which is the first time that’s happened, but yes, yes, yes! The males were beautiful in early morning sun (now behind clouds) and carefully ignored each other. I’m glad they’re not arguing since we have enough of that in this world. Will the 9 eggs in the two boxes make it? I have no idea, but I offered up a prayer for them and praised their beauty. A few hours later the power went out and my first reaction was, “Oh no, a catastrophe!” Then I settled down and sat at the window watching the birds come and go with Disco’s head on my lap. That’s one way to praise. (The power is back on. No catastrophe except in my psyche.)

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