Some of the earliest known human writing was, basically, counting. On clay tablets, with little styluses, ancient Sumerian merchants tallied lists of goods: barley, cattle, wheat, wine. Imagine the power of it. One minute you’re living in a world of uncontainable profusion. Men and beasts jostle in the dirty markets; ships bob and crash at the dock; the storehouses overflow with infinities of goods. All around that swarms a further scampering abundance — kids, cats, rats, ants, the drops of water that make up the river, the atoms that make up the drops.
The next minute you’re holding that profusion in your hand, as solidly as you would hold a rock or an apple: an inventory of the world. The abundance has been brought under control. That reduction is profound. Meditation often involves the simple counting of breaths.
In Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poem “kid,” the speaker is living in domestic chaos. Everyone seems to be angry. Her brother is in the hospital, and no one will tell her why or for how long.
And so she counts. She counts the number of times the pastor refers to hell in his sermon, the white socks and black shoes in church, how many months her brother has been away, the number of roses on the wallpaper of her new room. She counts the number of times she can fit the word “lonely” onto a single sheet of A4 paper. She counts the number of times her mother swears on a phone call to Jamaica. Her mother doesn’t appreciate this (“She is not impressed when you tell her so”), but that doesn’t matter. The counting itself is the point. And the power of the counting belongs to the child. It allows her to reduce the chaos, label it and hold it in her mind.