A Poem to Live By

I first read this in college, while pledging my fraternity. We were given the assignment to go around to all the upper classmen and interview them, talk to them, get them to sign our pledge paddles. Most of the conversations were dull, boring – how’s the weather? What’s your favorite team?

Except J.D.

J.D. struck me as a jock. He drove a pick-up truck and worked out until his t-shirts were tight around his biceps. Shorter than me. Red-brown hair. Freckles, the marks of Irish DNA. J.D. was intense, but a good man – as I would learn through the next two years before he graduated and I’d never see him again. Just the occasional Facebook message now and then.

J.D. wouldn’t sign my paddle. Not right away. He had an assignment for me. He scribbled out a quote, a couple of lines from a poem he loved. He’d sign my paddle when I could tell him what it was from, who wrote it and what it meant.

I’m glad he did.

It took me a weekend in those days when the internet was only for e-mail and slowly downloading pirated Playboy pictures of Pam Anderson. And on Monday, I cornered him at lunch, one of the long tables in the ground floor dining room that doubled as the dance floor during house parties. He asked me if I’d found the poem. I told him I had. He asked who it was by. I told him Theodore Roethke. He asked me it’s title and I recited the whole thing from memory. He took my paddle, signed it without a word. I thanked him and we never spoke of it again.

Thank you, J.D.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

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