I Learn By Going Where I Have to Go

20 Jun

I’ve been reading poetry lately, and it’s soaked into me, like sunlight into skin: there’s a rhythm, real or imagined, that falls into the body, a measure of breaths, thoughts, steps.

Today I wake with Roethke in my head: “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.”

A villanelle is a wondrous thing. Only two rhyme sounds, and they stay with you. Refrains repeat themselves within the poem, then within your head.

My favorite villanelle: Roethke’s “The Waking.” Every time I return to it, or it returns to me, something shifts. The lines are reborn, and we meet again, strangers who knew each other long ago, but had forgotten.

“I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.”

This morning I slide to the kitchen in socks. Brew coffee, microwave oatmeal. Swirl congealed oats around the bowl, rest my chin on the rim of the coffee mug. Steam rises, warming my face.

I pack a backpack with books, a water bottle, and sandwiches.

I want a good walk—a few hours of outdoors, a space of time to be alone but not feel lonely. Three miles down the road, there’s such a place to amble: a 300-acre sweep of hills, gardens, and hiking trails that border the Middle Oconee River.

“I learn by going where I have to go.”          

I start on a trail that loops down to the river. The fractured trunk of a Red Oak rises from the ground, its splintered bust like a wooden stalagmite. I reach for the camera, but find that I’ve left it at home.

“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.”

The river is quiet. A broken tree cuts through the water, its trunk cracked and fallen, and its branches comb the current. I make a sketch—outlining frail leaves, the curve of the river, and the break in the trunk. I use a thick ballpoint pen—not great for sketching, but good enough. I finish the drawing and walk on.

The trail diverges from the river and winds through the hills, the path carved out from the woods. Creek water sings over black stones and amber minnows dart in shallow, vernal pools. A dragonfly with black wings and an emerald body hovers over a leaf.

“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.”

The canopy stencils sunlight onto the trunks of trees, across the dry, tattered ground. A white mushroom with a roseate cap lies trampled on the path.

“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.”

A philosopher-vandal has walked these paths before me, lettering the wooden planks of footbridges with a sharpie. Each bridge holds a message, and I read them as I walk:

“Do more good.” “Be mindful.” “Do you have more than you need?” “How much does your life weigh?” The planks echo under my shoes.

I enter a valley, lush with tall, leafy plants, and see a young buck, a doe, and a fawn traipse through the growth. A giant bee, thick as my thumb, lands on my forearm. I don’t flick it off, afraid it will return, vengeful, and sting. I carry it across the valley, its bright body gleaming on my skin.

“Great Nature has another thing to do


To you and me, so take the lively air,


And, lovely, learn by going where to go.”

As the valley meets the woods, I meet a man with fuzzy hair tied back in a ponytail. I ask him what to do about the bee, if it will sting me. He leans over, studying it, and it flies away. He says it’s not a bee, but an imitator. More of a beetle, really. I’m not sure if I believe him. Thanks, I say, I was terrified.

“This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.


What falls away is always. And is near.
”

The trail finishes out in the parking lot. I get in my car, go home, take a shower, nap. Later I walk to the grocery to buy yogurt. I read a short story on my porch, go to a coffee shop to write. I talk to Amir, a grad student, about Atlanta. I walk home, sit, post this. It is late.

“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.


I learn by going where I have to go.

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2 Responses to “I Learn By Going Where I Have to Go”

  1. Joe Chambers March 18, 2013 at 1:45 am #

    Thank you for this. It moved my heart. Peace to you…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Theodore Roethke – “The Waking” « Real Poetry - August 28, 2012

    […] I Learn By Going Where I Have to Go (writedrunkandeditsober.wordpress.com) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Posted in Poem of the Week and tagged Poetry, POTW, Roethke, Theodore Roethke, Villanelle, Waking […]

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