“Before We Leave” by Stephen Dunn

Just so it’s clear—
no whining on the journey.
If you whine, you’ll get stuck
somewhere with people
like yourself. It’s an unwritten law.
Wear hiking boots. Pack food
and a change of clothes.
We go slowly. Endurance won’t
be enough, though without it
you can’t get to the place
where more of you is asked.
Expect there will be times
when you’ll be afraid.
Hold hands and tremble together
if you must but remember
each of you is alone.

Where are we going?
It’s not an issue of here or there.
And if you ever feel you can’t
take another step imagine
how you might feel to arrive,
if not wiser, a little more aware
how to inhabit the middle ground
between misery and joy.
Trudge on. In the higher regions,
where the footing is unsure,
to trudge is to survive.

Happiness is another journey,
almost over before it starts,
guaranteed to disappoint.
If you’ve come for it, say so,
you’ll get your money back.
I hope you all realize that anytime
is a fine time to laugh. Fake it,
however, and false laughter
will accompany you like a cowbell
for the rest of your days.
You’ll forever lack the seriousness
of a clown. At some point
the rocks will be jagged,
the precipice sheer. That won’t be
the abyss you’ll see looking down.
The abyss, you’ll discover
(if you’ve made it this far),
is usually nearer than that—
at the bottom of something
you’ve yet to resolve,
or posing as your confidante.
Follow me. Don’t follow me. I will
say such things, and mean both.

“Before We Leave” by Stephen Dunn from Lines of Defense: Poems (W. W. Norton & Company).

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