Revisiting my grandfather's favorite poem
It's rare, but sometimes the things that are supposed to stick with us actually do
A quick update: I still have a few review copies of Dragged Into the Light to share with people who are willing to review it. Respond to this email and I’ll send one to you. The book is live in some places now, but I’m waiting for it to appear on Audible before I make a bigger push.
I’m a grandfather now. I have been for a while, and think about my own grandfather now more than I have since his death—Christ, nearly 40 years ago. Part of it is selfish, wondering what my own grandchildren will remember about me and hedging that with what I remember about him.
Until recently, it bothered me to think that I don’t recall what he “really” thought, that I never got to be a grownup with him. I have scenes or images that I apply stories to, or have impressions of, but his words often elude me. I remember the feeling of him so much more than I recall specifics.
He was a Depression-era guy, served in the Navy during WWII, he had that rare community-centric self-sufficiency. A carpenter by trade, nothing made of parts was beyond his ability and curiosity. He would fix whatever was broken. I remember him making a butterfly stitch out of bandaids. He was a doer. He was busy. He was obnoxiously physically fit. Tender but not emotional.
No one did without where he could help it and when he died unexpectedly, the people who didn’t know him could have been excused for confusing this working man’s funeral with a state procession.
He wasn’t taciturn, but neither was he a giver of advice or of life lessons. Or so I thought.
From the time I was very young, I’d get angry that the world wouldn’t conform to my standards or wishes or caprice. When I would complain about whatever serious triviality was plaguing my childhood sensibilities, or when I would throw tantrums about something being unfair he would say, flatly, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”
The thing is, he never said it like it was a poem or a mantra. He said it like a command, not in the sense that it was an order but rather as a strong statement. I understood what he meant, kind of, but it was also a little cryptic. In case you don’t recognize the quote, it’s the opening two lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” (rendered in full below).
I feel like I didn’t read the whole poem until I was a little older. My grandfather wasn’t a quoter or overt lover of poetry, and it wasn’t until I was a little older than that that I realized he must have committed it to memory in the old canonical public education way. He probably also could recite “O Captain, My Captain!” (thank God that wasn’t the one that spoke to him).
Even if they can’t recite it, all of my children know the poem. They know that it was my grandfather’s favorite poem and that I can rarely get through it without getting a little misty. I only have recently come to understand the depth of my attachment to it, though. I think of the poem as an attitude he knew he couldn’t improve upon and wanted me to have.
Amid the snippets of moments and lessons, learning how to fish or saw something through without losing my fingers, these words that he borrowed from Kipling are among the precious few I retain in tone and verbatim. They are among the ones I can still hear him say, those first two lines spoken without flourish or edifice. They are the short version, I think, of everything he wanted me to know: Try to be your best, then try harder. I know you have it in you.
Keep the Faith,
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise: If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools: If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’ If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!