“The Dash” is a Poem of Comfort and Action


I’m in the final week of my first (and probably last, at least for a while) grad school class. Below is an updated post that originally ran in July 2010.  

There’s a poem called The Dash,” written in 1996 by Linda Ellis.

The story in the poem speaks about the measure, or the width, of our existence, what we do with the years after we’re born and before we die.  The dash represents our hopes, dreams and accomplishments as well as our failures.  It is the sum of each of our moments and how we’ve chosen to string them together.

I thought about The Dash once while listening to someone express its meaning in a different way.  He reminded his audience that the first sentence, actually a question, of Step One of Alcoholics Anonymous reads:  “Who cares to admit complete defeat?”

As hundreds of heads knowingly nodded, he went on to refresh our memories with the first sentence of Step Twelve which reads, “The joy of living is the theme of AA’s 12th step and action is its key word.”

As I listened to the chorus of ahs around me, I remembered the dash.

A friend’s dash

A guy I used to know named Jim had his dash inscribed after he died in a motorcycle accident.   Several of his friends are good friends of mine and

I pictured them standing in the parking lot of the funeral home, before they fired up their Harleys, cussing and discussing his dash.  For Jim, and for my friends, the dash and the distance between the sentences of Steps One and Twelve are synonymous.

I suppose the dash is the final mile marker on the distance of Jim’s journey.

As it is for all of us.

Sometimes, though, I get caught up in a small incremental portion of the dash I’m creating.  During those times, I definitely do not want to admit complete defeat and there is definitely no joy in my living.  I’ve completely cast aside the key word of action.  Typically, I have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired before I holler “uncle!”

I’m ready now, though. This year has been especially trying. The details don’t matter, because when push comes to shove, everybody has tough days, months and even years. How we deal with them by taking responsibility for choosing differently, all gets built into the dash.

My dash (could be yours too!)

I’m choosing differently now. I’m taking action. After all, I embrace the lines of another favorite poem, “Invictus”

I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.

These lines from “The Dash” help me make things better:

If we could just slow down enough
to consider what’s true and real
and always try to understand
​the way other people feel.

Like Jim, when my journey’s distance reaches its end, I want my spirit to smile broadly, knowing that I’ve chosen the joy of living and created a really wide dash.

To read “The Dash” in full, click here.

Photo courtesy of click

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