07/07/2014 03:42 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2014

Running the Table

This fall, Sounds True is publishing a box set of teaching conversations based on the poems in my book Reduced to Joy. The poems are the teachers and unfold the journey from our head to our heart. For the next two months, I'm happy to be previewing poems and reflections from the box set.

We each have these stories in our own journey that have shaped us--either positively or negatively, either as affirmations or cautions. But we seldom are aware of them or how to use them for what we face now. This poem holds such a story for me, from my youth. My father's father was one of four sons born in Russia and living in Brooklyn. This is the gift they gave me as a boy, that I return to often.

Running the Table

On certain Sundays in the late fifties,
my father's four uncles would sweep into
our home like a tornado of laughter and
take us to the local pool hall. They were
weathered immigrants from Russia--Max,
Al, Norton, and Axi. They'd sharked their
way through the Depression, running the
table, throwing money in a jar. Once Axi,
hit by a car, broke his thumb, but cursed,
played and won, before having it set. That's
how he got his name: Axi, for accident. My
father always opened up a little more around
them. I used to wake on Sundays and hope,
the way quiet children pray in secret for
gypsies to arrive. But what I remember
most is being knee-high, not quite able to
see the table, their laughter circling like the
gods of Olympus tossing their losses into the
sea. My brother and I would run through their
legs. We couldn't make out all that was said.
But the smell of chalk, and swift strokes scat-
tering bright balls, the thunder of resilience
that parted life's harshness--it made me feel
happy and safe. Sometimes I'd grab one of their
legs like the tree of life itself. Now, when beat
up and sad, I find myself drifting into some
bar, looking for a cue. Then I take the years
off like a coat, chalk up and sigh; leaning
over the felt table, waiting for their
laughter to swallow the world.

A Question to Walk With: Tell the story of a now mythic moment in your youth that has helped to shape your understanding of resilience.

For more poetry for the soul, click here.

For more by Mark Nepo, click here.