“The Shoelace,” by Charles Bukowski: A Mantra to Keep You From Going Insane

I have to remind myself daily that no matter what’s thrown at me in an attempt to piss me off, it’s not going to send me off the deep end. This is why I’ve read “The Shoelace,” a poem by the great Charles Bukowski, a lot lately. Read it, and you’ll see why it’s become my mantra, my koan, my litany against me losing my fucking mind on the stresses of life.

a woman, a
tire that’s flat, a
disease, a
desire: fears in front of you,
fears that hold so still
you can study them
like pieces on a
it’s not the large things that
send a man to the
madhouse. death he’s ready for, or
murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood…
no, it’s the continuing series of small tragedies
that send a man to the
not the death of his love
but a shoelace that snaps
with no time left …
The dread of life
is that swarm of trivialities
that can kill quicker than cancer
and which are always there –
licence plates or taxes
or expired driver’s license,
or hiring or firing,
doing it or having it done to you, or
roaches or flies or a
broken hook on a
screen, or out of gas
or too much gas,
the sink’s stopped-up, the landlord’s drunk,
the president doesn’t care and the governor’s
lightswitch broken, mattress like a
$105 for a tune-up, carburetor and fuel pump at
sears roebuck;
and the phone bill’s up and the, market’s
and the toilet chain is
and the light has burned out –
the hall light, the front light, the back light,
the inner light; it’s
darker than hell
and twice as
then there’s always crabs and ingrown toenails
and people who insist they’re
your friends;
there’s always that and worse;
leaky faucet, christ and christmas;
blue salami, 9 day rains,
50 cent avocados
and purple

or making it
as a waitress at norm’s on the split shift,
or as an emptier of
or as a carwash or a busboy
or a stealer of old lady’s purses
leaving them screaming on the sidewalks
with broken arms at the age of 80.

2 red lights in your rear view mirror
and blood in your
toothache, and $979 for a bridge
$300 for a gold
and china and russia and america, and
long hair and short hair and no
hair, and beards and no
faces, and plenty of zigzag but no
pot, except maybe one to piss in
and the other one around your

with each broken shoelace
out of one hundred broken shoelaces,
one man, one woman, one
enters a

so be careful
when you
bend over.

Yes, things have been rough recently, and my levels of frustration have reached astronomical levels. But in the grand scheme of it all, everything that’s conspiring against me and my family – our careers, this very possible relocation, my daughter’s illness (which I haven’t really discussed, but I will in a future blog) – is just a collection of broken shoelaces, or, as my wife puts it, “death by a thousand paper cuts.” If we let those broken shoelaces impact us, then we’re heading straight to the loony bin.

And we can’t have that.

PS – I’m fine, actually. This isn’t some veiled request for help or anything like that. It’s just that when there’s a lot of balls that need to be juggled all at once, you need to look to something to help you sort things out. I started this blog nearly 2 years ago as a therapeutic outlet, and it’s a good time right now for sorting things out as I’m getting my writing back on track. Thanks for reading!


14 thoughts on ““The Shoelace,” by Charles Bukowski: A Mantra to Keep You From Going Insane

  1. Love that. There are few who can cure anything that ails you–Bukowski is one.

    “The Laughing Heart” is one of my favorites that I cling to:

    your life is your life
    don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
    be on the watch.
    there are ways out.
    there is a light somewhere.
    it may not be much light but
    it beats the darkness.
    be on the watch.
    the gods will offer you chances.
    know them.
    take them.
    you can’t beat death but
    you can beat death in life, sometimes.
    and the more often you learn to do it,
    the more light there will be.
    your life is your life.
    know it while you have it.
    you are marvelous
    the gods wait to delight
    in you.

    Read by the genius Tom Waits:

    Hang in there, Gus. You are marvelous.

  2. I hear ya, Gus. The only way to write angry is with a giant Sharpie on the wall. It’s gotta by physical. I struggled with that all last year. I, too, found a poem that helped and I stuck it up on the wall over my writing table. I read it every single morning before beginning. It says, “But when I breathe with the birds, The spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessing, And the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep.” Theodore Roethke If I stare at it long enough, it works. All the best in your hard time.

  3. Hey Gus,
    Thank you for sharing this fabulous poem by a guy who has quickly become my favorite thanks to Christy (glad to see that she saw this cuz i was gonna send it to her if she hadn’t).
    Wishing you good vibes and harmony as you continue through…you obviously have the right attitude and a fearless partner. The two best things in the world, right?

  4. What a great poem! It reminds me of this quote:
    Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day to day living that wears you out.—Anton Chekhov

  5. Thanks for posting this really great poem. When the chips are down, leave it to Bukowski to have just the right words to help pull you out of it. Hope you are well Gus. I always enjoy your posts.

    • Chuck is the patron saint for souls everywhere who’ve had life kick them in the teeth, and Chuck reminds us that when life kicks us in the teeth, we get to shout, “Is that all you got, ya bastard?”

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