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How I Dug Into My Favorite Poem When It Grew Into Real Life Around Me


Lately, I have taken to waking up early, 5 am to be exact. This time of year it is just about the hour when the sun begins to grace Brooklyn with a low, murky light. Once coffee is made, I make my way to the wrought iron table and chairs in my postage-stamp backyard, ashtray waiting, I open my laptop and write.

Each day, at about the same time, the old man makes his way into the backyard just next to mine. He is Chinese, seems to be somewhere in his eighties, and as I eventually learned, doesn’t speak a word of English, which seems only fair because I don’t speak a word of Chinese. I sit with my back to his yard, but when I stand up to pace out a thought or get more coffee, I see him, crouched over his plants, meticulous in his inspections of every leaf.

We would just sort of nod a greeting. At first I got that sense you sometimes get when you feel certain that someone doesn’t like you. I didn’t know if it was the smoking, or the fact that the dirt portions and planting pots of my own backyard were a weed-strewn jungle compared to his bucolic perfection. But we went about our business.

Our first real interaction came one of those mornings when he started gesturing at my grill with his shovel. I have one those little Weber rectangular jobs sitting on a long table on the border of our yards. I naturally assumed there was something about the situation he didn’t like, but couldn’t fathom what it could be. Moving slowly, he reached over the short wire fence, took the lid off the grill then pointed at the ash of the spent coals, and then at his shovel.

He held out the shovel, and I poured the ashes, which he then sprinkled over his plants. It was a peaceful moment. I then went back to my laptop to opine on all that is wrong with the world. Next to it, my iPad, on the other side my phone. There isn’t a slip of paper, not a pen, not a pencil. My devices silently deliver all the feeds; I am connected to the weightless and wireless world.

The old man doesn’t seem to own a modern gardening tool. Just shovels and spades. Instead of a hose he collects rainwater in large trashcans. Over some couple of mornings he was using a handsaw to slice wrist-thick limbs off the tree in the corner of his garden. A few days later, those limbs formed a trellis, kept together with red ribbon, under which started to grow large plants of some kind.

One morning, after the exchange of ashes, it struck me how different we were. In language, in age, certainly in gardening ability. But mostly what struck me was how connected to the earth he was. As I sat, drifting through the distant seas of information, locked into my screen, as if it, not the back yard, was reality, he interacted with every inch of his immediate surroundings, never minding the latest controversy or viral video. He was where he was.

That was the moment I remembered my favorite work of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. It’s called “Digging.” In the poem, Heaney describes sitting in his room writing, and below hearing the sound of his father digging in the earth.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

The moment also reminds him of his grandfather, who could also slice the dirt masterfully, and of all the diggers who came before him. There is somewhere buried, seeded in his words, a great world sadness, disconnection.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

In that moment Heaney has his own revelation. No, he cannot masterfully work the land like his forefathers; he doesn’t labor outside tied to every element around him. He sits in a room, alone; face stared straight at paper and waits for words. Then he finds a few.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

I rolled up a cigarette and pondered, trying to puzzle out what Heaney meant. In what way was writing his poems like digging peat? Writers dig for truth, they plant ideas in people’s minds — that had always been my take since I first read it, so many years ago when bathed in the innocence of faith in good intention. But now, having almost lived it, I saw much more in his words.

The two terms that struck me were passion and pride. Passion for writing, or gardening, or anything, can make people wake up at 5 a.m.. It can make them lock into what they are doing, oblivious to all else. Pride can sustain that passion, the desire to make it better, the plant, and the essay. The old man and I, sharing maybe 800 square feet in the middle of the biggest borough of New York City, were pursuing our passions.

A few weeks ago, sometime around my second pot of coffee, with the sun now fully illuminating the yards, he walked into mine. We greeted each other with quick, awkward bows. He then proceeded to dump out four of my weed-ridden planting pots, left by the previous tenant. Then in each, he poured in dirt and placed young leafy plants of some kind inside. He showed me how to water them with a cup next to his garbage can full of rainwater.

Now each morning, after setting my technological mis en place on the table, I walk over to the plants, and water them as he showed me. They’ve grown, but I still have no idea what they are. Then we both go about our mornings, engaged in what we love. Connected by passion, and the pride of hard work.