Sunday, June 2, 2013
My mother was orphaned at the age of nine, raised by cousins, and the first person in her family to graduate from high school. She never had a bicycle or a birthday cake as a child. My father was the next-to-youngest of nine siblings all being raised by a single mother after my paternal grandfather died when her youngest was still an infant. Dad, like his brothers and sisters, had to leave school to work and help support the family. A desire to be of more help led him to volunteer for the service...in Vietnam.
Once my father returned from the war he spied a beautiful young woman at the local hangout, Finley's Drive-in, and before they knew it they were eloping to Jellico, Tennessee, a state border town that made an economy out of marrying people. Justices-of-the-peace were everywhere in Jellico. One could even get married by the butcher's case in the back of the IGA there (my cousin did so). My parents found a little church, got hitched, and over the years since I've studied the picture many times. My mother in her blue mini-skirt dress and beehive hairdo, my father in his checked blazer and black penny loafers. The copper of the pennies he had inserted glint out at me.
Then they worked. First they went North, like many young Appalachian couples of the time. My father poured concrete on the Flint River Project and my mother worked an assembly line at the Gibson Refrigerator Factory in Flint, Michigan. But they were too homesick and eventually came back to Southeastern Kentucky where my father first worked as a mechanic and then as a supervisor in a fiberglass factory (which blew up shortly after he retired, killing seven of his close friends) and as a concrete pourer on the side. Often he worked eighteen hours a day. My mother rose before daylight to cook breakfast, went in for an eight-hour shift where she was a lunch-lady (and later, a cashier) in the Lily Elementary School cafeteria (which we always called "the lunchroom"). She came home from work to cook supper and clean house. She never sat down until darkness had overtaken the world.
They worked because they wanted to make sure I had more than they did. Because they didn't want to go back to being poor. Not because they were greedy, but because they wanted to provide for me and each other.
Everyone in my family was like this, which greatly defies that stereotype of the Appalachian people as lazy ne'er-do-wells who lie about on the porch with their hound-dogs, tipping back the moonshine jug. My aunt came home with bloody hands from the yarn factory. My uncle came home with coal-dust embedded in his skin, my grandfather lost his leg in the mines. My cousins worked as waitresses and clerks and school bus drivers and Avon salespeople and Walmart associates, as farmers and horse jockeys and construction workers and plumbers.
Throughout my teenage years and early twenties I had a plethora of jobs: busboy, cook, dishwasher, cashier, Lowe's, WalMart, satellite-installer, concrete-pourer, newspaper reporter, mail carrier.
All the while, though, I was writing.
When I was finally able to become a full-time writer I felt an immense amount of guilt for not doing "physical labor." And my writing was certainly not treated as real work by others. I was the one in the famiy who was always called upon to take people to the doctor or run errands. They'd say "Can you do that? Everybody else has to work today?" The implication, of course, being that what I was doing down there in my writer's shack was definitely not work. Even though I made it clear to everyone that my writing day lasted from the time I took my daughters to school until I went to pick them up--roughly 8AM-3PM--people still dropped in all the time or constantly called me "just to chat" (when you have children at school you can't just "turn off the phone"). Despite the fact that I had a handwritten sign on the front door of my writer's shack (I am working. Please don't knock and break my train of thought unless it is a complete emergency.) this was readily ignored. People knocked all. the. time. Usually just to drop in and see what I was "up to."
Since I wasn't going into a place to work and since my hands weren't getting dirty my work wasn't seen as real work by most of the people I knew. And that led me to sometimes question whether or not my work was valid, whether or not I shouldn't have been doing something more physical as my labor. And I felt guilty for not working as hard as my parents did or as physically as others in my family. Never mind that I raised a huge garden when I was writing A Parchment of Leaves to get better into character (a practice that I kept up after the novel was finished...I still raise a garden today). Never mind that after my writing day was over I was constantly doing physical labor around the house and for others. Never mind that I was always physically active and still cannot sit still very long (I sit still in my mind, writing while I garden or build raised beds or install new light fixtures or clean house). I was still made to feel guilty for not doing physical labor as my primary means of making a living.
So I am writing this blog to anyone who has been made to feel the same way. Don't allow anyone to make you feel as if your writing-work isn't real work. It is. It is back-breaking, sweat-on-the-forehead hard. I often say to people that I'm lucky that I get to do what I love for a living, that I feel so blessed to not have to work as physically hard as my parents did. But it's still work. It's real work. It's hard. It's exhausting. It's valid. Don't let anyone tell you--or make you feel--otherwise.
All of this was brought on because this lovely Sunday morning I was reading for an upcoming class I'm teaching in Ireland. And during that research I came across this amazing poem by Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who says everything I've said above in a much more subtle and beautiful way.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pin rest; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
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.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.