The Gravedigger’s Tale

Poetry of Everyday Life, Blogpost 12

Born in Aiken South Carolina, raised in South Jamaica, Queens, Donnie Williams, a gravedigger, spent many long years digging his own grave.

“There was a time when I was actually looking at a death – my own,” he told me.

“When I was growing up, I was in the church – but I strayed.  I first started selling drugs when I was 13 – by 14 I started making real good money.  My grandmother would come and get me and we would go to church and then when I leave church I’d go back to doin’ what I was doin’ – and sometimes I would see my grandmother coming and just go hide so I wouldn’t have to go to church. Like my mother always says, ‘God has a way of bringing you down.’  At 15 I was doing really well. At 17, I ended up in the penitentiary.

Donnie William, Gravedigger

“They gave me 75 years to life – my mother, my grandmother and the church they worked on it and worked on it and after 2 and a half years, they got me out.

“When they finally got me out my grandmother said ‘you’re not going back to jail and you’re gonna get yourself a straight job’ My grandfather got me a job in 1980 in Beth David Cemetery. When I first started out I was just cutting grass with my grandfather. Yeah I used to walk by just to watch people dig the graves and I was wondering when it would be my turn one day –and sure enough one day I came in and a man handed me a shovel. I went in there digging like an old steam shovel.

“I started liking it so after 5 years I cut the drug dealing and stuck with the cemetery. Became honest. If you’re good at something it pays to be good at that – some people are good at writin’, some people good at photography. I was pretty decent at being a grave digger. I learned how to take a rounded spade shovel and make a square hole.“

But when my mother died and I lost my best friend I started drinking heavier and became an alcoholic, and then I became a functioning alcoholic, then I became a functioning fighting alcoholic.

Donnie Williams has mastered the art of digging a square hole with a rounded shovel.

“I used to get out there and tell the guy, ‘you don’t have to dig the grave, I’ll dig it.’  I’d go to the store and get me a six pack and I’d dig the grave 5 and half feet, a little deeper. Then I’d make a square hole down there, bury the six pack under the grave and go.

“But I knew I had to get my life together and in order to do that I had to go somewhere and find somebody and find peace in my life to make myself become who I used to be.  And that’s what happened. I checked myself into a clinic.

“I was in Odyssey Rehab and I was in there for about a year and a half going on- almost two years – and I was beating my own purpose – I was still going out drinking, tellin’ people no I’m not drinkin’, getting dirty urine but you know when I thought about it I thought it’s time to get yourself together – you came here for a reason – so I started stoppin’ little by little.

So one night I came to my room and the light was kind of dim. And there was this person sittin’ on my side of the bed—so I asked this guy, ‘you’re in the wrong room, Sir.’  He didn’t say nothin’ to me – so I said, maybe he’s sleepin’ – I said, ‘Excuse me, Sir, you’re in the wrong room – and if you don’t get out of here, I’m gonna whoop your ass.

He says to me, ‘hmmmm.’

I said, ‘Excuse me, you’re in the wrong room, Sir.’

He turned around and lifted up his head and said, ‘You don’t know me?’

I said, ‘No, I don’t know you. But you’re in the wrong room. If you don’t get up out my room there’s gonna be issues here.’

So the man looked at me, eyes red as fire and said, ‘You don’t know me?’

I said, ‘I don’t know you and don’t really give a damn.’

The man turned around and said, ‘I’m you.’

My head started spinning, really.   I had started thinking, and was thinking maybe he’s drunk.

He says, ‘I’m you.’

I said, ‘what do you mean, you’re me?’

He said, ‘I’m the drunk in you.’

‘The drunk in me?’

Couldn’t figure that one out either.

Then he told me, ‘you’re leaving me.’

I said, ‘leaving me?  If you don’t get out of my room, you right you’re gonna be leavin’ me.’

Then he turned around and told me the whole story.   He said, ‘I’m the drunk in you and you’re leavin’ me.’ And it was then I realized I had stopped drinkin’ for a whole year and I didn’t even know that God was with me then, without the bottle, without any medication. I was sober – and from that day to this day I haven’t seen that person since.

That’s a phenomenon I really would like to understand – but you know what? I ain’t in no rush to try to push it either.  I take it day by day and I let it go and if he show up again, maybe I can ask that question.”

“You know,” I said to Donnie, “you’re a great storyteller.”

“Never a storyteller.  I’m only telling you facts of what’s happened to me. Now I don’t know about anybody else. You asked me about me, and I can only tell you about me. And everything I tell you about me is the God’s Heaven truth. I’m telling you facts, not stories, there’s a difference. I don’t mind telling you because that’s part of what God put in my life.”

The grave digger’s tale is true. These are the facts.  To paraphrase the writer Virginia Woolf these are the creative facts; the fertile facts; the facts that suggest and engender.  I shared Donnie’s story with my friend, the poet and therapist, Marc Kaminsky.  “In Donnie’s story,” Marc said, “facts become images of transformation; they evoke the conversion experience through which the divided self becomes healed and whole through the intercession of grace.  His story belongs to the poetry of everyday life because he is thinking in images. Is the mysterious event in the room a hallucination or a revery or a visitation through the unconscious? The vision confirms that Donnie is leaving his drunken – his divided, dissociated – self behind; it is the revelation that leads to lifelong change.“

Donnie now has five successful children, and is gainfully employed as a grounds keeper in New York City, working with two wonderful women who “regrouped” him.  Long before he sat down with myself and filmmaker Heather Quinlan, Donnie testified to these storied facts of his life each Sunday at Peace Mission Church of Christ in Queens, elevating them to a revelation beyond storytelling, his poetic evocation rising up into the eaves, told before God and everyone – encouraging all of us to walk away from the dark side of ourselves.

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Live from the POEMobile – Poems on Steam

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #10

My friend and possibly distant cousin, Ariel Zeitlin, expressed the view of many of us when she quipped, “You may be living over a hot air grate, but at least you’re in New York.” I’ve always been fascinated with the steam that billows out from the underground in New York, on and around which many homeless souls have found some cold winter warmth. To me it suggests that the hallowed ground beneath our New York City footsteps is bubbling and gurgling like a witches’ caldron, an orgy of passion or the fires of hell – mirroring the teeming life of the city above.

But for Chris Jordan, who spends his time thinking and imagining and projecting light both from his luminous soul and the hi tech projectors he owns and thinks so much about, the steam from the streets was just another challenging surface to project upon.

And for our poetry team – Bob Holman and Sahar Muradi and myself –the intermingling of words, light and steam was away to express the fleeting evanescence of life.

Ride with us in the POEMobile and watch it now before the steam disappears into the ether.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnCHiACVKc0&list=PL4slyQodoIv3DexHzk_d3vAHmo3NjPWU6&index=4

 

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

 

Spring Burial

Spring Burial:

The Legend of the Service Tree

 

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #9

 

Serviceberry tree in bloom, courtesy New York Botanical Garden

“We grew up thinking that if there wasn’t pavement under our feet, we were lost,” Marc Kaminsky said facetiously, as he sat with his longtime friend George Getzel, who lay dying in a hospital bed at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, talking about spring. They were two Bronx kids who morphed into two aging, brilliant intellectuals. They knew each other from their time at Hunter College School of Social Work in the ’70s. Struck by George’s tranquility in the face of mortality, Marc asked his friend, filmmaker Menacham Daum to videotape their conversation, and sent a copy to me.

In his better days, George told Marc, he’d loved to visit the New York Botanical Garden in all four seasons. Each time it would be a totally different world—the garden was a symbol of nature and birth and growth and decay.

“You discover this natural world,” Marc remarked. “You take this literal fact and use it as a symbol of immortal life.”

“I was especially close to the service tree,” George continued. “It’s an indigenous tree in northeast America. It’s a tree that’s barely a tree—it might be considered a bush—but it’s a tree. It actually fruits, it has a sweet little fruit that comes out of it when spring warms up, but it’s the first tree that blossoms in the woods. It has soft, large flower petals, light pinkish-white, and if you can reach out and smell it, the tree has the most delicate perfume—really beautiful. It only blooms when the earth around it is unfrozen.

Serviceberry tree blossom, courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden

“Our ancestors—at least the ones in North America—had a real problem when people died during the winter, because they couldn’t bury them; the ground was too hard. So what they did was wait till the service tree bloomed, and then they knew they could bury the dead because the ground was soft enough. Otherwise the bodies would have to be kept in coffins stacked in barns. That touched me deeply.

“So for the last few years, when I could still walk, I’d been trying to hit one of my holy places—the service tree. I would go into the Bronx botanical garden to walk on a trail through fifty acres of virgin forest that had never been cut, and there is the service tree, and I try—it has a life of flowering of, like, three days—so I always try to imagine, ‘Is the ground soft?’ ‘Will I make it?’ And sometimes I make it and sometimes I don’t, and the service tree’s spent flowers are on the ground, but I think that it is emblematic of my notion of immortality in life: a brief time, a beautiful fragrance, and then passing, disintegrating, falling to the ground, and renewal.”

Alone with his mortality in the hospital late one night, George spontaneously texted Marc some of his spiritual musings. Marc later lined the text out as a poem. It ended

Humankind calls out for compassion
For one’s self and then the other
The spent perfume of the petals
Of the service tree
Fall to the forest bottom
When earth loses its chill

“The last four lines” Marc told him, “sound like the poem that Zen priests wrote just before they died.” It was as if George were musing about an eternal spring, with ground soft enough to accept his body, a universe that still had a place for him even after his death.

George Getzel

“So here I am in bed, and I’m fading away, I’m losing weight, there are changes, and people visit me and they say, ‘I really want to go to the botanical gardens with you,’ and then a little sadness comes over me—’cause that’s not possible anymore.”

George was a faculty member at the Hunter College School of Social Work, now the Silberman School of Social Work for more than 30 years. As someone who avoided the limelight, he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to walk in his footsteps. “If anything I do is truly worthwhile in my eyes or in the world’s eyes, I don’t want to be copied,” he said. “I just don’t want it—I’m me, you’re you. But I do want to inspire.”

And so as spring rolls around after a bitter winter, I was inspired to call the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and ask if they knew about the service tree. The Garden arranged for horticulturalist Jessica Schuler, Director of the Thain Family Forest, to meet my wife and me at the reflecting pool the next Saturday. We traveled into the woods she knew so well and we stood in front of the tree George had loved. Though it was the first beautiful day of spring, the service tree had just a tiny splash of pink on the buds. Perhaps the ground wasn’t yet soft enough to bury the dead.

Checking for blossoms on the serviceberry tree, photo by Amanda Dargan

I told Jessica about George, whom I never met, and his metaphorical interpretation of the service tree. Jessica told us the tree’s Latin name was Amelanchier arborea but that it had had a variety of common names and etymologies in early North America. Shadbush because it often grows in riparian forests at the edges of rivers where the shad run. It was also called “Juneberry,” because it often fruited in June. And it was called “serviceberry tree,” because it bloomed when the ground was no longer frozen and it was time to bury the dead and hold a service.

Back in the hospital room, Marc felt that the space around himself and George was getting greater and greater, and that on the other side of that space was death, but that the space of life was also looming larger. George continued to express his deep and thoughtful perspective on life in the face of imminent mortality, making connections between blossoming and withering, growth and decay. “I remember holding my wife’s hand when she was dying,” George told Marc, “and having a great sense of intimacy, the same as when I held my hand over her belly when she was pregnant. There’s this mixture. Even in the face of the grim realities of life that nauseate you and shatter your dreams, I’ve found—with difficulty—deeper meaning.

“We all hold down to something that we would hope would have permanence,” he continued. “Something that would lead us beyond our grave and have something of eternity tied to it. We discover that the idol—be it money, position, your own children, the neighborhood you live in—it’s not forever and it falls apart and isn’t what you thought it was when you were a young man. It becomes moth-eaten and dissipates, and then with that—and here is where I think the faith of an older person, the circumstance of an older person, is useful—it’s followed by new growth, new possibilities.”

George Getzel died on January 7, 2018. The serviceberry tree he loved so well will bloom again this spring.

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

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