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.
“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.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.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.