Self-portrait with Shovel

I am always asking questions.
I don’t know if scrubbing floors or giving words
to children ordered behind desks by law
is my real occupation.
I wonder if the last row of beets
harvested in November is the reason
I live here in this valley between two mountains.
“My shovel,” I announce to strangers,
“Is my most important tool.”
“The tongue is a shovel, ” I tell my students,
“And you are prospectors seeking gold in the soul.”

My buried heart sends rain to my eyes
a nervous drumming to my fingertips. 
At night I dream: 
There was a man so rich
even mosquitoes avoided his blood. 
“Heartburn,” they said “Is not what we need. 
We are simple prospectors, used to a wilderness
of carnage and poverty.”
The rich man was bored.  Why not?
Nothing to scratch since nothing itched.
Then his children gave away all his money.
They married his slaves.
The rich man set fire to his forests.
He executed his sons.  Fire
fell on the refugees, his daughters
and grandchildren among them.
Fire destroyed his house, his limousine.
Then the mosquitoes closed in.
He had nothing left but his dreams,
and they drained him of these.

On my day off,
I walk through the house gathering paper:
exposés of weapons systems, pleas for money
to stop the sale of nerve gas and warfare.
Feeding the news into the furnace
I notice an old woman on yesterday’s front page.
She is howling.  The reporter says, “Grieving.” 
Five of her family dead in explosions
meant for Marines.  A man stands behind her,
his hand on her shoulder.  “He comforts her.”
It looks like restraint to me.

Perhaps the comfort of dying slowly
in a hospital bed, tubes running the necessary fluids
in and out of the body,
each day another nerve in the brain gone dead,
perhaps this expectation was the only luxury
the rich man owned.
What is comfort:  Our hands clutching
each other’s shoulders as we resist
the bad news? 

I am a storyteller.
I stand in public rooms, speak, then wait
for the people facing me to answer.
I tell stories for joy and for money.
I also go to the bank, simmer tomato sauce,
pick up the dirty socks, listen to the kids,
listen to my husband.  I make love, I shop.
There are days I have tears in my eyes
from waking to dreaming.
That’s how I know my heart,
still digging its way free with this shovel
in my mouth, is alive and kicking.

Today I ask the kids
to heat the supper while I go to town.
I will sit with friends whose hearts seek exits
the chest, the coiled springs in the ear,
the shovel in the mouth must provide.
We will tell each other stories.
We will let rain fall from our eyes. 

Is this how we survive
the men who enact mayhem from behind desks?
I am always asking questions.
Is this the way, welcoming “grief”
and “comfort,” we will rise with our shovels
to cultivate our own dreams?
                                                            1984

previous version published in The Power of Impossible Stories, Singing Frog Press, May 1996, p. 7. For price list of all Singing Frog print chapbooks
contact me at https://singingfrogpress.com/contact/

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