Digging – Lessons from My Grandfather


It was early in the day. I followed my granddaddy to a construction site. This kind of work was almost a rite of passage in the Martin family. A way to make a few bucks, but it was never easy work. My grandfather runs things in his old school way. I’ve joked before that getting in the truck with him was risky, because that truck might hit five construction sites in 8 hours, and before you blink it’s nighttime, even though you planned on being home around 5pm. And the work itself was always hard labor. Digging ditches and clearing out landscapes, all under the gaze of a bright North Carolina sun.

We worked into the afternoon that day. I remember glancing over and seeing a gash on my grandaddy’s arm. Blood was running down. “Hey. Grandaddy. You’re bleeding.”

He hitched for just a second, eyed the wound. “It’ll stop when it’s done.”

And he kept working.

There are other stories. I do not doubt that each of his grandchildren have their own. Some border on the fantastical. Chasing down a burglar outside of a Food Lion, tackling and holding onto him until police came, something he did at the ripe age of 70. Stories about him stopping to show city workers how to fix potholes, or how he got up on a roof just three months ago at age 89. That’s just who he is. A tireless force of nature who has worked every day of his life like it’s a privilege and a blessing just to be breathing today.

I never took to that work, and sometimes felt guilty for that. I wasn’t great with machinery. I didn’t enjoy climbing on roofs or wrestling trees to the ground. It wasn’t until college that I came to terms with it. I read a poem– “Digging” by Seamus Heaney– that gave me a new perspective.

The poem starts simply. Heaney describes his father and grandfather as they work the land. In the poem, he’s looking out from the window with clear admiration for their work as potato farmers. He brags on them saying: “By God, the old man could handle a spade./ Just like his old man.” Heaney isn’t pretending they’re more than they are. He’s simply stating a fact: they worked hard and they worked well. At the end of the poem, he makes the inevitable conclusion: “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.”

That’s how I always felt. I remember that line hammering its way into my heart. I so admired my grandfather– how he loved and supported his family– but I didn’t have the tools to follow him. I didn’t like to dig. I didn’t like to work the land.

Heaney provided me an elegant solution. His poem comes back around. He sits there in the upper room, looking out the window and remembering his father. He concludes:

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

There are no lines of poetry that mean more to me than those. It gave me perspective and purpose. I didn’t have to do the same work my granddaddy did. The solution was to find my own tools. What was always worth mimicking about him was not the way he used a shovel. No, what was worthy of our aspiration was how he worked and the passion that drove him onward.

Ever since then I have done my best to work as hard as he does. Every time I sit down to write, I feel like I’m doing my own kind of digging. I am building houses, clearing out construction sites, and mending fences… but in my own way, as an author. Story after story, I get to walk in the footsteps of his passion, his determination, and his work ethic.

In just a week, my first book will debut. I wonder if this is how he felt when he built his first house, or apartment complex. Most people see the finished product and don’t think twice about what went into it. All the digging and all the setbacks, the struggle and the toil to create something from nothing. Readers will take Nyxia off the shelf, but they might not see the fifteen revisions, or the hundreds of hours that went into making the book what it is.

And that’s okay, because I think my granddaddy will understand. Maybe we’ll share a secret nod or smile on the night of my launch, because we’ve both spent time digging. We know the work was worth it, and we know there’s still more satisfying work to do tomorrow.

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