They took up shovels, pickaxes, bare fingers to pry up the seedlings, the saplings just taking root and the seeds just planted still watered by the sweat and tears of those who lovingly tilled the brittle soil.
They offered nothing in return, barren ground where only anger grew, fertilized by fear, by by greed, by blindness.
Will we sit by and watch as promises wither under an ever stronger, more glaring sun, as hopes are blown away by arid winds, or will we again return to the soil, start over, our faith now perennial.
It is easier to think about death on a wintery evening, when so much of life slips into stasis, and there is nothing to do but concede your mortality, and with good fortune, then slip into sleep before being lost in a sea of depression.
I must be thankful for my dreams for they keep the night from becoming the little death of the ancient philosophers, and on awakening in the morning, the mantle of snow that has painted the world in a glittering white, does not demand the shovel as yet, but celebrates the world’s rebirth, and with a nod to the sun, my own.
He started digging early in the morning, and hoped that by lunch, he’d be well on his way there, though he wasn’t certain how he’d get up out of the hole when lunch rolled around, but need is a good instructor, so he was sure he could figure it out easily enough. It was slower going than he imagined, slower by several magnitudes. He knew that would play havoc with his plans, but he was capable of adjusting to circumstances, that was one of his strengths, he knew. When the day receded, he set the shovel aside and retreated home, knowing that he wouldn’t complete the task for at least another week, and the idea of having real Chinese food in China would have to wait, since he had to be in school every day or miss out on the First Grade perfect attendance award.
I have given up on winter, which is to say that I have fled its iron grip, but the memories I have linger painfully in the rods the surgeon carefully screwed onto my spine.
It wasn’t the cold, though it was far from pleasant, but the snow that demanded but also defied being shoveled.
I grudgingly face the job, moving the snow from walk and driveway to lawn and street, and on occasion I’d heed Buddha’s advice and treat the exercise as a meditation.
But even then I’d recall the tale of the monk told to clear the garden of leaves before a great master’s visit, who completed the job and proudly showed the abbot, who agreed, but said there was more thing needed, and dumped all of the collected leaves back on the garden, then said it perfect, and I knew the wind and weather would soon play the abbot’s role.
Perhaps tonight the slightly waning moon will bathe us in her presence. That presupposes the clouds, so very jealous of late, allow her to appear. They, and the unending winter, are the evil stepsisters, and they have neither justice nor compassion for the moon or for us. And so, to save their maleficent case, I shall again, tomorrow morning, take up the shovel and imagine my boots are crystal slippers.
Richard Wilbur lives in Massachusetts and in Key West, Florida according to his dust jackets. If you set sail westward from San Diego you may find your dream of China, of the endless wall which draws the stares and wonder more foreboding more forbidden even than the city, which you visit to sate yourself of lights, sirens and the blood heat of steam grates. It is far easier than digging and far less dirty, and the walls of the sea rise more slowly. Once it was a risky journey the danger of the edge looming over the horizon, but then digging was no option, pushing deeper with your crude shovel, knees bloody, until, at last, you broke through with dreams of the dragon as you fell into the limitless void. Now you sail with dreams of the Pacific sky, although water has no need of names. The poet has grandchildren now, and it is to them to dream of the China that was.
First appeared in Midnight Mind, Number Two (2001) and again in The Right to Depart, Plainview Press, (2008)