My brother taught me how to shovel. My brother. My brother taught me many things. Like how to drive around deep ruts in long dirt roads, like how to haul wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow filled with concrete, into the little house we built, how to lay the forms, how to use an Egyptian water level. My brother taught me how to shovel and he shoveled with me. Scoop after endless scoop of sand and concrete into the mixer, or 8 hours with a narrow bladed implement in a trench to bury water line and electric for our new well. That summer, we worked hour after hour in the sweltering sunshine, digging through caliche clay. It was grueling work. My brother is 6’3 and weighs in somewhere around 200 lbs usually, when he is not narrowed or hollowed by methamphetamine addiction or hunger. And he is always strong—ox strong, blindingly, terrifyingly strong and volatile. He went ahead with the pick-axe, I behind, removing the soil he had loosened. He taught me to do things sometimes with love but also frequently with shame, anger, and intimidation. We spent many hours in the front of a truck, with the air crackling like fire between us, me afraid, him angry. Me trying my best to obey him so he wouldn’t hurt me.
But there was the end of the week of shoveling that summer when he explained that I was good at this, that most men he worked with burned out on this kind of labor or simply refused it and that it takes a steady, strong person to shovel for so many hours, to move quickly when needed and push away obstacles. Why this made me swell with pride, I am not sure. Why I remember it, all these years later, is still a mystery I don’t have the answer to.
This week a blizzard hit New England and blanketed our world in two feet of snow. As anyone who lives in this part of the world knows, it is always at first, a beautiful sight. And it is as if, our lives are softened just a little. A blizzard is a relief somehow, from the hustle and bustle of this place, the endless honking car horns, dogs barking, people yelling outside of my window on the street. It is a respite from a solely grey colored world, made new with brightness. I made my way to my lover’s house for the storm and we sat quietly together, watching snow drift in, listening to Coltrane, reading the New York Times, talking softly, falling asleep early.
And the next day, shoveling. By midday, neighbors emerged from their houses with snow blowers and big, light, long handled snow shovels. These are different from the ones that dig heavy earth, the ones with sharp blades. Instead they move through light substances with ease, scraping flat paths along the ground. With cold fingers, I turn my shoulder to shovel willingly, with joy. I find that it feels good to do this work. The labor of it is hard and there is much to be done but it feels virtuous to move in this way, with purpose, with accomplishment inside of a task. I find relief in it. The last six months have been ones of extreme difficulty for me and one of the consequences of my emotional experience has been a loss of appetite—for life, for food, for work, for exercise. A broken heart is much like rapture I think. And so, I’ve lost 20 something pounds and something of my heart. I have been stripped down like a switch, raw and bare, meant for the sting.
So, it was with more than a little concern that I began shoveling this week. I feared I wouldn’t actually physically be able to do this kind of work. I’ve always been strong and it scares me to not be. An independent woman has to be able to load up her truck, haul loads of trash, build a few things when help isn’t available. And a strong woman asks for help, this I also know. There were five of us in the driveway this week, laughing, taking a breather here and there, and marveling at the amount of fluffy stuff our light spades lifted over the fence. My friend is patient and I watched him move slowly, in no rush, like he does everything else. It felt good to work beside a man again. I worked differently, in bursts, in a flurry and I found I am still fast and strong. I could feel the pared down insides of me, the muscles and what passes for sinew, respond to my movements and I could feel my heavy breathing, steadying me like an old friend. I sensed my smaller body inside the warm clothes, moving with energy, with the pulse of life that is so strong, even when weakened by sorrow, loss, by pain.
And I thought of my brother, of his broad back, of his incredible strength. He is the ancestor of my physically laboring body. The patron saint of my working arms. I thought of the absence of a certain kind of fear and anger in my life now that he’s gone from it. I chuckled to myself, knowing that if he were beside me shoveling, the work would go faster, he would do most of it all by himself, that we’d have fun. That he too would be glad of the company. And though I am glad of his absence, though I need not, his every instruction, each scrape of my shovel bears witness to the valuable lessons learned at his hand.