Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Squat Pen Rests

"The squat pen rests"

Those are the most popular words in the most popular poem of a popular - and decorated - contemporary Irish poet.

I first read Seamus Heaney's poem, Digging, in a British and Irish poetry class in college, which I took to fulfill my literature requirement mainly because I thought that a poetry class would have a light reading load.  (It did.)  Lucky me, I liked the class.  So much so that **Nerd Alert** I even got misty-eyed reading Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas.  

Digging didn't make me cry, but love rarely should, and I do love this poem, as evidenced by my musings about it here seven years later.  In fact, I almost named this blog The Squat Pan Rests because it so strongly resonates with me and my decision to become a housewife.  Above all, Digging is a universal anthem to do-what-you-love that touches on our insecurities about the choices we make and ultimately celebrates the determination to persevere in the face of doubt.

Born into an Irish farming family in 1939, Seamus Heaney left his agricultural roots in Northern Ireland to become a poet and one of the most celebrated writers of the 20th century.  He even has his face on an Irish stamp.

My face is only on Facebook, and my biggest professional accomplishment of late was getting a sauce stain out of polo shirt.  

But my decision to become a housewife mirrors Heaney's decision to become a poet.  He may be famous now, but Digging reflects a simpler time when Seamus was just a young man choosing poetry over farming and struggling against the weight of predetermination to choose a new life for himself. It is a poignant tale of the poet's family roots and his reverent determination to change courses.  I recognize his emotions and sympathize with his insecurities - the what-if's and what-will-my-family-think's that infuse specks of uncertainty into an otherwise solid decision.  Heaney now has the benefit of retrospection and public accolade to assuage his insecurities.  But right now it's just me and my hopes that I'm doing the right thing.  

Fighting against those hopes are the struggles and accomplishments of previous generations that most often infuse my mind with doubt.  Sometimes being a homemaker feels like I'm standing in front of Susan B. Anthony telling her why I'm not going to vote in the next election. But like the poet, who has great reverence for his forefathers' accomplishments farming the land - and perhaps a slight melancholy at not wanting to follow their path - so do I have the deepest admiration for the trailblazers before me.  The Rosie-the-Riveters, the Peggy Olsons, the Working Girls, "But I've no spade to follow men like them".  I'm choosing something else.

Thank you, Mr. Heaney, for reminding me that the right choice is the one you pursue with confidence. 

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

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

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