A work of creative nonfiction by Rus VanWestervelt.

I originally wrote this piece in 2011 and submitted it for publication. It was not picked up, but as I read it now 10 years later, it has some lasting, sorrowful quality to it, which is why I am sharing it with all of you here.

The rain begins to intensify, and I no longer brush the dirt from my hands; it rolls down my fingers, along the shovel’s stem, and into the grave. I fill the blade with heavy dirt and hold it over the open space.

“Everything we do today will clear the way for a better tomorrow….”

I let the dirt slide down the blade and land on the box with a hollow thump.

“We can correct all the wrongs if we band together….”

I use the tip of the blade, a flat edge that we have used countless times in the yard to trim weeds growing between the patio bricks in summer, and chip ice accumulating on the driveway in winter – to pat the dirt between the sides of the box. I am careful not to puncture the makeshift coffin, which was sealed tightly just moments ago with black duct tape to keep the excess moisture and earthen creatures from getting inside, at least immediately.

“Don’t give up the fight.”

I thrust the blade back into the mound of dirt

Everything we do today . . .

Lift the heavy, wet soil

Will clear the way. . .

And throw it in the grave

For a better tomorrow.

Again. And again. And again.

*          *          *

Thirteen hours earlier, when I had not yet begun to think about shovels and duct tape and when the rains had not yet come, I wrap up writing my morning pages and turn to the latest news stories online.

It is the first time I have shown any interest in the protestors occupying Wall Street.

What catches my eye is a video of penned protestors who were maced by police officers for doing nothing but exercising their right to free speech.  I become obsessed with watching the video, over and over again, pausing at the defining quarter-second when the white-shirt cop raises his arm and sprays the small group like they are an offending swarm of wasps.

The difference here is that these were not insects threatening to attack; they were peaceful protestors practicing civil disobedience to make some kind of ripple in the unjust waters of society.

Maybe things don’t have to be this way, they thought. Maybe we can make a difference.

I replay the video — a mere 40 seconds — so many times it blurs in me the three beats: peaceful protestors resist being pushed back by dark blue uniform officers, the approach and then the outstretched reach of the officer in white, Anthony Balogna, exterminating the pesky protestors with pepper spray, and finally the writhing, the wails, the turn-aways and tears as protestors and police alike wipe their eyes in momentary desperation and agony.

Resist. Repel. Retreat. . . .Resist. Repel. Retreat. . . .

Out of disbelief I close the laptop. Standing in front of me is my wife, holding our little black cat. He droops in her arms like an old, comforting blanket—tired, loved, at peace.

“I don’t think he is going to hold on much longer,” she whispers. “I’m doing everything I can for him, but it’s just not enough.”

We retreat to the basement and she places Old Taz in his makeshift bed, stroking his coat as he falls asleep. He has been with us since the days we dated more than 17 years ago. Taz has been a constant in our lives mere days after we first stated dating.

I don’t think I can hold on much longer, I think.

Watching the video of Balogna pepper spraying the protestors stirs within me something about an execution a few weeks back.

David. . .David Troy. . .Davis—

“Troy Davis.” I whisper his name under my breath as I run back upstairs and flip up the laptop lid. Within seconds I am back online, watching the reports filed just after his execution on September 21st.

I believe him. I believe in his innocence and his life and his message. I believe it all, and nothing more plainly, more simply in my life, makes me feel more like I need to vomit. 

What’s happening to us?

But it isn’t just now. Not just here in the present. It is a timeless discrimination, a warped deus ex machina where what we have created over three milennia still serves as the sovereign rule. Damn the individual; damn the truth. Let our man-made machine reign over all!

I immediately send a flurry of emails to my closest thinkers, trying to dump some of my guilt and seek out understanding all at the same time.

I just can’t believe what I’m seeing, and there’s little to no coverage about this in the mainstream media. This is sparking something in me that has been lying dormant for many many years. I’ve always shied away from opening up about social injustices; always played the passive role, not even balancing myself on the fence but rather white-washing it, tending to it, somehow encouraging a stand-back, no-vote position. This is what I have suppressed. This is what I have avoided weighing in on. But this topic, and this video… maybe it is just a passing thing for me, but I haven’t felt this stirred since my second year in college.

And there it is: a confession of sorts, an outing of this ignorance and the turning of my eye all these years. I feel ashamed and awakened all at the same time, a washing of the sins but with tainted blood. I just can’t feel good about any of this.

Within minutes my friends reply with support. While one encourages me to let out my “Yawp,” another goes deeper with his own concerns. Dylan, deep in the quicksands of social injustice in New Orleans, reminds me how big this problem really is.

“. . .Social determinants [are] becoming a HUGE issue in public health now that we’re starting to realize just how much the social, political, cultural environment (easily changeable external factors) are shaping how unhealthy we’ve all become. . . .”

As I read Dylan’s comments, my mind replays the video, beat by beat.

Resist. Repel. Retreat. . . .Resist. Repel. Retreat. . . .

The mantra is too much within me, and I feel the bile touch the back of my throat.

He is right, though, and all I need to do is look around me to see the impact this recession has had on my brother working the midnight shift at Wal-Mart, on my neighbors with their four children being evicted after failing to find the money to pay back rent, on my colleagues finding it impossible to retire after losing so much of their life savings in the recent stock market rollercoaster rides.

It’s all backwards, I think. All of it.

Resist. Repel. Retreat. . . .Resist. Repel. Retreat. . . .

I want to mix it up. Retreat before I resist, perhaps, but every time I rearrange the beats, it is just as ugly.

It is more than all backwards. This is bigger than I can grasp.

In 1989, when my father died from hepatitis that he contracted in the line of duty as a firefighter, I swore that I would march to my own drummer and seize the day, live life fully, and capture the essence of each moment experienced. It was a good initiation in taking my life more seriously; the problem was that, in living for myself, I cast aside all injustices around me and focused instead on the brilliant rays that blinded me with bliss. I started reading Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau, and  gleaning their ideas and notions for a more sensible way of living our lives.

I close my laptop and head downstairs to my study, where I flip through my old copy of Walden and turn to one of Thoreau’s essays, “Life Without Principle,” printed in the back of the book. I find the passage that struck me over 20 years ago.

When we want culture more than potatoes, and illumination more than sugar-plums, then the great resources of a world are taxed and drawn out, and the result, or staple production, is, not slaves, nor operatives, but men, — those rare fruits called heroes, saints, poets, philosophers, and redeemers.

Despite all the belief I had back then in such emphatic statements, the problem was that my philosophic whirlwind lacked substance, commitment, maybe even desire to face the hard facts. It is one thing to recognize; it is entirely another to act.

Hours later, after running some mid-afternoon errands and taking the kids out for some playtime, I am back on my laptop when my wife runs from the little kitty hospice room we had set up and cries for me at the bottom of the stairs.

“Taz is gasping. He’s dying, Rus. He’s dying.”

I run to her, take her in my arms, and she sobs into my shoulder.

“I don’t want him to die,” she pleads. “I don’t want him to go.”

Three minutes later, we return to Taz. My wife, with gentle love and kindness, strokes his coat as he takes his last breaths.

You are not alone. We surround you with love. . . .

And then, it is over. Taz is dead. We both sob in this new moment of a life alone that we have never known.  

In the minutes that follow we allow the shock to settle in, the truth of his passing, our life beyond his death. We eulogize him with memories that are as constant as the passage of day into night. He was a cat that knew no judgment, practiced no prejudices, and loved without condition. His life and message were simple—above all things, a love shared is a love received.

An hour later, we say our final words, place Taz in his final resting home, and head outside to bury him.

The rain is heavy now as I grab the shovel from the shed and thrust it deep into the earth. The wet soil seals a grip around the blade, and I struggle to fight the suction and lift the dirt from the ground.

Resist. . .Repel. . .Retreat. . .

I free the first clump of wet soil and toss it to the side, quickly striking a rhythm in the rain that, in just a few minutes, creates a hole deep enough, wide enough for the small cardboard casket.

 I think of Troy Davis. I think of innocence trumped by revenge, a sheep thrown to the hungry pack, a life extinguished without due process or prevailing common sense.

I think of the protestors on Wall Street. I think of freedoms denied, of abuse born out of fear, of the failure of a simple test of our Constitutional rights to speak freely and peacefully against a government corrupt, so deeply ensconced in the machine created long before any of us were born.

And I think of You. I think of us as individuals, struggling to love and live a life free of corruption and inequalities. How ridiculous we look next to the simple, yet abundant joys of a cat’s life, where love and loyalty, a life lived free of judgment, trump everything else.

I, you, we—diggers of love, purveyors of peace, warriors for rights. This is what we must do.

When I come back inside and wash away the dirt and sweat, I change my clothes and take a moment in my study to reflect on the day. On my desk is the copy of Thoreau’s works, and I seek out the passage in “Civil Disobedience” that won’t leave my mind.

There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

Maybe things don’t have to be this way anymore, I think. Maybe I can make a difference by practicing the power of love unconditionally. I don’t need to wait for the invitations of a government or anybody else to open my eyes to the injustices and step into the mud, get all dirty in fighting for what I believe, and loving even more unconditionally as any battle might rage on.

I close the book, return it to my cluttered desk, and join my wife upstairs. We say nothing, but we are together, and we are grateful.

Everything we do today. . .

We know that this will not be easy,

Will clear the way. . . .

but we know we are not alone,

For a better tomorrow.

and we know that we must not retreat. Not now. Not ever.

Not if we really do want to dig for that better tomorrow.

One thought on “Lovedigger

  1. So timely, as I read this a police officer dies in state at the Capitol…..a juxtaposition of ‘Resist, Repel, Retreat.’ You have personalized this death with Taz and now Officer Sicknick. 


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