Moving the stone into the place I’d chosen for it took all my strength. At three feet long, two feet wide and two and a half feet high, it was by far the largest rock I’d deal with in the building of my wall. Using a long steel digging bar and several rocks as levers, I’d inched the piece little by little, sliding one side at a time closer to the base of the naked soil the wall was supposed to hold back.
I was glad that I might as well have been a hundred miles from anywhere standing in my urban back yard. My neighbors were at work. No one was looking. The hill and fence afforded me the greatest privacy. I was in a world of my own, no one and nothing but a pile of rocks waiting for me to form them into something.
I’d found the halls of academe uncomfortable. I’d started my doctoral studies and the uncertainty kept me up at night and agitated during the day. I looked at the hill in my backyard, a steep, weedy, rocky thing that served no purpose to us. There was no room for backyard activities.
The hill fell to a narrow strip of grass between its base and the foundation wall of the staircase leading into the basement. When it rained, that flat bit of yard flooded and standing water turned into a malarial swamp that extended around the corner of the house and up the side to the small porch at the sliding-glass door.
There was something I could do about this, I thought after moving into the house and fighting the clouds of mosquitoes that plagued us after every rain. I thought about ways to mitigate the water, to somehow move the swamp farther downhill.
When I sunk into school, the thought of the backyard grew in my mind. Intense concentration on books and writing gave my mind plenty of room to rise when these pressures lifted at the end of a project or on a weekend. I landed on what I thought may be my solution but doubted myself. Could I undertake the work? What would happen if I screwed it up? Would I be able to finish?
After the first semester at doctoral work, I couldn’t contain the stress any longer. It wasn’t that I was unsure of my reading and my essays and tests. Being around people who seemed so much surer of themselves bothered me. I felt out of place. These people were bred to be in the academy. Their whole upbringing and college trajectories led them here. Their parents never doubted them or discouraged them. Everything they had gone through never gave them an idea they would fail.
On the other hand, I was here almost by a whim—I really did wake up one morning and say to myself, I’m going to get a Ph.D. and started the application process. I was from a working-class background. My family had denigrated my educational goals. They pled with me to put away my grand schemes and get a real job that would pay the bills and get me a good retirement. I’d labored with my back and shoulders for my living. I had done yeoman’s jobs. I started over several times, always starting at the bottom.
And here I was again. I had passed the tests and proven myself intelligent enough to stay with the program. But I was now 42 years old and again starting at the very bottom. I landed an assistantship and a fellowship. Much was expected of me. But more perplexing was what I expected from myself. I felt I had to be perfect, that I needed to prove myself every day. There was no way I could live up to what I thought these people wanted of me. I was dejected and constantly doing more than the minimum. I was wearing myself out.
So, I did what I know best and turned to physical labor. I made a psychological leap and put my fearful and doubtful selves aside and went to a rock yard. Scheming with one of the employees there, I told them about the size of the wall I wanted to make. With his help, I ordered nine tons of stone and had them delivered to my front yard.
After that, the doubt disappeared. The work was apparent. I needed to move that pile of stone to the backyard one wheelbarrow at a time. I found within a few hours how much I could load into the wheelbarrow and be able to lift the load and get it to where I wanted it. In the meantime, I started toward the top of the hill and hacked a perpendicular cut into it. With shovel and mattock, I threw dirt forward behind the wall I was building one layer of stone after the other. After I filled in behind a layer, I laid another stack of stone and filled in behind that.
The dirt was filled with stones of all different sizes. I uncovered sidewalk panels and chunks of curb—my yard had been a construction-and-demolition landfill for the city for 40 years. At some point, the level of the dirt behind the growing wall leveled out and met the depth of the cut I’d made in the hill. At that point, I started building a second wall with the stone I’d recovered on the wall of bare dirt rising at a 90-degree angle from what had become a terrace four and a half feet tall, 15 feet wide, and 25 feet long.
I moved nearly all of that stone by hand. The limestone in the first terrace wall sometimes two feet cubed. The muscles in my back, arms, and shoulders had responded over the course of a couple of months. I’d used the wisdom of Archimedes to lever some of the larger stones in place. Now I was after the largest piece of the bunch, one that I’d won from the hill itself. It must have weighed over 400 pounds. The season had changed from winter to spring.
As I inched the stone forward into the cut I’d made, I considered the mound of rocks I’d gotten from the hill itself. Would it be enough? I had a wall to build now about eight feet high and 20 feet long. This would be the keystone, the one piece the rest of the wall would grow from.
As I strained my back, I felt the weight of my sweat sodden clothes. Drops dripped down the side of my face and hair into the collar of my shirt. The heat was oppressive and I felt as if I lifted out of my body. I was suddenly cold and shivering. I knew the heat was going to get me, but I was close to having that stone in place.
Everything seemed to stop. I was still straining against that digging rod. My body seized. I knew I was close to falling down under the pressure of heat and physical work.
It was then I realized that I’d made it through the last semester. My doubt had abated and getting my grade had gotten easier to earn the more time I put in on the wall. I was approaching summer break. After that, I would have all the time in the world to work on my walls. My backyard was transforming and already I’d solved the water problems—the water came down from above and the terrace caught it and kept it. The swamp was gone now.
I stepped back slowly. My body seemed to expand free of the weight and strain. That rock was almost in place and it take just another couple of pries to get it right. I sat down on the stone and felt the heat of the sun on my shoulders. Yes. This is exactly where I was supposed to be. This stone was doing what it was supposed to. It was transforming me.
No longer would those academics intimidate me. I would be a better student. Getting things done was more important than perfection. All I needed was one stone in place. The rest of the wall would come.