Monday, March 21, 2011

The Glory of Dirt

It gets in our fingernails and it won't come out. I'm not talking about the kind of dirt that gathers in corners of our hallways and lightly sits on window ledges, hanging out until someone comes along with some Pledge and a disgusting rag or some old Hanes underwear (as was the custom ion my house growing up) to whisk such dirt away.

That kind of dirt only wants to be dirt.

Really, it's dust. It's like the five-year old dressing up as Superman or Cinderella or Super-Cinderella.

No; today's blog is about actual dirt that is thick and everywhere and underneath the grass and when you hold it you feel the weight of it and you sometimes have to say, Wow, that is some serious dirt right there.

I'm writing about dirt today because Tyler has been having a love affair with the stuff lately. For a total of two hours and 25 minutes today, we sat in the backyard and dug in the dirt. Some neighbors were kind enough to bequeath us a large pile of dirt left over from their garden, and Tyler and I put it to excellent use.

We dumped it on the path that Jennifer had cleared away yesterday, and then we went town building Muddy Monsters, towers, large piles and small piles, and also sifting through it to find worms of various sizes. Each time we spotted a worm, Tyler's delighted voice rang out, "I hold that worm on my finger, Daddy?" and my voice rang in response, "Yeah!"

Many worms and ladybugs later (yes, we took some brief breaks from the dirt to explode the grass, and it was certainly amazing to watch how the weight of a ladybug tips a blade of grass back on itself at the median) we went inside for some juice, crackers with humous, and a nap. Well, Tyler napped, and I tried to organize our little study a bit.

But I couldn't stop thinking about dirt. I still can't.

And there indeed plenty of other stuff to think about. There are books to be written, projects to tackle, things to fix, financial situations to worry-over-but-then-pray-and-remind-myself-not-to-worry-over-them-and-keep-working, dishes to be cleaned and generic-brand Lego blocks to be picked up from the living room floor.

But dirt.

Man. DIRT.

See, the thing about dirt is that you never have to question whether it's there. You get your hands in the soil and you know it right away. It's there. You feel it, to see it, its dirt-ness gets right in through your skin and into some part of you that feels stuff like, well, dirt.

In a world where so much is in our minds--where so much is talked about, written about, discussed, and conjectured, I notice, today, how good dirt feels. How real. How tangible. How here.

For my current writing project, I have been allowing Robert Frost's definition of poetry to knock me upside the head as many times as I can let it without going blind. Frost wrote this: "My definition of poetry, if I were forced to give one, would be this: words that become deeds."

Words that become deeds.

Dirt is like that. Dirt was once a word. When God said, "Let it be!" and it was, the dirt became deed. It became real and earthy and thick and the way it is today, and the way we are today.

We live in a culture where it's so easy for words not to become deeds. We live in a society where we can say and write a whole lot of things but never really back them up or believe them or make good on the promises they hold within their letters.

But how do we live like poems? How do we allow our lives to be so imbued with action that the words we form in peace and silence and rest are not the Forewords of what we hope to be but the Afterwords of what we already have been becoming? How can we use words that begin as seeds but, by the time their meaning breaks free, become the very fruit that feeds us?

One humble suggestion is to go back.

To the dirt.

To go outside, roll up our sleeves, dig away a patch of grass and then plunge our hands right into the earth, worms and all. Let the dirt get in under our fingernails. (We can wash it off later, before dinner.) Grab a couple handfuls and roll that dirt around like it's as precious as the money we've got in our wallets, the dreams we've got in our hearts, the peace we so deeply fear.

William Faulkner said in his 1950 Nobel prize acceptance speech that "the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart, which alone can make good writing." Instead, Faulkner says, we're writing about lust and glands rather than the conflict that arises out of really trying to love.

One might say our tendency is to ease into grabbing the fruit without ever acknowledging the soil from which it came. We might honor Faulkner and Frost both by trying to remind ourselves of what matters--that before the words, there was the faith, and after the words, the deeds that remain for our progeny are those that were written not with our lust, but with our love--not with our hands scrubbed clean, but with dirt beneath our fingernails.