Joyful Dirt

Last week was my annual gardening weekend—those few days each year that I spend strolling the outside aisles at Lowe’s and Home Depot, breathing in the earthy scents and plotting my summer blooms. And then I’m down on my knees and my bottom, scooching from one hole to the next, digging, fertilizing, planting, watering.

I have never used garden gloves; I rather like the cool dense mud as it cakes my fingernails, love to cup mounds of pungent soil in my hands and set each tender new plant in its new home. Welcome. I hope you’re happy here.

Last Saturday I stopped mid-planting to clean myself up and attend a funeral for Charles, a dear man and longtime family friend who was over 97 years old. His was a life well lived and a soul well loved. As I was sitting in the pew, I could not help but notice some dirt hiding under a few of my nails, and it made me smile, for I knew what he would say.

This man loved nothing more than being outside—walking three miles a day until the last couple of years of his life. He relished vegetable and flower gardens. He and my mom and I ate dinner together once a week for a number of years. Arriving at one summer dinner, I remember apologizing if my hands and nails looked bad; I had been in a hurry after a day of planting.

“Well, there’s nothing more joyful than digging in the dirt, is there?” Charles laughed. Growing up on a farm, he was no stranger to hard, physical outdoor work. He was also profoundly cognizant of the simple pleasures in life: the love of a long-time spouse, the delight of children’s voices, the beauty of a novel well written, the transcendent powers of music. He possessed the miraculous ability to maintain an appreciation for these things even when faced with adversity: As he took care of his wife, afflicted with Alzheimer’s, for almost a decade, he found joy and consolation in the beauty of his daily walks.

His was a life of balance and moderation. Mine, not so much.

Certainly, there is no shortage to things I’d like to correct in myself, but toward the top of the list is my inability to rest, to be at peace. I tend to measure weekend days, workdays, evenings, in terms of what I’ve accomplished. In me, the need to produce is the purest manifestation of OCD. As much as I enjoyed my weekend of gardening, I couldn’t help thinking about the next chapter of my new novel, waiting to be written. Why do I judge myself by what I fail to get done rather than by what I do? In a rush to be productive, do we sacrifice happiness?

Is productivity the enemy of inspiration?

I have set for myself a goal of writing 1,200 words every weekend—to progress my next novel. Although I am now two-thirds of the way through the book, I focus on that missing third. Yet in my heart I know that pushing myself stifles creativity. After all, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

When Charles died, there was no doubt he had lived.

Deliberate living is not easy; it is counter to our American culture and way of life. But as I sat in that sun drenched sanctuary on a Saturday afternoon, I breathed in and out and realized the restorative powers of just being in the moment. Perhaps our ability to live—and live well—until our mid 90’s lies in our ability to be quiet, to be accepting of ourselves, and to recognize the bounty before us—if we’re not too busy to notice.

Thoreau’s woods are waiting for us to embrace the simple pleasures of life. To experience the joyful dirt under our nails.

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