digging in the dirt
For me, digging in the dirt is breathing deeply.
It is a hundred different things at once, and among them freedom, imagination, fragrance, heat.
This time of year, I’d rather be outside than in. The hours out there run away on the breeze, and it returns bringing me peace and joy and conversations with God. I sit in the middle of the dirt, cutting black spot out of my roses, yanking dandelions and milkweed from the soil and throwing them on the sidewalk. Zoe and a beautiful friend with deep brown eyes hold out their hands, laughing as earthworms wriggle on their palms. I smile at the smack smack hush of their bare feet against the walk and the grass as they run off to pretend, and jump, and eat freezer pops, the sticky juice dripping down their pinkies and the curling, emptied plastic into the plush green around their toes. Riley rides her bike just in front of the house, around and around in circles on the street. She is determined, cheeks flushed, blonde hair whipping in the wind around her face. She thinks, despite my explanations, that the reason I won’t let her ride all over the neighborhood alone is that she struggles with hills. She doesn’t understand–can’t understand– that I’m afraid of her innocence, making lists in my head of all the things I need to teach her bluntly, repetitively before I am comfortable giving her the independence I’m so happy that she craves. Every time the wind blows, I hear Adam’s laughter, harmonizing with the music of leaves and insects and chimes. He jumps on the trampoline with my good friend’s son, tireless, free, hysterically happy. We could spend entire days this way.
Zoe returns, kneeling beside me for a moment. “Mom, is this a weed?” She points to a thin vine with pretty purple flowers that I’ve found slowly curling it’s tendrils around the stems of my azaleas.
“Well, it’s all a matter of how you look at it,” I tell her, “but for me, yes, it’s a weed.”
“What about this?” She asks, extending a finger toward the young, flat leaves of a baby iris that is as yet too immature to bloom.
“No, not that,” I answer, smiling at her, thinking, It’s true that only The Gardener knows a weed from a treasured plant. As she wanders away, her hair flying out behind her, I am reminded of the words of Christ:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest (Matthew 13: 24-29).”
This lesson thunders in my head as I lift a rhizome up out of the soil and push my hand shovel into the earth beneath, where a milkweed root has curled and buried itself around the roots of my irises. Careful, careful…comes that still, small voice. No one can judge the thoughts and attitudes of another heart. Only me. See, child? Only I know. I look up and the sky is deep blue, the clouds round and white with light. For a moment I just take it all in—the breeze, the colors of the blooms, the feel of the soft soil between my fingers. Thank you, I say aloud, so happy that the heavens declare the glory of God. I love this so much, I think, chuckling because when I was Zoe’s size I absolutely hated yard work. To be fair, I was the end of the line—the stick-pine-cone-gumball brigade—and at the time, God and I had entirely different conversations. One can ask but a few pointed questions about prickly, annoying, brown things like pine sticks and cones and those gumballs—which, given the name, could stand to be a bit more desirable.
As a little girl, I spent every warm day I could find running with the wind in our back yard. One of my favorite old pictures of my brothers and me shows us standing barefoot next to the kitchen table, brown like Indians, with golden hair and sun-kissed cheeks. I remember that Mom used to fill a pitcher with Kool-Aid and sit it on the back steps with some cups, and then we’d spend hours outside. In exchange for the chance to teach me how to properly die at the end of a finger-and-thumb pistol, my brother Tommy would indulge my passion for digging in the dirt, whether we mixed magic potions or soft, gloppy desserts. Our house sat against the marsh, so that little backyard was about two thirds grass and trees—a dogwood and a sweet gum just outside my bedroom window, a thick-trunked, barky pine in the center, and a few old oaks in the back—and about one-third dirt leading from the back part of the yard out past the back fence to the first spikes of marsh grass. The smell of the marsh after a rain, that pungent, healthy smell of plants and mud, still smells like home to me. And I remember holding those dogwood blossoms in my hand, looking at them with new interest after the first time someone told me I could look at them and see the shape of the cross, the blood-stained holes in the Savior’s hands, the crown of thorns in the green center.
Recently, a friend of mine said, “Spring is my favorite time of year, because everywhere I look I see Resurrection.” Well said, dear friend. There’s nothing like being outside, digging in the dirt, when everything around you looks and feels like a new life.