Somewhere along the line, we changed our minds about getting dirt on our hands.
When you’re a kid, dirt is just something that happens on your way to dinner. It gets on your hands the way aches get in your bones as an adult. You don’t plan for it or think about it. It doesn’t stop your day unless fate is working against you, like your mom telling you to wash up or your back flaring up so bad you can’t get the recycling bin all the way down the driveway. Dirt happened.
Your knees would get covered, too, jeans worn to white threads threatening to hole and sneakers equal parts rubber and mud.
But it was the hands that did it. Caked dirt, dirt you didn’t notice, dirt you’d smear across your forehead without realizing it because you didn’t realize your hands had gotten caked with it in the first place. Dirt that was a living thing, crawling across places you didn’t even know your body had and finding corners of yourself even your therapist overlooked.
“What did you do to yourself?” or “How did you get so filthy?” were common refrains. Answers rarely offered much in the way of explanation. How could they? The truth was, we had no idea what we did to ourselves or how we got so filthy. We just did. Getting dirty was what happened when you lived life. Dirt meant you had a good day.
We lost that. Or I did, at least.
We don’t encounter dirt anymore. Not in any real or positive way. Getting dirty is a bad thing. It’s something to be avoided. “Awww crap, my hands are all dirty!” is the sort of revelation that can ruin an afternoon, or at least the 20 minutes it takes to get annoyed and wash. We go about our days, from waking in the morning to navigating work to whatever the hell fills our hours afterward, and we do our best to avoid getting dirty because adults aren’t supposed to get dirty.
Step over that puddle.
Go around that mud.
And by god, don’t pick up that cruddy old thing lying in the muck!
Earlier today I was scooping the used coffee grinds out of those little plastic pods lazy suburban people use to make their coffee. And by “their” I mean “my,” and by “make” I mean “I press a button,” because as much as I love coffee I’m too damned lazy to make myself a real cup, so I use one of them damned K machines. Still, I make use of those pods, or K cups. After I’ve made myself some Lazy Suburban Coffee — iced, please — the grounds go into my compost bin and the cup itself gets a few small holes poked in the bottom and becomes a seed starter planter for my vegetable garden. Each pod will help birth a few new plants before it ends up in the recycling.
So I’m standing in the kitchen today scooping out coffee grounds and my hands are covered in muck, the sort of muck that would have grossed me out not too long ago. No dirt on your hands! Those are adult rules!
I’m standing in the kitchen scooping out coffee grounds and my hands are covered in muck and it feels amazing. Hands caked with brown, an Earthiness crumbling between my fingers, the knowledge that if I touched my face I’d be etching a record of the experience onto it in clumps of dried ground coffee bean.
Something felt right about that. It was only muck, yeah, but it made me feel more aware of who I was and why I was in the world.
In some ways, this is becoming a familiar feeling. A few years ago, the gardening bug bit me. Bit me pretty bad. Just ask my wife, who every couple of months now looks on as yet another chunk of our yard is converted to a place for me to tinker with eggplant and honeydew melons.
This is not a bad thing. The garden not only provides a place for me to keep busy without doing anything stupid, such as drinking and yelling at people on Twitter or seeing if I can eat 16 pancakes in one sitting, it also provides us with food. Fresh food grown with my own hands, in my own soil, under my own care.
Maybe the most important thing it provides me with, however, is with dirt jammed beneath my fingernails.
It feels good finishing up for the afternoon, my forearms browning, my forehead a series of muddy streaks and my brain a Nazca line maze of ideas on how I’m going to restructure the garden the next time I get out there, and realizing that I’m covered in sweat and stick and filth. I used to hate that sticky grossness. I hated things that disconnected me from the creature comforts of being a suburban dude wired into the Web and getting everything he needed with card wipes and mouse clicks.
Now that filth is my connection to something larger than I am. To something more important. More … eternal. It’s my connection to the Earth that sustains us, that thing right outside our window that is so omnipresent we take it for granted. All that muck and mud and filth and dirt outside I used to avoid, now I cherish it. Every time I come inside after a good gardening session I wonder where the hell the hobby had been all my life.
But it turns out it never went anywhere. It had always been there, wrapped up in my muddy memories of a muddy childhood or stained into toys now too browned to put on a collector’s shelf. I’ve once again grown to love that muck under my fingernails.
Somewhere along the line, I changed my mind about getting dirt on my hands. I think a lot of us do that as we “grow up” and become adults.
And that’s tragic. It seems an awful foolish thing to leave behind, that dirt on our hands.