Last weekend, I planted beans and corn, among pumpkins and sunflowers, in a plot at the side of our house. It’s an 8-foot by 4-foot plot, an odd shape for a garden. Long rows for the corn and beans. Short patches for pumpkins and sunflowers. The weather cooperated just long enough on Sunday afternoon for me to dig up the dark earth, drop the tiny seeds in their rows, and cover them over with a mixture of the same dark earth and fresh potting soil. I followed a handy diagram I found online.
Viola! Let the magic begin!
When I am near dirt, I love its smell. Warm, dark, moist…earthy. Dirt smells of life itself. The brown soil underneath my sweaty knees is about to produce food for my family. Worms and bugs crawl around in it, and I let them be. They are welcome in my patch. My uneven rows and clumpy top soil wouldn’t put me in the “Birds & Blooms” magazine, but the garden is mine. To tend and care for. To love and nourish. In its parameters, I feel like I have finally arrived at a place where I am meant to be.
My heritage, on my dad’s side, is in the soil. My grandpa, Raymond, farmed land in Indiana for years. His farm had been in his family line for over 100 years, and he maintained it well. Sky-high stalks of corn, flourishing rows of soybeans, waving sheaves of wheat – those are the images I have in my head when I think of my grandpa’s acres of land. When I would visit in the summer, I would sit in awe of the land around me, as it produced a bounty, drawn out from simple seeds.
That awe is the feeling I still get when I am close to the dirt.
I call it the “Genesis feeling.”
In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the story is told of a garden. A lush, beautiful, green place, full of trees and flowers and fruits and vegetables. Earth’s Creator, in the story, tells the first man and first woman to take care of the garden. That was their sole responsibility. In the tradition I was raised in, we tended to focus on the part where they disobeyed the command and were banned from the garden. I think, by now, most of Western society knows about the bite of the apple taken by Eve…and the chaos that ensued afterwards. But I want to focus on the part before the bite. Before the snake. Before the trouble began.
The first man and first woman were gardeners. They cared for the soil and for the animals. They lived close to the earth. This closeness coincided with their harmony with their Divine Creator. They flourished in a quiet, unashamed way, until their connection was broken.
When I smell the earth, I think of that connection. I think it is a holy experience to be near soil, as the soil brings forth creation again and again every season, just like God intended it to do.
For over 6 years, I worked in downtown Denver. I was surrounded by soaring buildings and congested traffic. I commuted on a crowded bus, followed by a quick jaunt through narrow streets to my office building. Everything was paved in concrete, stone, or asphalt. In January of this year, I read an article in the Denver Post, about Denverites craving “green spaces”, and how the city of Denver is planning initiatives for more parks, rooftop gardens, and community gardens to be inside the city limits.
Apparently, I am not alone in my quest for the Genesis feeling.
As humans, we want to be rooted and connected. A lack of connection shorts out our emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. We end up wandering around our lives, craving a ‘missing piece’ that perhaps we can’t quite name. We want to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. (This is why my brother Michael enjoys his Costco membership. “It’s good to be a part of something bigger than yourself,” he says, always with a grin.) But if the ground that we are walking on isn’t solid and healthy, we are going to sink ourselves. We will weaken, not unlike over-planted and over-harvested soil.
When I first moved to Denver in 2007, I was a stranger in a strange land. I had spent several years as a missionary kid in Germany and then a few months with my grandma in Indiana on the farm. I was 23, broke, friendless…and just a little bit of an oddball. I carried a journal around with me everywhere, writing incessantly in it, afraid to miss some detail of this new life I was trying to forge.
Still, Denver welcomed me with open arms. I found a job, joined a church group, made new friends, got married, had a baby, got promoted, earned my degree, wrote some books. The last 12 years have made me wealthy in love and experiences and happiness. I’ve been putting “down roots” in the best city I have ever lived in. I’ve been striving and working and achieving. I’ve made plans, executed plans, and failed at plans. I’ve won and lost. Fought and surrendered. Fallen down, gotten back up. Cried and laughed. Loved and been heartbroken. Grieved and rejoiced. All the things in this list should equal an abundant life with rich soil.
Except, somewhere along the line of the last four years, I’ve lost my path.
I’ve created all concrete and asphalt with very little green spaces.
If I zone into the part, “Got promoted”, from the last paragraph, I can pinpoint the beginnings of toxicity. From the first moment I received a higher title at my last job, I began a race to the supposed success I thought I craved. I found out that I was good at climbing a corporate ladder, fulfilling company objectives, and leading a team. The desire to make more money, get an office of my own, and maybe a summer home in the mountains churned in me. I didn’t even realize I was obsessed. I put in late nights and early mornings. I missed family dinners and Saturday morning breakfasts. There are few pictures of me from last year, simply because I wasn’t around much to have pictures taken.
I focused in my attention to be a good executive leader, even a great one, if I could.
This could be the moment where I tell about what I learned from the failure, or how I picked up the pieces and created something new. I could reflect that maybe I was in the wrong position or in a wrong company. I could hypothesize on the “if this, then that” or “he said, she said” scenarios. Except I don’t have those answers right now. I can’t fully articulate yet what I have learned, or where I went wrong, or how far I let myself go down into the trap of success and financial gain.
I’m sure I will be able to relay those lessons at some point.
All I know is that I am discouraged, sapped, and a little lost.
For those reasons, I am dropping seeds in the soil this year.
It’s reminding me that, sometimes, you have to go back to the beginning to find out what the next step is. Sometimes, you need to rip up concrete and dig up the dirt. Sometimes, you have to check the quality of your soil before you can reap another harvest. Sometimes, you have to give the soil a rest between plantings. Sometimes, you have to return to who you are in your heart before you can take any more action.
Genesis 1 begins with nothing. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (ESV) Before the garden, there was darkness. In the darkness, was the Spirit. It is this moment that fascinates me. The quiet before the burst. An empty page before written words. A blank canvas before the painting. That’s where I want to be—in the void, open and receptive, anticipating the new things about to spring forth. I’ve emptied myself, in mind and soul, and in my actual day to day schedule, to make room for fresh creations.
Even before I was promoted, I had constant goals on my list. For years, I have been working the soil of my life, determined to reap the best harvest I could possibly gain. The result has only depleted my resources, in body, mind, and spirit. I can’t keep running at a brisk clip on a never-ending treadmill cycle. This strange cocktail of over-achieving and strenuous goal-setting stripped me of other vital nutrients to my “soil”, including time to write, time with my son, time to travel with my husband, and time spent outside in nature, to name a few.
I haven’t completely thrown aside the things I want to accomplish. There is a tiny list tucked inside my journal (yes, I still keep one, although I have managed to not carry it around everywhere anymore) of fitness, writing, and family intentions. I look at it about once a week. But there is no deadline, no pressure, no knife to my throat, no financial gain to any of it.
What I am focused on it this:
I am taking long walks, teaching my son to read, and experimenting in the kitchen with recipes made from veggies, nuts, and a weird substance called “nutritional yeast.” I’m reading lots of books and taking time to think about them. I’m watching movies in a dark theater with my husband. I’m hanging out with my friends. I’m inquiring to adoption agencies and learning more about the foster care system.
I’m practicing gratitude.
I’m pondering who I am, what I want to do, and where I want to go. I’m re-gaining my footing on the path that I know I’m supposed to be on. When I was contemplating this year, a passage from the book of Isaiah came to my mind, “You will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way! Follow it!”
I’m listening for that voice in the stillness.
I’m breathing in, breathing out.
I’m waiting in the void.
Did you know that soil can heal itself? If given the proper environment, nutrients, and attention, striped soil can be replenished fully to its richest, darkest, and densest vitality. Toxins removed. Nutrients restored.
It’s a slow process, though, nurturing striped soil back to health.
Even slower to nurture a worn-out soul.
I’m okay with slowness.
Maybe if the first woman and the first man hadn’t been in a rush to try the next thing,
the whole earth would still be a garden.
Plenty of green spaces instead of gray concrete.
If, during this process of nurturing and waiting, you’re looking for me,
look through the big dining room window at my house.
You see me pulling weeds, watering, coaxing growth, or protecting roots.
I might be on my knees,
inhaling the smell of dirt,
content for this moment….
In a garden,
where the Genesis feeling is.