Monday, August 30, 2010



"Cleanliness is next to Godliness." – old proverb

I am someone who, early on, acquired a healthy appreciation for it. Each morning, I am out digging in it, putting my hands into it, forging again an old relationship with dirt, the stuff of terra firma. But a Southern woman's relationship to dirt gets to be a mixed blessing somewhere along the way, especially if that woman happens to also have been raised by devout Southern Baptists for whom "cleanliness is next to Godliness." I have wondered about that alluded-to relationship between being clean and being close to God.

I was baptized in a sanctuary, in a baptismal pool, and the water in it was always clear, faintly blue, and heavily-chlorinated. That water was so clean, you could have drunk it down by the glassful, made sweet tea of it, or lemonade, if only you could get past the fact that so many of us, sinners and all, had tromped down into it and had been dunked good, then raised to a newer, cleaner, more redeemed life in Christ. Or so said Preacher. He said the water was sanctified, made clean by the power of God and faith of the saints. And sure enough, it never seemed to get dirty, not like bathwater did after a good scrubbing. So I thought there must be something strangely holy about it: water purified by the righteousness of God. I thought it must be something like the water-to-wine miracle of the New Testament, knowing nothing back then of the importance of good filtration systems and pumps.

Nothing could grow in that water, my grandmother was fond of saying.

But just how clean is clean? And how does one get to the kind of clean that is close to Godliness? I wondered it often through my childhood – and I wonder about it again today, as I'm digging in the dirt of my own yard.


This northern dirt isn't the dirt of my childhood in the South: that dirt was almost black, a rich loam thick with rolly-pollys and earthworms – those other toilers in dirt and the best natural aerators in all creation. That dirt was the rich dirt given me, happenstance, by those who came before me, by my French ancestors: those who'd come to America to escape the displacements of the poor itinerant farming families who'd worked the lands of the country gentry until the Industrial Revolution had pushed them, finally, to the cobbled, crowded cities and mines that had almost killed them off.

For my French ancestors, the poverty of the cities had been an immense and devastating poverty. Being poor in the countryside had at least afforded them the riches of the natural world: open skies and wide fields, meadows draped in mists, small brooks winding through thickets and trees, a countryside in which they could walk to chapel together on Sunday mornings and through which their children played away their early childhood years. The wives and daughters of those itinerant farmers had spent their days and nights in fine needlework, handling the colored threads and ribbons and working the fine Irish linen into undergarments and corsets, embroidering the stiff collars and cuffs and bonnets that the gentlemen farmers' wives and daughters and infants would wear.

Flowerers, they were called, those women and girls who were my ancestors, those who did fine needlework all day while their husbands worked the fields and gardens of the landed gentry. In that part of France, lavender fields were abundant and the young flowerers were sometimes allowed time off from their needling to go into the fields after a good harvest, to gather the fallen stalks and stems and buds that had been left behind. From the remnants of fine linen and silk, they'd stitched and embroidered little lavender sachets, something to sweeten the rough cotton garments they'd made for themselves and tucked into the trunks they'd carried from farm to farm, something in which even the poorest among them could put away the handmade dresses and gowns and undergarments for the brides they one day hoped to be, or the batiste bonnets and dressing-gowns for the babies they imagined would one day fill their arms and their lives with something like a purpose, something like a life, something like love.


My great-grandmother, Mary Caroline Caston, from her girlhood had loved the clean pungent smell of the lavender fields. Even in her late, invalid years – bedridden – her room smelled faintly of it, as did all her white-worked nightgowns and handkerchiefs. She kept that fragrance of her homeland and her youth near her all her life, thus did it, in turn, become the fragrant undercurrent that ran through the four high-ceilinged rooms of my own early childhood in Shreveport, Louisiana. What I remember now about that house on College Street is that pervasive scent of lavender, that clean, bitten-through smell. It alone could obliterate the damp stench of mildew always lingering behind the wallpapered walls, of rot creeping under the wooden floors, obliterate too the moldy, moth-ball smell of old wool coats and tall chifferobes. It was a smell that I imagined heaven must be full of: like a good strong soap, a scent so strong nothing can prevail against it, not even sin. Not even the devil and all his angels.

It's a fragrance I return to often now in making soap, a fragrance connected to my early love for her, for that bent, crippled, delicate ninety-year-old woman who I only vaguely remember now. Whatever is left, whatever else I know of her story or of her life before she came to America, was handed down to me by her daughters who too are long-gone now, every one of them: Annie Lou, Billie, Callie, Tiny who I never knew, and Fleecy, whose granddaughter I became.


The poverty of the French countryside had been one kind of poverty; the poverty of the cities had been a worse one. The streets and buggies, the horse-droppings and littered streets, the factories and smoke-riddled skies, the rented rooms in which many families lived and slept and ate, the exhausted faces of the fathers, pinched and pale from days in the factories or the mines – those faces which had been ruddy with sun in the country – it was all a dire poverty for them. Where had the wide blue sky gone? Where the good dirt smalls after a hard rain? I once overheard my great-grandmother tell her daughters that the city, after rain, was "like putting one's nose to horse piss."


I made the grave mistake of repeating that once, in Shreveport, after a two-day-long siege of rain had kept my brother and me indoors. We'd had to sit at the windows watching the colored children – that's what we called them back then – squealing and splashing, playing happily in the rain-filled gutters along the street. White children were, as the dear great-aunties reminded us over and over, prone to ringworm so we weren't allowed to play like that in the rain. We were relegated to sitting at the windows all day, longing for that kind of play, that kind of adventure and abandon.

I suspect it was out of some five-year-old sourness or spite in me that I muttered, at the sill, on that second afternoon of rain, "It probably smells just like horse piss out there." The parlor, full of great-aunts drinking their afternoon coffee milk-thick in demitasse cups, came to a standstill and an awkward silence moved in behind me. Then everything broke loose at once and I got a lesson in propriety and Christian piety and a mouth-washing to remember with a rough bar of that strong, homemade lavender soap. Even then the two – righteousness and cleanliness – were inextricably linked.


My French ancestors left those reeking cities eventually, boarding boats which crossed the stormy Atlantic, immigrating to American, and settling in the Louisiana Territory where the women once more resumed their delicate stitchery, their cleaning and scrubbing, their charities and church-going, and where the men and older boys returned, happily, to their hard work in the rich, loamy dirt of Southern fields. The good Christian women and mothers undertook again, with great zeal, their former, greater work: to insure that the men-folk kept the dirt of the fields in the fields and off of their "belongings." And to my eternal good fortune, they – as God had commanded – were fruitful and multiplied. Prolifically. Thus came I, somewhere along the way, into a dirt-digging, God-fearing, cleanliness-riddled family: a girl who would fall, one day, into a mad kind of love with the whole dirty and disorderly world, and, simultaneously, with the whole clean ordering of it.

My grandmother and mom were both meticulous women who kept their houses clean with an almost-religious zeal. Dirt, ash, and dust were the enemies: fine for outdoors, but fatal for carpets, tile, furniture, and walls. And nearly-catastrophic for the man – or child – who unwittingly brought such things inside. Yet these two women also had a great affection for "growing things:" my grandmother kept little pots of blooming snapdragons and pansies on her windowsills which she tended carefully until they were hardy enough to move to the well-tended beds outside. Once, in her late years, a groundskeeper had cut back the English ivy clinging to the brick walls outside her living quarters and she flew at him in such outrage and fury that the neighbors still spoke of that day in awe for many year after she'd passed.

My mom, retired now, has a solarium off the back of her house where she reads her daily devotional and her Bible and prays every morning, a place where exotic potted things thrive under her care: large ferns and dieffenbachia, African violets, orchids, and other climbers whose names I do not know. It's a room which smells, faintly, of rain and potting soil, of sunshine and greenery, a damp and humid place, a place so rich in that good dirt smell it makes me tremble and almost swoon just to be in it. In her yard, the old oak tree stands so tall now and wide, the branches catch in electric lines. Azaleas and camellias bloom each spring across her front lawn, her pride and joy, which send my father into yearly fits of sneezing and allergies. Her yard, like her sunroom, is a testimony to her love for the lushness of the earth, the earth from which all living things come. And to which they will all return.

But I did not learn my love of dirt from either of those good women. From them I learned cleanliness. And godliness. And silence. And forbearance. How to keep a stiff upper lip and a calm demeanor. How to keep putting one tired foot in front of the other, no matter how exhausted you are, no matter what fate God or the devil deals you.

I learned my love of dirt in first grade, in elementary school, where we had been instructed to save our milk cartons from the lunchroom. We had taken the waxy, emptied, half-pint cartons back to our classroom. We'd gathered around the pitted porcelain sink in the back of the room and, two by two, we'd filled the empty cartons with hot-as-we-could-bear-it water and soap suds, gleefully washing the milk-smells form them. Then we'd returned to our desks and had cut off the tops – sawed them off, more accurately – with the blunt safety scissors. So we had our perfect pots for seedlings.

In the South, holidays are taken seriously. Not just the big ones, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, or Easter or Fourth of July. We celebrated Hallowe'en with a devilish fervor, sparing not one of our mothers' half-spent tubes of lipstick or eyebrow pencils or old bed-sheets in our childish attempts at ghoulishness. Each May Day, we dressed in our white shifts and petticoats and we donned our Sunday-best patent-leather shoes and lace-top socks and our mothers curled our stringy hair and braided white ribbons and flowers into it and we danced, wild as heathens, around the Maypole, throwing flower petals at the scowling boys in our class who looked on from the sidelines and muttered and wanted to be anywhere else just then. Fishing, most of all. And then Arbor Day was bearing down upon us, another holiday of sorts, that we could throw ourselves into: we were learning by heart the Johnny Appleseed song and Joyce Kilmer's poem, "Trees." We were preparing the marigold and petunia seedlings for the ceremonial transplanting along the circular drive of Lane Avenue Elementary School while our parents and younger siblings looked on. We'd march in lines, side by side, singing down the sidewalk, circling the flagpole, holding in our cupped hands the bright blooms which we had, with our own hands, planted and watered and raised. Thus we had been excited that day as we filled our seedpots with soil from the schoolyard. . .and "dirty as devils" which was how my grandmother saw the whole ordeal when she saw the dirt crusted under my fingernails and the red clay smudged on my dress.

Devils. A delicious word. A word that hinted at sin, something I was only just then beginning to take an interest in.

How happy I was that whole afternoon, even when I was sent straight to the bath to wash away the evidence of my uncleanness. Dirt was, as I came to understand that day, for boys, along with snips and snails and puppy-dog tails. Girls were to be clean and sweet and nice (not to mention well-mannered and seen-and–not-heard). Even after I'd scrubbed myself, lathering and rinsing head to toe – including even my hair which had NOT been in the dirt – in my grandmother's strong lavender-scented soap, I kept dreaming of that digging I'd done behind the schoolhouse and along the drainage ditches along the sugarcane fields: how I'd dug down with my own hands, doing what I did that day with a fervor that was something like the way I prayed at six years old. I remember this still, also the slimy earthworms that had slithered through the deeper, darker soil where I'd knelt on bare knees on the soft spongy ground and had worked earnestly under the hot Florida sun to find the deepest, richest, moistest dirt with which to fill my waxy seedpot.


There is a smell to the earth when you get down that deep. . .like rainwater and rot mixed up together. Like things fermenting. Or decomposing. It excites and disturbs me, that smell, in a curious way I cannot explain, something like the excitement and agitation I feel when I step close to the precipice edge of a high cliff. A feeling like dread and pleasure, one inextricable from the other. A whiff of near-disaster rising form the heat of any ordinary Southern day.

Those who grow up in the South come to know, sooner or later, that dirt is the final consolation of being mortal. I went to my first funeral when I was seven where I watched a man toss a handful of dirt into an open grave. I didn't know why he did that. Preacher was saying something about "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," and women were weeping openly. The men looked uncomfortable scratching or pulling at their tight stiff collars. Behind us all, in the hot midday sun of Florida in June, two thin Negro men leaned on shovels. The summer air rang with mosquitoes and heat.


And how many handfuls of dirt did I see, in my life, thrown onto the coffins of boys with whom I'd grown up? One by one, two by two, they'd gone off to the war. They'd come home again from Viet Nam, some of them, in wooden crates or body bags, some in pieces so scarce – a jawbone, some teeth, a splintered femur, dog tags – a shoebox would have been sufficient for the burial. Lord only knows why those families paid dear money for the elegant, mahogany, satin-lined caskets. Maybe for the boys they each had been. Maybe for the men they would have become had the war not come for them first. Maybe it was some gesture of consolation. For themselves, perhaps. Or for us. Or maybe it was so that, on that great getting-up morning at the end of time, those boys could blink and sigh and find themselves, for once, in something more extravagant than anything their lives had afforded them.

For the better part of eleven years, I gathered with friends and families at gravesides and stared at my feet, too stunned to cry myself, as the grieving mothers or girlfriends or young widows tossed a rose – white or red – into the open hole in the ground, or as the stoop-shouldered fathers or sad-faced brothers and sons tossed a hand full of dirt into the open grave and crossed themselves after. It was our job then, the job of the survivors, to turn away, to turn back toward our lives. And so we did. But didn't the solid, too-final thud of that thrown clod also follow us away? Didn’t the fragrance of the deep, mossy earth trail behind us at a distance for years, like a last faithful dog, like some ghost of the time-to-come? And wasn't it then that all the old notions of godliness and cleanliness shifted on some axis of loss and sorrow and tilted us toward some fiercer, more desperate love for the earth and our brief lives on it?

Whenever we returned – IF we returned – to those graveyards in the seasons to come, soft grasses shifted in the wind, blurring the hard edges of the dark trenches we'd remembered. Only the markers placed there - the headstones - had let us find our way back to the ones we'd loved and lost. Here lies. . .Beloved son. . .Rest in peace. . . .

My oldest son, Scott, lost his dog some years back, a Sheltie named Lady. She'd lived with him for many years, outlasting several girlfriends, outlasting the roommates who had come and gone, through the campus classes and parties. We'd given her to him when he'd gone to college at Towson, to help stave off the loneliness he sometimes felt being far away from his hometown. She'd died though, of cancer, though he'd spent all of his savings to get her the operation that might save her. Then he'd gone to see her at the vet's that afternoon and she'd seen him and stood, wobbling over to him, wagging her rump and lying down on her back so he could see – and stroke – the long incision where she'd been opened, emptied of the tumor, and sewn shut again. He'd been looking forward to bringing her home again. He'd talked softly to her before he left that afternoon, saying over and over what a good dog she was, assuring her – as if she could understand him – that he'd return on the morrow and take her home again. He'd stroked her shaved belly a last time before he left. That night, she died in her sleep. He's had her cremated and says that one day – when I settle down in one place for good – maybe he'll bury her ashes under the roses in my garden.

Word comes now, from Alaska, that my friend is dying. There is nothing to be done. It is going to happen whether any of us agree to it or not, whether the new drug can stay the ravenous course of the cancer another year or two, or whether the Gleevec, like the Temozolomide, will fail. I try not to think of my friend's family, gathered around an open grave when the ground has thawed sufficiently to allow a burial, his wife holding a thorny rose, his eldest son reaching for a clod of dirt, his youngest son looking down at his feet, lost and emptied of words. I, who am fierce enough to look at almost anything, am not ready, yet, for that. So this morning, I forego the spade and the trowel. I dig way down through the silt, through the damp clay flecked with limestone, through to the layer of rocks ad stones and left-over concrete chunks someone buried here years ago. I dig and dig, until a little dark water pools at the bottom of the hole. I dig until my fingernails break off and my crooked spine throbs and my hands ache, making this plot of dirt amenable, as I've promised, making it a well-turned bed for the roses and peonies, making what might become a suitable resting-place for the ashy remains of my son's dog and the two loved cats who have passed.

I'll tell anyone who stops to ask me this morning that I am preparing to plant roses. And maybe I am. Though it is possible that I am only practicing, after all, edging closer and closer to the old terror of what-comes-after, learning to stomach it, the idea of it, moving relentlessly down through the dirt. Past the cleanliness. Past the godliness. Past the whole crazy way we return to the earth, in the end, whether we want to or not. This morning I am going down deeply into it, leaning into it while I can still smell it, while all my senses can still reel with the heady, dangerous feel of it, whatever the it is. Going bare-handed and dirt-fisted at it while I still can. Before it comes for my friend. Before it comes for anyone else I love. Before it comes for me.