Lectures on Dirt
    Mary Rakow
          I dream. I am a buried girl who now is standing,
addressing an audience of adults. They listen. They take notes. I am telling them about the dirt.
            I wake. It does not feel like a dream. It feels like revelation. I go downstairs, sit at my desk, and write every word the young girl said.


            "I’d like to give a lecture, if you don’t mind," I say after tracing my loop around the office walls.
           "The lecture is titled, 'What Every Buried Child Knows’."
I clear my throat, stand, as if behind a podium, straighten my papers, begin:
            "If someone looks under a house and sees a mound of dirt moving slowly up and down, with two green and white striped straws coming out one end, they might say,
            'This is cruelty. That mound breathes so like a human!'
            But cruelty is a matter of degree. This is something every buried child knows. When I was under the dirt, my father could not touch me, and afterward there was no blood.
            An ordinary person looks through the ripped opening in the foundation of a house, the place where a phone man crawls through to hook up a new line, and says,
           'That is dirt in there.' As if dirt were one thing.
            But if you are a child, and your father is burying you under the house, you tell yourself, ‘Dirt is not one thing, but many.’
            The particles come off the pointed end of the Army shovel onto your arms and chest, and you tell yourself,
            'Dirt is not one thing but many. Each particle is here with me. Each particle counts.' And in this way, with the dirt, you outnumber your father.
            When the dirt falls slowly from your father’s palms carefully onto your face, and you hear his breathing shorten and accelerate, and his eyes become like glass, you know that this is the hardest part, because he looks right down at you but doesn’t see you there. And because your head is fixed firm, you are forced to watch him become a person you no longer know. And this leaving is impossible to bear. But between you and your father’s changing face is the dirt.
            When, finally, the cold moves deeply through your body and you can no longer keep the straws between your teeth, and you feel the pull toward sleep, you find yourself able to say,
`Dirt is not one, but many. And the particles are good.’
            And in this way you as you leave the world, leaving behind all the stations of thought, you feel peace because you have made the world the way you want it to be. Because, as a child of four, you refuse to live where cruelty outnumbers kindness. Even as a child, you demand a moral order. And you create one if it cannot be found."


           "I have another lecture," I say as they nod. "The title is, 'How A Buried Child Organizes The World,’ or 'Why Art Is A Necessity’."
           I stand and read:
            "When I was buried by my father, nothing worked in its usual way. He’d said we were going to play a new game, but this was not a game. He stared down at me in the hole, but his eyes did not work, he did not see me there. My shoes and socks did not keep the dirt out from between my toes.
            Nothing worked right except the dirt itself.
            The dirt just fell, as always. Letting itself be moved. First it fell from the end of the shovel onto my legs, then it fell from his cupped hands onto my neck. I thought, The dirt doesn’t change. Faithful to its own immobility.
            I felt this with a great conviction.
            When my father dug me out and we walked along the side of the house to the kitchen door, I noticed the strip of dirt next to the cement walk had not changed, but lay there, still as ever. And I found, in this sight, proof that the dirt was superior to my father.
            I believe I felt a kind of relief in this, having, at last, a principle around which I could organize the flurry of my world. And so I came to treasure the dirt, whether on my shoe or under my fingernail, as an artifact of this reckoning.
            Later, in Sunday School, when I heard the Bible story of creation, I recognized myself not in Eve but in Adam because he named and categorized all things. And I too, had already come to organize and categorize the objects of my world based on their resemblance to the immobility of the dirt.
            I knew, for example, that a wooden box that houses a clock is far safer and more moral than the pendulum moving inside it. And that the giant redwood tree in the campsite where I was always afraid, was much less to be feared than the new eucalyptus tree planted by the city next to our sidewalk, because it grew too fast, and by the end of summer was taller than our house. I knew the safest thing about a man was his watch, but knew also that the same watch was safer still when displayed in a jeweler’s window and not attached to a man at all.
            Later, as a teenager, when I was lucky enough to be exposed to art, I thought deeper into the implications of this learning. I saw that an artist had taken a lemon and had frozen its stillness on canvas and in a frame, and I was glad, because I knew the lemon had been rescued, and its morality preserved. I knew that the painted lemon could no longer be taken up into the palm of a mother who, humming to herself, would squeeze it into the eye of a quivering child.
            I came to see art as a necessity because it preserves the moral order. And that the artist, even if a horrible person, in doing his work, redeems not only the lemon but also himself because what he releases into the world lasts forever. It outlasts his own cruelty. And for this reason, when he dies, the soil welcomes him. And as he decomposes, he re-enters its innocence, particle by particle."

Mary Rakow lives in Manhattan Beach, California. This excerpt is adapted from her novel, THE MEMORY ROOM, forthcoming from Counterpoint Press.


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