Lectures on Dirt
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
"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
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
'This is cruelty. That mound breathes so like a
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
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
'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
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
Nothing worked right except the dirt itself.
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.
Potentially, might be ...