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When I think of dirt, I think of possibility and accomplishments. I think of running. In college, I was a cross-country runner, and we spent many hours running on dirt. The dusty backroads of rural Michigan were our playground, with occasional jaunts into the college’s nature center. In the heat of those late summer days, the dirt roads answered our footsteps with clouds of dust, and the dirt would stick to our sweaty legs as we pounded out our work-outs. As the summer eased into fall, the seasonal transition would bring with it rains. Sometimes we would run outside in downpours, the roads and our bodies slick with rain. During speed work-outs, we would run directly through mud puddles, our shoes turning into dirty squishy sponges that squeaked and squirted the mud water back out at us. We ran no matter what the weather was unless there was lightning involved. And whenever we had the chance, we ran on dirt.
During graduate school, dirt acquired a new meaning. I was in college when I became a vegetarian, but it took me a few more years to really discover vegetables. I don’t mean that I didn’t eat a single vegetable until I was 25. It’s that my vegetable repertoire was limited and predictable: carrots, green peppers, tomatoes, onions, corn, lettuce, potatoes. I ate my vegetables diligently, but I was not curious to discover more. In graduate school, a new world opened up to me, a world with fennel and radishes and fresh green beans. My friend Anne taught me how to cook zucchini. It’s embarrassing to admit now that I needed to be taught how to handle a ubiquitous garden vegetable. But I didn’t know, and Anne didn’t laugh at me, which was very nice of her. I studied cookbooks and learned how to make an awesome vegetable soup and I started topping my pizzas with thinly sliced zucchini. Looking back now, I feel like those years in the kitchen were very formative for me. Though I am always learning about cooking, I feel like I really learned how to cook in that big kitchen in my old apartment.
All those vegetable-based meals gave me a new appreciation for dirt, the direct source for the stuff that showed up on my dinner plate. Dirt was a place where the magic and miracle of life began. I became an admirer of gardens and my gardening-friends, happy to compliment them on their basil plants or muck around in the soil, planting seeds. When I became a regular customer at the farmers’ market, smudges of dirt thrilled me, a sign of the earth that had yielded such beautiful food for us to enjoy.
The most recent lesson that dirt has taught me is that it can make a new apartment feel like home. Now, I’m no clean freak, although I do like an orderly home. A little dust and dirt do not induce panic attacks in me. But I’ve found that cleaning a space is a profound bonding experience for me. After vacuuming and dusting, wiping and washing in my new place here in Texas, I feel much more like a resident rather than a visitor. Sometimes with all the sunshine and the swimming, I feel like I’m on vacation. But then I realize that the bathrooms are dirty again and I haven’t vacuumed in a week and I am reminded that yes, I do live here. It may sound unromantic to put it that way, but I am relieved to have a home, a place to cook and clean and put my feet up at the end of the day. In its way, dirt is homey and comforting to me. But I do keep my running shoes right next to the front door, just in case I need to exchange the dirt on my carpet for dirt under my sneakers.