Bare Hands in the Dirt

Kyle Elefson

This past weekend, Miska and I spent all day Saturday and a good bit of Sunday knee-deep in Crabgrass, Nutsedge, Chickweed and Creeping Charlie, ripping fistfuls from one of our front garden beds. This was our third venture into the jungle since Spring, with the weeds returning each time, as if they had something to prove. When we returned from vacation, it looked like we needed a tractor and bailer. It was demoralizing.

Early in the season, I bought a nifty pair of working gloves: HydraHydes, quick drying leather that slips like velvet over my rugged, yardman hands (Forgive me, I’m feeling self-conscious. Recently, after making a quip about being a working man, Miska patted my knuckles and chuckled. “Honey,” she said, “you have a writer’s hands.”). Anyways, I went to work with my fancy working-man gloves, piling load after load into the wheelbarrow.

After an hour, I pulled the sweaty gloves from my steaming body and began yanking weeds with bare hands. My fingers dug into damp clay. My hands turned a shade of burnt orange. Cool dirt brushed my skin. Mud jammed under my fingernails, as if I’d scraped bars of chocolate. I was in the dirt, no longer separated by buckskin. The sun sizzled, and I guzzled quarts of water. Yet, it was refreshing, healing, to be in the dirt with no artificial barrier, skin to soil.

It’s tempting to avoid digging into our life, maintaining protection from the real stuff, from the mess, from the mundane. Life isn’t primarily found in grand gestures or wild epiphanies or those rare, remarkable ecstasies (though I’m thankful for each and hope for more). Real life happens as we punch the clock for another day, as we text a friend to say we miss them, as we shut off the work and stream Key & Peele clips with our kids, as we admit to our spouse that we’re lonely. We truly live our life with bare hands in the dirt.

Telling Your Own Story

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John Updike says he’s in complete control of his characters; he actually crafts the final sentence first, pins it up on his cork board and then writes his novel toward that finale. In direct contrast, Per Petterson says he has no control whatsoever over his characters and considers it cheating not to tell the readers whatever he knows as soon as he knows it (“you have to empty the well so you can fill it up again,” Per says). The point here is not to take sides, to become an Updikian or a Pettersonian (or a Steinbeckian or Lamottian or whatever). Rather, the point is that there is no one way to tell your story, either the fictional kind or the grind-of-life kind.

There is no one way to raise kids or build a life or do good in this world. It takes little courage to mimic another genius or wise soul. However, it requires much courage, as well as much skill and tenacity and chutzpah, to tell us your story the one way you have to tell it. There are lots of vehement voices these days insisting that the wise or just person must unequivocally see what they see, respond how they respond, get riled up the way they get riled up. Some of these folks are well-meaning, some are blowhards. Either way, you or I couldn’t possibly take on, in the same measure, everyone’s angst, couldn’t possibly take on everyone else’s top priority as our own. We must pay attention to the fire simmering in our own heart, must doggedly guard that place where we bear unique responsibility. You can’t tell another person’s story. We do, however, really, really need you to tell your own.

 

The Whole Thing is Just Too Much

Heart and Wires

I remember, in college, reading a pastor who suggested an exercise. List everything we’d ever heard in a sermon and everything we’ve ever read in a Christian book or picked up from spiritual mentors and friends. Pile up everything we’d been told a good Christian would do better, every discipline we should take on, every sin we should confess, every motive we should question, every spiritual practice we should rework. Catalogue all the evils within us. Reassert all the doctrines we are to cling to with our very life. Line up all the “shoulds” and all the “ought-tos,” heap on top of this teetering mass every time we were told more steps to holiness or more methods to spiritual success, more reasons to feel guilty, more ways to please (or appease) God.

I had heard many, many sermons (thousands). I had read many, many books. My pile was massive, heavy. It was my rock of gibraltar. I was exhausted by the exercise. I was exhausted by my life.

Now, in my 40’s, I could add a second exercise. List every cause I’ve ever been told should be mine, every injustice I am personally to right, every issue I am to have a passionate word for (or against), every way I am to prove that I am thoughtful, intelligent, evolved. Mark every way I am to be certain not to provoke or offend (even though these ways, often, stand at odds), every social moment I am to make certain raises my ire (or does not raise my ire).  If I allow myself to continue this exercise, to follow this rushing tidal flow, I find that I am again exhausted by my life.

We have a penchant for laying burdens on one another (or maybe laying burdens on ourselves). We seem to miss that we are all to do what is given to us to do. We can not fix our own life, we can not fix the world. We do that one thing, maybe two things, that has been given to us as a unique responsibility, and then we live well. We seek to be faithful and true to what we see clearly, to what good light has made clear to us, and then we release the expectations and the demands. We love and trust that when we need that next bit of light, it will be ours.”You do not have to be good,” writes Mary Oliver,

You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…

No, we merely need to see the truth and fulness of our life, to see what beloved beauty and responsibility God has placed within us. And then we live, with boldness and delight. And we trust that God is doing the same with everyone else and then, somehow, when the Great Story finishes, love has won the day.

The Weary Exhibitionist

Recent stories reveal Facebook’s hand-wringing over the current “content collapse,” where users are sharing less personal material and more secondhand posts (just passing along news articles, videos of cats playing the piano in a tutu, stuff like that). One prevailing theory for said collapse suggests that as folk’s networks have expanded to include God-knows-who, people have grown more reticent to hand off their privacy to the vague crowd. I’m sure there’s merit to this, but I can imagine other reasons why we might be seeing more memes of Trump and Bernie and less stories about our wild weekend escapade or words from that novel that made us weep.

Further, I think this conversation has resonance with what many of us experience in the fuller experience of our life, even if we’ve never once clicked into that alternate universe known as Facebook. Why are many of us becoming more careful about what we broadcast within our circle of friends (real ones)? Why do so many of us find ourselves withdrawing a little more, growing a little more quiet, sharing a little less?

One reason may simply be that we’re growing tired of ourselves. The exhibitionism of our narcissistic age has flat exhausted us. We’re tapped out. We’ve discovered that though we have good things to say (we really do) and though our voice matters (it truly does), it’s exhausting to try to be as clever or profound or unique as is required to maintain the high that comes from that first hit of recognition. It’s marvelous to be seen as the smart one, the accomplished one, but pursuing such a thing will likely crush us.

It’s one thing to offer what we have, with courage and without apology. It’s another thing to be unable to have a sense of ourselves apart from a steady stream of affirmation. Maybe some of us realize we’ve been promoting a life for too long; we want to get on with living it.

That Thing About Fear

I’ve lived with my old pal fear for a very long time. I don’t know if I struggle with fear more or less than the average person (who, by the way, has ever met this mythical average person?), but I do know that I’ve endured seasons in my life where I thought fear might ruin me, where the anxieties felt so overwhelming, so deafening, that I could no longer imagine a day when I would feel hope or lighthearted again.

These experiences attack your personhood. They make you feel weak and ashamed because you know you’re supposed to be able to handle your life, you’re supposed to be able to do basic stuff like have coffee with a friend or cuddle with your kids or drive your car to work without thinking you’re about to lose your everlovin’ mind.

There’s a lot to be said about all this, but for those who are in the midst of this dark hole, you must hear me: there’s lots of help. Our lives don’t have to lock into this debilitating cycle forever. A few good friends make a world of difference – and if you haven’t entrusted your story to someone, take that leap. It’s not that having friends makes the noise go away, but it does mean you’ll have someone to go grab a taco or see a movie with you when the noise hits an unbearable decibel. Also, doctors and therapists are your allies here. I know therapists can be expensive, but don’t let that stop you. Exercise and being outside does wonders. Sometimes your biochemistry is off, and meds do the trick. And sometimes, you have to just gut it out, at least for a little while. You have to put one foot in front of the other and keep walking, choosing to believe that the crazy circus show that’s camped out in your head will not stay forever.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned about my fears. Maybe this will be helpful to you, maybe not. Whenever I fear something in a compulsive, runaway train kind of way, I’ve learned that I have to step into the fear, not away from it. If I fear an interaction with a person, I step toward them. If I fear a certain social setting, I move into it. I don’t do this all the time, creating some whole other loony compulsion. Rather, when the time seems right or when my action is required in order for me to be present with those I love, I buckle up and do the opposite of what my fears tell me.

There’s psychological language for what I’m describing, but for me, it’s merely my refusal to allow my fears to control me. Whenever I enact this courage, it doesn’t mean my fear immediately evaporates (I may still feel anxious energy pulsing or I may still have wild chatter in my head). It only means I’ve decided that how I feel (fearful) does not define who I am (bold and hopeful). And I choose, in those moments, to act on the truth of who I am rather than on the lie of what I feel. This is a battle, and if I’ve made it sound easy, I lied. But it’s a good battle, and over time, the skirmishes lessen in frequency and intensity.

Here’s the thing: Fear’s gonna do what fear’s gonna do. We have to just keep on living.

Risk Our Significance

I believe that every one of us wants to matter. We want people to listen to us or to follow us or to want us in their circle. In elementary school, the daily draft for lunchtime soccer found us scrupulously counting how many poor souls were left in line with us while we kicked the dirt and pretended to barely pay attention. In our grown up years, we watch jealously for who gets the party invites or the promotions or the skyrocketing social media stats. Miska and I have a friend who jokingly (I think) refers to her A-list friends and her B-list friends. I refuse to ask which list we make. If it’s not A, I prefer not to know.

Because of our desire to make it good (and this is not altogether a bad thing, we were made to splash our beauty on this world), we may begrudge others who hit the highlight reel. It’s a normal, human reaction, but it can be ugly. There’s a reason they call this the green-eyed monster.

However, when we live with the fear that our life may wash out with nothing of worth to show for it, a more insidious temptation seeps in. We begin to guard our life, to tame our voice. We begin to watch too closely for others’ reactions. We take our cues from everywhere but our own still, solid soul. We may believe that our possibilities are dwindling, that the power brokers must be wooed by our impeccable one-shot precision. Like Smeagol and his ring, we clutch our passions or our quirkiness very close.

This is why the old teachers told us that if we were to be true and to live well it is essential for us to risk our significance. To live with integrity, we must lay down the demand (though not the desire) that our life make spectacular impact. We must risk being the fool. We may still hope for that grand epitaph, but we leave the words for the dead to those who write the words for the dead. And what we do is we live. We live true. We give what we have. And we trust that goodness and love will write our final story.

 

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