The claustrophobia of winter has begun to dissipate. It’s too early to plant seeds outside in Minnesota, but the strawberries are poking through and the buds on the lilac bushes have begun to form. I got hit smack dab in the face by a meaty bug, likely disoriented and newly emerged from the thawing ground. While trimming raspberry canes and Concord grape vines, I stopped frequently, standing motionless, a stupid grin on my face, dirt on my knees and an overwhelming sense of relief.
Something happened to my brain during the sixth month of a moody winter. I haven’t been writing much, as each session culminates in a screw it and me storming off to do housework. I am almost through one of James Joyce’s works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s taken me weeks to work through. Last night I took a break and looked up definitions of the many words that I could not garner from context. I’m pretty sure I’ll be brain-dumping arras, cerements, and woodbegirt, but am excited to keep inanition: the absence or loss of social, moral, or intellectual vitality or vigor. It’s the perfect word to describe my affliction in March.
This morning, on what will be the first of many trips to Home Depot, I hauled bags of dirt. It all starts with the dirt. It’s nothing special. There’s lots of dead stuff in it. It’s messy and just lays there, waiting, ready. But a blank patch of dirt to a gardener is an opportunity and perhaps, a compulsion. Your brain registers the conditions: wet or dry, sunny or shady, clay or sandy. It runs through the catalog of seed packets. What works? What doesn’t? Should it be an experiment? Or something that gets changed every year?
It’s not too far a stretch to make this analogy work for just about anything. Writers often talk about that blank page as if it were something special. It’s just dirt. What we put into it is what makes the difference. So, this barren landscape, devoid of creativity, of ideas and of imagination is the place to start. Some ideas will never take hold, some will briefly raise their heads only to be wilted by a midday sun. Others, though, will put you on the path to meaning, substance and beauty.
Beauty is such a subjective word. For all the reading and writing I did this winter, each round a pale imitation of the last, I was seeking beauty. Knowledge, depth, understanding – these are the aspects of beauty that resonate with me. But beauty in gardening is not just the end result. If that were all that gardening, and writing, were about, then I’d just buy flowers at the market or read other people’s books. It is in the labor of the thing. It is one’s part as a creator, one’s tangling with point of view and weeds. It is rough hands and raw thoughts. It is dirt under the fingernails and raging frustration of translating your story onto paper.
It’s wonderful – that dirt and that blank page. A garden or a story just waiting to be created.