I am a gardener. I get dirty. I often wear dark nail polish in the summer to hide how unscrubbably grimy my fingernails have become.
And that’s okay. Dirt’s not that bad.
Becoming a mom for the first time to a little girl who had already grown out of the crawling stage (so I thought) I was rather foolish about some of the clothing choices I made early on. K. was 8 when she came here, and needed her first snow suit. I bought a white one. Oh dear. She goes to a Waldorf school where there are two recess periods a day, in a play yard that is wood chips and mud. They crawl in it, jump in it, roll in it, dig in it – there seems to be nothing they don’t do with mud. I’d meet her at the gate that first winter, and behold a child in a white snow suit that was entirely coated with mud.
“You’re new at this, right?” other moms would say with sympathetic smiles.
The following year I bought the snow gear in dark colors, like most of the other moms. K. was still coated with mud at the end of each day, but at least it didn’t show so much.
My relationship with dirt is fairly casual. I ask that she have clean fingernails at school, and clean (ish) clothes, but as a sign of respect for her teachers more than anything else. As for the dirt itself, we’re not afraid of it. I myself used hand sanitizer (usually) in Ethiopia on two visits, but mainly to protect the babies in the orphanage from my American microbes. And K.? My dear girl lived for eight years in one of the world’s poorest countries. For the first five or six of those, she lived in a rural village in a house with mud walls, and she has shared many times that she and the other children routinely picked at the mud walls of their houses and nibbled on the bits. Maybe their bodies craved trace minerals they found in that mud. I don’t know. All I know is that she has an immune system like nothing I’ve ever seen: she has missed only one day of school due to illness in three and a half years. I guess if you can survive 8 years of poverty and want (by American standards) in rural Africa, you were either hardy to begin with or became hardy because of it.
Physical courage allows us to experience the world without layers and layers of protection – it allows us to experience the world directly, with all of our senses. I always assumed kids were supposed to get dirty. I know I got dirty. I ran barefoot and had scabs on my knees and tree sap in my hair. I stubbed my toes a lot, and endured many painful splinter extractions. But I also caught crayfish in streams, and built forts under giant bushes, and ate raspberries right off the prickery canes. I climbed trees and onto the house roof to smush my fingers into soft, warm tar on summer afternoons. I’ve gone camping and eaten food with sand and ashes in it, and wiped my knife “clean” on my dirty jeans. I don’t want dirt to cause my daughter to hesitate as she experiences the world. And so far, judging by the state of her clothes, it doesn’t!