The children bring it in on their shoes or clinging to the roots of the flowers they pick for me. They’re often caked to their elbows with it after making mud pies. They seem determined to paint every surface of our little house in smudges: the windows, the couch, the new rug.

Dutifully I shoo them back outside, where dirt and children are supposed to be. Then I sweep, reaping dustpans of straw, dead grass, leaves, and pine needles.

The children get older, but the messes never end. Now there’s dirt on their soccer cleats; on their clothes after they’ve mowed the neighbor’s grass for twenty dollars; on their knees from their little gardens, where they grow their first tomatoes. I grab the broom more gently now, wondering how much longer I’ll be sweeping up after them.

Now they’ve all left home. When they return to visit, they take their shoes off at the door. They thoughtfully straighten, put away, and sweep up their own messes. And when they leave, there’s little for me to clean up.

But then they return with babies in their arms! As the grandchildren grow, they bring me river rocks pulled from the yard, snails and bugs presented by filthy hands. They look up at me, faces wet with sweat and smeared with mud. I pull them close and feel a joy that smells an awful lot like dirt.

Paula Wychopen
Spring, Texas

There was a knock on my prison-cell door: someone calling me downstairs to check something out. I assumed it was drugs. It’s almost always drugs. Out of boredom I went.

I was pleasantly surprised when my friend handed me a two-leafed seedling in a styrofoam cup. It was celosia, he said, and would grow to have a vivid, candy-pink flower with a fire-like pistil. It needed to be transplanted into a larger vessel soon, though, so I’d have to find suitable dirt.

For a prisoner at a medium-custody facility, finding soil rich enough to grow anything isn’t as simple as stepping outside and digging. Prisons are built on the cheapest land available — often in desolate areas like deserts. To find good dirt, I was going to have to use the black market.

Doing business here is difficult. All movements from the cell house are controlled by “the man,” so meetups must be carried out in cloak-and-dagger fashion. I risked disciplinary action and snuck into another cell house because the word was “Homie’s got that good shit!” But the soil he had was exactly that: shit. The guy unknowingly packed his pockets full of horse manure from a nearby farm where he was working. Good fertilizer, but not what I was looking for. Finally I found a guy who had pilfered some potting soil from administration. It cost as much as Colombian coffee, but I can always get more of that.

I lined an oatmeal cylinder with a trash bag and repotted my celosia. Watching it was pure joy, but neither human nor flower grows inside a cell without great persistence and adaptation. When my north-facing window and LED lamp no longer sufficed, I brought the plant into the dayroom to soak up the morning light, returning it to my cell after the sun passed. The flower, when it appeared, was a welcome sight. I felt like a proud parent.

But the correctional staff harbored a prejudice against prison horticulture, which quickly turned into threats from administration. Anyone in possession of a plant would be given a write-up and a one-way ticket to a tougher housing unit. All plants were to be disposed of immediately.

I had no idea so many of us were amateur gardeners. To see all the plants together was bittersweet: several species of flowers, bushes, trees, a four-foot tomato plant, many spider plants, even herbs. No one placed his plant in the trash can — only near it. In the sea of green, destined for the dumpster, stood my beautiful celosia.

Before everything could be thrown in the garbage, the same friend who gave me the seedling managed to smuggle it away and planted it next to one that had been growing outside. Although I’d given my plant the utmost care, it was dwarfed by the one not raised in a prison cell, and its color appeared pallid by comparison. Nonetheless, I was able to see my celosia while waiting in line outside the chow hall every day — until it was time for the annuals to be pulled from their beds.

Cañon City, Colorado

When I first met my husband’s mother, we planted peas together. Covered in dirt and blackfly bites, I felt like I had won the future-mother-in-law lottery. The next time I saw Nana, I enthusiastically suggested planting peas, only to be told, with irritation, that everyone knows peas aren’t planted in July.

Thus began the most complicated relationship of my adult life.

Her other daughter-in-law says Nana’s one great love was her career. She went to Cornell at the same time as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and fought to earn her PhD in the male-dominated field of botany. She mentored many students at the women’s college where she taught, encouraging them to pursue careers in science and medicine. She climbed her forty-sixth Adirondack high peak on her sixtieth birthday and at the age of ninety-two was hacking down bushes for cross-country ski trails behind her retirement cottage. There was no tree or plant she couldn’t identify, no award for protecting the natural world she hadn’t received. But there seemed to be little love left in her for the rest of us.

She sent my husband and me on a trip to Greece when we were overwhelmed students, but she kept the bras and bathing suits I forgot at her house. She rarely remembered birthdays, but she always expected a big party for hers. She insisted her children take music lessons, but she never went to their recitals. My brother-in-law swears she forgot to pick him up at the dentist so often that the dental assistant knew the way to their house. She never got the hang of hugging or saying, “I love you.”

Although I haven’t planted a pea since that confusing moment so long ago, I do love growing flowers and have planted many of Nana’s gifts, both store-bought and from her own garden. These days I garden with my son’s beautiful and generous girlfriend. While we sweat and schmooze, she teaches me how to be brave about moving things around my garden. I once again feel like I’ve won the lottery.

On Nana’s ninety-second birthday, a few months before she died, she received many botany-related gifts, from floral scarves to a watering can. Her favorite was a simple flowerless plant — a goldenseal, well known as the hardest plant to reproduce. It was given to her by my son’s girlfriend, who’d propagated it herself.

Holding the goldenseal on her lap, Nana fell into a rare silence. She clutched the pot and gazed at it with a rapture that looked a lot like love.

Lucy Garbus
Florence, Massachusetts

While living in China in my mid-twenties I followed that nation’s custom of removing my shoes upon entering someone’s home. It seemed like common sense and simple courtesy not to track dirt and grime on your host’s clean floors.

By the time I returned to the States, I regarded it as barbaric to walk into a home without removing my shoes. To the dismay of my family and friends, I became a fanatic, preaching the virtues of shoe removal until people found me obnoxious.

Thirty years later I found myself diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. I have been navigating the challenges of this illness for the last ten years. Though my muscles are weaker than before, I’m still what most people call highly functional. I use a walker, which allows me to be independent.

But talk about dirty shoes — the wheels of my walker are filthy. I don’t know what all the crap I run over is, but I know dog shit is in the mix. And I need to take the walker everywhere — my apartment and other people’s homes included. You see my dilemma.

Needless to say, my standards of cleanliness have been lowered. You might even say they’ve bottomed out. The floors in my apartment are not a pretty sight. I’ve become so bold about tracking dirt indoors, I even cheat when I’m on retreat at the Zen monastery, wearing my dirty shoes into the dining hall and the bathroom because with my disease it is too much effort to keep taking them off and putting them on. In Zen culture this carries the same weight as a mortal sin in Catholicism. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve learned to accept it. And so far no one has commented. I think they are just amazed that I am still here.

Treya Forlenza
Seattle, Washington

How could one person make me feel so full inside? For years I wanted nothing more than to make her my own, but I was too shy to try to win her over. I hoped that, through my friendship, I could convince her I was worthy.

One weekend we went camping with a group of friends. To my amazement she and I ended up sharing a tent, along with another friend who held no claim to her. She lay between us, and my body felt electrified at this rare opportunity. I did my best to resist the urge to cuddle her, afraid of coming on too strong and threatening our friendship.

We both woke in the middle of the night. A gentle wind was blowing outside. The freedom of being away from home made me bold, and I moved closer so that our hands touched.

When she grabbed mine, dirty after a day in the woods, I was stunned. She ran her fingers along it, and a small sigh of pleasure escaped me. Then she pulled my hand to her mouth.

I’d heard rumors of the amazing things girls could do with their mouths, but I hadn’t known such pleasures. One by one she licked and sucked each of my fingers. I was embarrassed at how dirty my hands were, but she didn’t seem to mind. These digits I’d never much considered came alive at the skillful attention of her tongue. It was, up to that point, the most erotic thing to ever happen to me.

Greg Franklin
Highland Park, California

Every nook and cranny sparkled; the only thing left to do was mop the ceiling. So I did. Then, after all cobwebs had been mutilated, I took a shower to rid myself of the grime. It was ninety-five degrees outside, with 90 percent humidity, and I was nine and a half months pregnant.

I thought a shower would relax me enough for a nap, but it did the opposite. So I decided to check on the jalapeños in the garden. As I stepped outside, I heard my grandmother’s ghost say, It’s like walking from a refrigerator into an oven.

I waved to Mr. Edwards across the street, then dropped the basket and trowel and lowered myself to my knees. Although I’d picked every pepper the day before, the plant was full again. With each jalapeño I pulled, a bead of sweat dripped. I swiped my lips with the back of my hand and tasted dirt. Good, solid, spicy earth. It was delicious. I discreetly shoved a handful into my basket.

Back in the kitchen, I grabbed a spoon and commenced eating the dirt as if it were my last meal, washing each spoonful down with a gulp of water. This didn’t strike me as odd. Nothing I did lately struck me as odd. Although every day I took my vitamins and ate well, including a gallon of milk and lots of spinach, none of that tasted as good as the minerals straight from the earth. They were just what my body needed.

When my basket was empty, I was tired. Finally. Like I’d scrubbed ten houses instead of our tiny apartment.

I settled down on the couch and slept, hard. Hours later a sharp pain in my abdomen woke me. I sat up and tried to catch my breath. This hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt. I got down on my hands and knees and rocked back and forth, willing the pain to leave and my breath to return.

My husband opened the front door, returning from a twelve-hour shift at work. He looked at me with great fear. I stared back, found that elusive oxygen, and said, “It’s time.”

Deanna Schrayer
Mountain City, Tennessee

To fill in sinkholes on our farm, my father stole dirt from a local cemetery. He would go after dark on the day of a funeral, making sure to turn off his headlights at the cemetery gates — “out of respect,” he said, but I knew he just didn’t want to be seen. Then he would fill his truck bed with as much soil as he could. It was good dirt, he told me, not full of rocks or debris, and the groundskeepers didn’t need it once the grave had been filled. I thought it was morbid, especially in our small town, where most of the dead were known to us.

One day he went to the cemetery twice: first in the morning, dressed in a dark suit to bury his mother, then by moonlight, dressed in soiled jeans and work boots. That was the last time I cared to know about it.

Megan Ratcliff
Roswell, Georgia

During a forty-eight-hour Christmas cease-fire in 1966, my Marine platoon received orders to provide security on a resupply convoy to a base forty kilometers south. Riding in the back of the truck was a welcome break from walking ten thousand meters a day with a radio on my back and a rifle in my hand.

Dirt had become a part of life in Vietnam. Under enemy fire I dove for it. To make fighting holes I dug in it. At night I slept in it. We’d been in the bush for three weeks, so our lieutenant pulled some strings and arranged for us to shower at the base. I thought about showering in my uniform, it was so dirty, but I stripped naked instead, wanting to make sure to wash the places that needed it most. The cold water felt like diving under a wave back home in California. Afterward I put on the last of the new tighty-whities my mom had sent me. I knocked as much dirt off my trousers and utility shirt as possible, then got dressed.

The lieutenant found out the mess tent was about to serve Christmas dinner. It was my first hot meal in three weeks, and I didn’t have to sit on the ground to eat it. A makeshift Christmas tree made it feel almost like home.

After the cease-fire it was back to tracking the Vietcong through the hills and rice paddies. Then the monsoons started, turning the dirt to mud. I lay in it, crawled in it, and dug fighting holes in it. On the rare occasion the sun came out, the mud turned back into dirt. Other than that, nothing changed.

Tom Elliott
Santa Barbara, California

In the summers when I was a little girl, I practically lived outside. I had my mom’s red hair and freckles but my dad’s olive skin. After a day outdoors, my ankles, knees, and elbows would be almost black.

My mom would regularly burst into the bathroom when I was soaking in the tub. “You’ve got to learn to clean yourself better than this,” she’d scold through clenched teeth. Then she would proceed to scrub my ankles, knees, and elbows with a brush.

Years later I connected these intrusions with the family lore that one of my ancestors “had a Black person in the woodpile” — only they didn’t say, Black person. Various people on my dad’s side of the family had dark skin and kinky hair.

It wasn’t dirt my mom was trying to scrub off me.

Betheny Reid
Dallas, Texas

I know spring has arrived when I hear my wife say, “We have to get some dirt” — three tons, in fact. She’s the devout gardener; I’m her willing enabler. Calls are made, a delivery date is set, and the tired blue tarp we’ve used for the last several years is laid in the driveway.

The soil’s arrival is heralded by the beeping of a truck in reverse. The driver compliments our tarp placement, then lifts the rear gate to release a cascade of fresh, steaming earth, which hits the target dead center. Its floral, musky odor fills the air.

My wife wants to spread this manna on the tender babies she has planted all around the property, but because of her work schedule, she must wait until the weekend. I have a three-day head start. Our terraced property does not allow a wheelbarrow, so I carry one bucket at a time, surgically managing the mound with precise shovel cuts and a keen eye. Any escape from the confines of the tarp is not tolerated.

When Saturday arrives, about half the dirt remains in the driveway. My wife is up early, ready to bring chaos to the neat geometry I have implemented. To keep her away from the pile, I promise to carry two buckets on each of my runs. I’m willing to turn myself into a long-armed gibbon to maintain the sanctity of the blue tarp.

She places my deliveries as if applying salve to a burn patient, cooing to the other plants that help is on the way. I dash back and forth while the pile symmetrically disappears. Meanwhile my wife provides me with roughly six hundred random facts about the plants we are tending. When she offers to switch jobs with me, I point out a mock orange that needs more dirt, then take off, catastrophe averted.

Once the pile is a mere shadow of the heap delivered a few days ago, I wrap the tidy remaining mound in a blue cocoon and join my wife, who is dreamily imagining how the garden will look in the coming weeks. She points to a few buds and shoots swaddled in mulch — signs of new life. We take our time.

Robert Ludemann
Happy Valley, Oregon

When we met her, she was a gangly preteen who had spent the previous five years in foster care. A year earlier my husband and I had adopted her younger brother. We’d wanted to adopt her, too, but the social worker had doubted our ability to handle her anger and bad behavior. Stubborn and possibly a bit naive, we wanted her. Our lawyer called social services, and they arranged a visit.

On her first morning with us, our son showed her the kid heaven behind our apartment: the woods where he hunted for fossils, the creek where he floated sticks and built dams, the puddles filled with tadpoles. A year is a long time for two children to be apart, and they needed this time together. Our son often cried at bedtime, missing his protector.

As I was setting out lunch, our son walked through the front door covered in mud — and alone. He said his sister didn’t want to come inside because she was dirty. Her foster mother believed good little girls never got dirty, and she had often been punished for muddying her clothes. He’d tried to assure her I wouldn’t care, but in her experience only boys were granted this freedom.

I found her in the corner of the yard and sat beside her and asked if she’d been having fun. She said yes. I asked if she liked getting dirty. Again, yes. “Well then,” I said, “if you had fun, that’s what matters. Dirt is good fun, for girls as well as boys.” I promised her that clothes and bodies are easily washed.

She’s been our daughter ever since. That angry, scared eleven-year-old is now a loving forty-year-old who can handle anything that comes her way. She gardens and goes camping and never worries about getting dirty.

Hope Nisly
Reedley, California

Although my father showered in the washhouse before coming home from the mines, a little coal dust always drifted in with him through the door. And when he brought home his sooty work clothes to be laundered, you could barely tell they were a pumpkin-orange color underneath. Our old machine never quite got them clean.

Starting when I was four or so, I went with my dad to his other job: doing handyman work, often for women who had been widowed due to the mines. Dad took as payment whatever they could afford. Sometimes it was a batch of cookies or handmade doll clothes for me. He usually came home filthy from those jobs, too. Mom shooed him to the bathroom to shower.

I adored my dad, dirty or not. He brought me candy bars in his lunch bucket each day — at least, when the mines weren’t shut down due to lack of profit. (I didn’t know that my mom had put in an extra candy bar when she prepared his bucket each morning, so Dad got credit.) When we’d stop at the drugstore for Cokes, Dad performed magic tricks for the girls behind the counter, and I wondered how they got by without him as a dad.

I saw him angry only once, when he chased down a kid who had thrown a snowball at his truck. I didn’t know then that he was dealing with marital problems at home. He couldn’t bear to lose her. He worshiped her every minute of their sixty-two-year marriage.

When he was younger, my dad had attended a few classes at a university, but he didn’t have a regular ride to school. So he gave up, bought his mining tools at the company store, and asked his dad to help him get a job. He ended up enjoying his work in the mines: learning new skills and talking about the machinery and the rapid technological advances the coal mines were making back then. And there was the camaraderie with the other soot-blackened men in that cavern of darkness. I think that’s what my dad loved best.

Mining accidents and disasters struck many times. My uncle Jewel lost both of his legs; my uncle Croty, three of his fingers. At a United Mine Workers meeting my uncle Floyd was shot by a bullet meant for my contentious grandfather. My father lost all his work friends in an explosion he himself escaped.

But even after he retired, he never lost his grittiness. Or, in my eyes, his perfection.

Mary Blye Kramer
Carbondale, Illinois

Before getting involved with him, I had been drawn to educated men with good characters and kind hearts; men who shared my love of the arts; men who were well-read and appreciated nature. Sure, it gave me pause that he frequently disparaged his ex-wife, that his home and van were a mess, that he cleaned carpets for a living and boasted about how he took advantage of his customers. (He’d promise to shampoo their rugs, then merely sprinkle perfumed powder on them and vacuum it off.) He was into porn. He never wanted to take a walk unless it was to his bedroom. It was inexplicable, even to me, that I was willing to ignore his flaws.

It must have had something to do with his blissful kisses, his fierce lovemaking, the way he laughed loudly and frequently. His scent, especially after he sweated, was the greatest aphrodisiac I’ve ever known. I would crawl for miles to inhale it again. When I was with him, I wanted to be anything but clean.

Patiana McMahon
Cuddebackville, New York

My dad used to gesture to my softball teammates and tell me, “When you step over those white lines, it’s not about you. It’s about them.” Playing with the other girls, I learned that getting dirty isn’t just for boys. On the field, you dive flat out and come up with a faceful of dust. You play for each other.

When I got home, I’d drop my softball bag on the floor near the front door, never bothering to launder my stinky uniform — the red dirt so ground in that it left stains. But one of my parents always did. I’m grateful to them for letting me be a kid who got dirty.

It’s been fifteen years since I last laced up my cleats. Now I wipe dirt off my toddler’s face after he falls down. I try to teach him the same lessons my parents taught me.


The other day my husband’s friend Abbie pulled in behind him at our town’s only convenience store. Abbie had to let him know about the visit she’d had with my mother, the local gossip. Raymond chuckled and said my mother was still trying to dig up dirt on him.

My mother’s favorite pastime is snooping in other people’s business — or, as my sister calls it, “witch hunting.” Mother always knew which of my schoolmates smoked or had flunked math. She was also aware of which church each of them attended (or not) and the occupation and reputation of their parents. Armed with that information, she systematically eliminated all the local high-school boys from my dating pool. I learned to keep my personal life a secret.

Then, when I was twenty-seven years old, out of the blue my mother said, “You are dating Frank Lutz. He doesn’t smoke pot, and he lives in a neighboring town.” I didn’t correct her about the pot, since Mama believed those who smoked it should be hung by their toenails. I wish I had let her know; a bad marriage may have been prevented.

I started dating Raymond when I was sixty-one and he was sixty-two. We’ve been together six years, and my mother’s still at it. She thinks just because he was a bouncer and a waiter in this area’s wildest bar for nine years, and just because he drives a truck and raises cattle, that there’s dirt on him somewhere. But there isn’t. He’s a patient and peaceful man. Too bad this isn’t the information she seeks.

Name Withheld

When I was not quite ten years old, my mom died. Dad had already been lost to drink, so my grandma took my siblings and me in and raised us on the family homestead. In my young life it had been a place about wonderful times — food, music, gifts, and games with rarely seen cousins — but now the gaiety was gone.

Uncle Chester, my mom’s cousin, lived there, too. He had been there all along, I was told, but not once had I seen him. A huge wall of a man, he had returned from the war with shell shock. I didn’t know what that meant; all I knew was that he was different, mumbling to himself most of the time, or doing chin-ups, or cleaning — forever cleaning.

One day his mother, who lived there as well, caught him scrubbing his hands raw with a wire brush. He was bleeding profusely and apparently not feeling the pain. It seemed like he was trying to clean away some dirt from his past.

Name Withheld

For eighteen years I’ve worked as a residential-sanitation specialist, cleaning houses for a variety of clients. Many are disabled and must pass a monthly inspection to stay in their homes. I’ve found cleaning for these folks to be rewarding, and their appreciation deep.

Recently, after a recurrence of mental illness, I required hospitalization. I’d spent almost a month developing progressively more debilitating hallucinations, insomnia, and anxiety, along with depression so severe I could barely stop crying. I feared being in public. I believed I was so evil I couldn’t even do the right thing and kill myself.

If it hadn’t been for two close friends, the outcome would not have been good. These friends surveyed the wreckage of my living quarters — the sheetless bed, the spilled coffee, the decaying food, the unopened mail — without judgment. While I was in the hospital, they did my laundry, collected my mail, washed the dishes, and made sure I had toilet paper. These tasks I regularly did for others became even more meaningful now that I was on the receiving end.

After I recovered, my clients were glad to have me back at work. I’m grateful for the chance to make their lives a little easier, as my friends did for me.

Zan Bockes
Missoula, Montana

When my dad was sixteen years old and living in the rural farms of Tianjin, China, he bought a used pair of brown leather shoes to wear to his first job interview. They were wrinkled and scarred, with a thick layer of dirt caked on them. He sat on his family’s weedy concrete porch, scrubbing furiously at the leather with a fraying toothbrush. When my grandfather returned from working on the farm, he asked, “What’s all this?” and my father explained he was cleaning some shoes he’d bought from old man Ji.

My grandfather wanted to know where he’d gotten the money, and my father said he’d earned it delivering papers before sunrise each morning.

My grandfather asked what the shoes were for, and my father told him about the interview — for a teaching position at the middle school.

“Who cares about this capitalist teaching crap?” my grandfather said. “Do you actually believe in that stuff?”

“No,” my father replied.

But he walked into the classroom later that week anyway, wearing his leather shoes.

Fifteen years later he left his family home and boarded a plane with his new wife. They arrived in Toronto, Canada, hopeful and afraid, and moved into a single-story apartment complex.

Today, before heading to work, he dons his flawlessly ironed business suit, styles his salt-and-pepper hair, and slips into a pair of glossy black shoes, flicking every speck of dirt from the leather.

Aaron Dai
Livingston, New Jersey

Buried under the poppies in my yard are the bones of Buddha, my six-toed cat killed by a bobcat. Lyla, the tabby I loved longer than I did my husband, is under a patch of strawberries. Newman, killed by a rattlesnake just a few weeks after I adopted him, lies beneath a row of currants. Buck, Scooter, and Syra all rest among the roots of our lilacs, where they spent their lives burying bones. The unwanted love letter, torn to bits and burned, is in the compost pile. Even my mother, who gave me flowers from her own yard — iris, peonies, tulips, bleeding heart, cyclamen, and columbine — fertilizes the soil with her ashes.

My garden is more than just flowers. It’s a place where I go to remember what I’ve lost and cherish what I’ve been given.

Shirlee Jellum
Lyle, Washington

Growing up on a small family farm in Ohio, I played in the dirt for fun. All the colors, cracks, and critters who lived in it fascinated me.

In grade school my teachers noticed that my hands shook — a lot. Nobody could figure out why. Finally, when I was a senior in high school, I was diagnosed with an essential tremor. I was working the afternoon shift in a small plastics factory by then, and whenever I went to pick up tools, they would clatter all over the place. I had little choice but to forget my dream of learning a skilled trade.

I went to a nearby community college, then transferred to Ohio State University, where I dove into agricultural courses. I graduated with a bachelor’s in crops and soils, then went to work on a farm. I returned to school a few years later to earn my master’s in soil microbiology, then once again to complete a PhD in soil chemistry. My dissertation was on spreading horse manure on farm fields, a technique now used on horse farms all over the world.

I went on to become a professor at Ohio State and eventually retired to a small town in South Carolina, where I give lectures for garden clubs and other groups. My nickname is “Dr. Dirt.” I like it much better than my high-school nickname: “Spastic.”

Randy James
Beaufort, South Carolina

“Clean that dirt from under your nails. It’s disgusting.” My mother never called me disgusting — not directly anyway — but I knew what her look meant: I’m ashamed of the girl I’m raising.

Later my brother and I were sitting in our grandmother’s backyard, stacking and sorting rocks, when my mother told me, “Sit like a girl. We can see up your skirt. Boys will look up there.”

“Tell them not to,” I said. How was it my fault boys couldn’t keep their eyes on my face? Even at the age of six, I noticed that I was reprimanded and my brother wasn’t.

I came to believe I was bad at being a girl. My mother repeatedly pointed out my faults: my attitude, my emotions, all the parts of me that could be cleaner, neater.

In sixth grade I asked my friend if she ever wanted to be a boy. “No,” she said. “I think being a woman will be cool.” I couldn’t define it. I just knew I had a deep envy of boys — and a longing to be one of them. Something about them made me feel more comfortable, as if I were existing correctly with them.

Turns out I was just transgender. My mom still wrinkles her nose when I tell her about my life choices. This time, though, I’m happy.

Leo Parry
Boise, Idaho

In 2012 I left my career as a paralegal to become the first executive director of a nonprofit organic vegetable farm and community space. Though my role included networking and business lunches, over time the dry-cleaned slacks and blazers in my closet were replaced by L.L. Bean, Lands’ End, and REI. I transitioned from a sporty sedan to a “farm car,” in which I was always toting tools, rocks, seedlings, and mulch. The cup holders, dashboard, and seats wore a layer of grit year-round. At the end of a workday I often had dirt between my toes, down the front of my shins, in my nostrils, in circles around my neck, and, occasionally, across my upper lip.

Through the farm’s educational programs, I encouraged others to get dirty with me. It’s a concept many of us, as we spend more time among creature comforts and in front of screens, have become distant from. I watched adults cringe as I handed them a freshly picked carrot, even after I’d wiped it off on my pant leg first. But then I’d be rewarded with a broad smile as they bit into the sweetness of produce harvested in season.

It’s not easy being the leader of a nonprofit. You face plenty of uncertainty and worry about generating funds. But meditation helps, and pulling weeds, removing squash beetles from zucchini, or hacking my way through invasives in the woods is the best meditation I’ve found.

Caty Poole
New Haven, Connecticut