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Back to the garden

Head in the clouds, hands in the dirt



In case you have the insane idea of getting a doctoral degree, let me give you the advice everyone gave me: Don't. The coursework is fine. The agony is writing the dissertation, a book that nobody will read but requires that you write it perfectly anyway.

At this moment -- no joke -- there are two people sitting near me in Starbucks, also writing dissertations on their laptops. One of them has been at his seven years -- the other, four. They make me feel good since I've only been torturing myself three years and I'm determined to finish inside five months.

But this column isn't about my need for pity. It's about dirt.

It's like this. After you spend several hours constructing sentences in academic jargon about a subject that has come to interest you less than mortuary science, you are so into your head that you feel disembodied. One way I deal with it is by adhering to a pretty strict training schedule at the gym. It helps, but honestly, repeatedly lifting heavy weights up and down and running on a treadmill feel way too much like the writing itself.

Have you made the connection to dirt yet?

What I need is the Lebenswelt, the intersubjective life world of German philosopher Edmund Husserl's imagination. I need to put my hands in the dirt and have it talk back to me. Husserl, to refresh your memory of your philosophy 101 class, was the founder of phenomenology. I have been lucky in both my master's and doctoral programs to study with phenomenologists, including David Abram, author of the magnificent The Spell of the Sensuous.

Husserl's effort was to find a way of reconciling the sharp and artificial division of mind and body initiated by Descartes. Simplifying, phenomenology insists that we return to the world of direct experience and brings us to awareness that we live in an intersubjective world. We are both sensible and sentient, as is the rest of the world, and it is impossible to disentangle this intersubjectivity of being seen and seeing from anything we'd like to call objective reality. The cool thing about phenomenology is that it re-values subjectivity without sacrificing rationality.

But now, in explaining myself, I have got my hands out of the dirt.

This is what happened: After two years of completely ignoring the front yard -- we didn't even mow it last year -- I decided I needed to do some yard work as therapy and to avoid horrifying the neighbors another year. I went to Home Depot and bought a zillion annuals. Then I tried to get the lawn mower started and couldn't, so I began planting impatiens in one bed of our shady yard.

As my fingers manipulated the soil, which had become quite rich by the composting of two years of leaves covering the bed, I found myself falling into memory. I remembered Miss Rubie, who wrote garden club news for one of the rural weekly newspapers where I worked over 20 years ago. Then I recalled that my first partner, Rick, who loved to garden and had painted a picture of Miss Rubie's greenhouse from a photograph I'd taken. I reminisced about Rick's own passion for orchids. I remembered the casket spray of 100 orchids he made for his uncle's funeral and I remembered his own dying, on Mother's Day, a sunny day whose light breeze stirred the blue hydrangea outside my window. I decided to plant a hydrangea in the bed.

All of this the dirt brought to mind. And then I heard a voice. A man was coming up the steps with his hands held out before him to indicate caution, his words assuring me that he meant no harm.

"I don't have any money," I snapped at him.

He told me he was looking for work and offered to mow the lawn. I told him if he could get the mower started, I'd hire him.

"I worked on lawn mowers to earn expenses while I was in college," he said.

"College?" I said. "You went to college?"

He explained that he'd gone to West Georgia on a track scholarship but had to leave after two years when his daughter was born. I told him I'd done my master's degree there. In a flash he disassembled the mower's carburetor, explained the problem and offered to come back the next day to fix it and cut the grass.

I put my hands back in the dirt, methodically planting the flowers. But I was embarrassed by the prejudice with which I'd greeted the man. And my memories made me sad. I walked to the side courtyard of our house, which has been overtaken by an out-of- control wisteria vine. I put my head in my hands to stifle tears. The vine was wrapped about my heart. A cat appeared and stared at me. I heard the crowing of the crazy rooster loose in our neighborhood and then the crashing of a late tulip's petals falling to the ground. Then, awe. Then, delight.

Cliff Bostock, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in depth psychology. His web site is

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