Moonlight poured in through the slated blinds when I had the dream again. I was climbing a mountain so I could see the sea. I saw a wave gathering strength, growing like a big man drawing up to his full height before he intends to do something purposeful, build or fight. It grew and it grew until it was taller than the mountain. Something that felt like a hand pushed me into the mountain as the wave bore down upon me. I was safe from the deep and turbulent waters, or maybe I was baptized by them? The night I had the dream again, the hand pressed so hard I became the mountain. I became the ground that supported me, hid me. I felt safer than I had ever, maybe, in my waking life, when I was the ground. Broad, sturdy, quiet, alive. I wanted to stay there, in that moment. I wanted to live there. Instead, I woke to shafts of bright moonlight pooling in my eyes, on my bed, 3 feet above the floor.
The children and I have been walking in the winter woods everyday, no matter the weather. We follow deer paths and creeks. We watch the ground as we walk, the leaf litter hides a thousand things: old rotted stumps, chipmunk tunnels, roots, brambles. We glance at our feet, up at where we want to go, back at our feet. Something in all of us uncurls, untangles, as we walk through the woods, thinking only about the next step ahead. The terrain is unknown, we explore together. Each footstep feels buoyant, held up by decades of leaves becoming soil. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we don't.
The oldest one calls over his shoulder, "Mom, think about this: the best soil is made of decomposing leaves. The thing that grows the trees comes from themselves. Isn't that crazy?"
I kick some leaves aside so I can see the ground beneath, the earth is black and moist. Miss Charlotte came over to plant bulbs last week, she led the kids into the woods with buckets and spades and told them to look for "good forest soil," the dark, good dirt from decomposing leaves, to mix in with the red Georgia clay. Something to nourish the bulbs.
In April, in Pennsylvania where I grew up, the farmers prepare the fields for planting by turning the earth into long furrows on the valley floors between the low-lying Appalachian mountains. The smell of turned earth always reminds of home. Is this why I go into the woods with the children everyday? Is this why I look for the good forest soil? Why do we walk with such deliberation? I am looking for something—that something from the dream where I became the ground. Safety, nourishment. When I walk in the woods and look at the ground, I'm learning how to mother.
Is it insane or impossible to say I want to be the ground? I want to be expansive and nourishing. I want to be made out of myself, my past seasons and sacrifices. Patient and present. The ground absorbs things, water, roots. It breaks down. It supports. It helps everything breathe.
Walking in the woods, following behind my children, seeing them scattered out before me in their own thoughts and wonders, I am thinking about this dream, where I was the ground.
I want to be the ground for them, where I can, how I can.
But can I be the ground? At the very best, my faith teaches me that I must become a kind of human compost, eternally dying and resurrecting into new life. Each generation laying down their lives for the next. Their discarded leaves nourishment for the next generation.
I push the leaves aside again, seeing the dark soil. I push further and see the red Georgia clay beneath.
In the Psalms, Yahweh is forever leveling the ground for us, opening up paths for us. He's the mountain that's a refuge to hide in. He gives us feet for the high places.
Does he also let us become the mountain refuge with him? The level ground for those around us? The holy ground? I hope so. I pray so.
But I don't know.
I don't know much of anything, the children ask so many questions in the forest: what kind of animal track is this? What's the name of this pretty dark green ground cover that looks like Christmas wreaths? What sort of bird makes that sweet, trilling call? That owl that just erupted out of an old stump when we got too close, what kind of owl was that?
I don't know. I promise I'll try to find out.
I heard once that astronauts returning to earth have to spend 3 days underground, to get reoriented to the earth's electromagnetic field. I don't know if it's true, but I like the thought: explorers cradled in the earth until their bodies know they're home.
We lose the light and follow the stream toward home, shoes caked in good, black dirt.