I can’t count how many times I’ve sat down to relax after doing a project, started absentmindedly rubbing my thumb across my fingertips, and felt little particles of dirt stuck around and beneath my nails. I love it.

I’m using the term “dirt” loosely here. Mainly as a way of describing any stray particle that clings on. Dough, flour, paint, charcoal, guitar callouses, plant stains, soil – doesn’t matter, it brings a smile to my face every time. (Unless it’s serrano or jalapeno pepper remnants. Then it brings tears and…just a few expletives.)

I have never been the person with the beautifully manicured hands. As a kid I kept my nails short to play violin. But honestly, I didn’t feel like I was missing out. If my nails reach past the pads of my fingertips, I find them more of a hinderance than anything, getting chipped away or snagged on something. On the rare occasion I’ll paint my nails, but they don’t stay pristine for long. I’m all for dangling some earrings or sprucing up my outfit, but I tend to go for comfort and convenience when it comes to my hands and my feet.

Sensory Connection

I think subconsciously I tend to prefer the projects that are hands on and get a bit messy. There’s something about dirt that I just can’t explain. It makes me think of a therapeutic technique called grounding using the five senses. Essentially you are trying to manage stress and anxiety by focusing in on your sensory experiences. My own personal theory for why these “dirty” projects are so satisfying is that they are powerful at grounding. The more immersed my senses are in the activity, the more connected to the present moment I feel.

What’s even better, those little stragglers of dirt keep me grounded beyond the project itself. I just love when you end up carrying remnants of a creative exploit with you after you’re done. If you watch me closely enough (please don’t, because it’s creepy), you’ll see that I like to go back to the dirt – feel the rough edges, smell the last traces of enjoyment. You know the sticky smell of garlic after you’ve been cooking? Can’t get enough. Or the caked on floury goodness of dough? I’ll keep sniffing my fingertips all day. Even the metallic and resiny smells from guitar playing gives off a pleasant aroma to me. It’s like I’ve been tagged by happiness and get to carry it around with me.

Proof in the Pudding

Don’t let my blog and online presence fool you, I am not the pinnacle of activity. Just ask my husband how many indoor chores have been on the to-do list for over 3 months. And I enjoy binge-watching a show or reading a book all day like anyone. But nearly every time I do one of those hours-long benders, I end up feeling restless and a little gross. At some point, I end up tipping my internal scale too far in one direction.

For me, relaxation cannot be just resting. No matter how hard I try, I can never fully escape the importance I place on productivity. Getting things done. Marking things off. Fixing something. Doing what needs doing. Learning or creating something new. I’ve realized that, when I allow myself to relax, dirt reminds me that I’ve already had a job well done and I deserve the respite. It’s the evidence that tells me it’s OK to take a beat. I guess if I were smarter, I’d do what our dog does and fake it – run outside and roll around in some dirt for a few minutes, then lie around all day. Alas, I am just not that clever.

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