How To Shovel Shit

I considered a few different titles for this post, then it came to me, a picture of my worst summer job.

Mom was a landscaper and avid gardener. For a time, she and my dad would buy old houses, rehabilitate them and sell them (it wasn’t called “flipping” yet. And flipping sounds so effortless. This was hard work for all three of us).

Then Dad announced he had accepted a promotion and we were moving to Reno, NV. Reno has things to recommend it (the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen), but it’s hardly a gardener’s paradise. My parents had a house built, about 45 minutes from downtown Reno (at the time — now I understand it’s more like 30). It wasn’t near anything, surrounded by semi-desert, scrubby manzanita bushes, tumbleweeds, sand and hard-packed dirt, miles of it. There was a lake of sorts, mostly quicksand. The nearest town was Stead, an abandoned military base.

Mom couldn’t live without plants around her. She’d had no desire to move to Nevada. We were living in Scotts Valley near Santa Cruz, CA, an area so verdant that people said if you dropped a seed you’d better pick it up unless you wanted it to grow right there. Green everywhere, trees you often couldn’t see the tops of, wildflowers. Gardener’s heaven.

But now we lived in a little patch of ranch-style houses with long dirt roads. There weren’t enough houses to make it worth anyone’s while to pave the streets at that time. The main road to highway 395 was paved, but everything else was dirt so hard it could have been concrete. There weren’t many homes when we lived there, and the ones that were there usually had tiny lawns watered frugally from wells (each house depended on its own well) and perhaps a few hardy flowers.

Desperate for a garden, Mom undertook negotiations with the desert. She rented a big cultivator to break up the ground and began amending the soil, only it was more like reconstruction. We broke up clods with hoes and rakes and tilled in a long list of additions to add everything our soil didn’t have, which was everything.

Then Mom found out the sewage treatment plant in Reno would let you have a truckload of composted sewage for little or nothing. We had a big pickup, used to pull a horse trailer, haul hay for our little herd of horses… now it became a sewage truck. Mom and Dad returned with a large load of black stuff that smelled, well… if you’ve ever run across a Porta-potty left in the hot sun for days, like that on steroids. It remains the worst smell I’ve ever run across (which is *not* a challenge, universe, just an observation).  Mom told me with a bright smile that I would “get” to help her put it in the garden and she’d even pay me (I had regular chores but didn’t get paid for those. I did get paid for “extra” work I did).  My going rate was 50 cents an hour, but when I turned down the job, this went to 75 cents an hour, her final offer.

That summer, I filled wheelbarrows full of dark, stinky sludge, trundled it over to the area where the garden would be, scraped the sludge out and spread it with a rake, working it into the soil. Now, that probably isn’t allowed. It would be seen as a health hazard. But then, it was seen as a sensible way to dispose of waste material, by everyone but the ten-year-old girl with a bandanna tied over her nose and mouth, out in the sun trying to pull up enough dirt to mix with sewage to tamp down the smell.

I’ve had other jobs I hated over the years, but none to compare with that one. Mom even kicked in a bonus for doing a good job. It wasn’t enough.

But here’s what I learned:

*if you leave shit lying around, it doesn’t get any better. It just becomes uglier, smellier shit.

* Shit can’t be prettied up to smell like something else. If you put, say, peppermint extract on your bandanna, you will smell shit with a hint of mint. And the longer you leave it, the more aggressively shitlike it will smell.

* It can be composted and used to fertilize something better, but turning it into something better will be hard, smelly work without an ounce of fun to be had. There’s no song you can sing, no game you can play with yourself, that will make dealing with shit enjoyable. But if you have shit, you have to deal with it.

* If you don’t have to deal with it all at once, you have choices. You can elect to exhaust yourself and plow through to the end, excited about the day you no longer have to deal with this shit, or you can do a bit at a time and reward yourself for dealing with the shit, knowing it’ll take longer but be less tiring.

This has served me well over the years. While it’s true I don’t have to rake poop (if you don’t count picking up after the dogs) now, life just contains a certain amount of shit. It’s part of the natural process. Ranting against it doesn’t change that. Grab your shovel.

Shit you deal with becomes fertilizer. Shit you don’t deal with becomes lower-grade, more disgusting shit.

A friend once told me that people can’t bear feeling helpless. Causes anxiety and any number of problems. But if you find something you can do about the situation, however small, it eases your tension. So when you’re standing out in the yard in your beat-up sneakers, the ones you are going to throw away as soon as you can, holding your rake, watching that truck pull up, don’t look at the truck. Don’t think about how much it holds. Move one wheelbarrow full of shit and decide if you want to move another right away when you’re done with that one. But move that one wheelbarrow full of shit.

Because every life contains a certain amount of shit, and it isn’t going to be fertilizer unless you use it.

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