By: Lavinia Plonka
Let Them Eat Dirt
This land is your land
This land is my land…..
– Woody Guthrie
I have fond memories of eating dirt. There was something so… earthy about that rich brown stuff. And why would we call them mud pies if they weren’t supposed to be savored? I’m guessing somewhere in the dim recesses of childhood memory I was diagnosed with Pica because the next thing I know, I was forbidden to eat dirt and instead fed a daily regimen of that new fad, vitamins.
Years ago I was in Paris, hanging out with some cool French folks I had encountered. “What shall we do tonight?” one asked.
“How about we go to an American film?” the other suggested.
I was stunned. I’d never thought about our movies as being anything other than movies. “What do you mean by American film?” I asked.
They laughed. “You know, lots of guns and shooting, chase scenes, the underdog wins and everyone lives happily ever after.”
I realized that not only was that an American movie, it was a version of the American dream. Until then, I had never thought about Americans being much different from anyone else. We were just people, after all. Yes, it was true, my parents, who came from Eastern Europe, were very odd. But I had figured it was because of the war, not because they weren’t Americans. Over the course of my life, I watched my parents transform from exclusively speaking Polish, to “Polishizing” English words. For example, the Polish word for garbage is smieci. Our household said garbaczu. And then eventually, Polish disappeared, being only the default language for cursing and parental arguments. My mother went from forbidding jeans to wearing jeans (though only briefly). Our diet shifted from stuffed cabbage to spaghetti and meatballs (although the pasta sauce tasted strangely of cabbage).
One year, my parents came visiting us in NYC from their retirement home in Arizona. At the time, my sister was directing Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and I had toted my parents to the show. During the “warm up” a comedian was working the audience and my mother, always sarcastic, made a comment about his lame attempts at humor.
“Aha!” gloated the comedian, “I detect a bit of an accent there! What’s your nationality, Ma’am?” he asked Mom. I could feel my sister cringing in the control booth.
She glared at him. “I’m an American,” she snapped.
“But where are you from?” he made googly eyes at the audience.
“Arizona,” she replied in her Russian accent, folding her arms, ending the discussion.
My parents would never really be “Americans,” they had old-world values, old ideas about the roles of males and females, strict notions about television watching, fashion choices and diet that would shock most Americans. I never even set foot in a McDonald’s till I was in college. Yet somehow, their children became Americans.
It never occurred to my siblings or myself that we couldn’t be anything we wanted (though what we wanted wasn’t always clear). Only America produces the American dream, where a black boy in Hawaii with an absent father can grow up to be president. Even though we weren’t encouraged to aim high, (especially the girls) we all managed to defy our upbringing to pursue our dreams. Regardless of success or failure, it never occurred to us not to try.
Other countries mock America’s obsession with money. But what other country was founded by colonizers making a real estate deal? Most of history is about invading hordes, pillaging and conquering. And while the early American settlers were certainly not blameless, the fact is, they often paid the native inhabitants for property and goods – or else there’d be no Manhattan as we know it. Did Napoleon ever do that? In his book about early New York, Russell Shorto quotes a colonist in 1650, “We’re all traders here,” he said. Was it the people or the soil? My father told me once that even when he was growing up in Poland, friends would do anything to go to the US so they could “make some money.” And people still pour here today; even as we seem to be broke, it’s called the LAND of opportunity. Could it be our very soil that makes Americans who they are?
Now of course, there are advantages to living on French soil: you develop a taste for escargot, your heart and liver metamorphose into magical machines that can transform fat and alcohol into useful food substances. India’s dirt offers you a peek at quantum physics on a macro scale. You no longer live in linear time, anyone and anything is a god, and going to the bathroom is a community event. Spend enough time on any nation’s soil, and it seeps into you. You may never become fully Argentinian if you move to Buenos Aires, but you may develop an unmistakable taste for steak. Live too long in Russia and you will find yourself making dire, pessimistic pronouncements. (My mother never got enough American dirt in her to get rid of that.)
There are people who have been known to travel with a bit of dirt from their native land. Until now, this has seemed like a superstition to me. But what if all we need is a little dirt from each other? I see a new business. We could sell American dirt to people who want to change their country’s MO. Put a little San Francisco dirt in a Taliban garden, maybe it would grow some tolerance. Take a bit of Beverly Hills and deliver it to Greece. Ship some Asheville dirt to Frankfurt. Some French dirt would be ooh la la in Nebraska! A bit of London theater district dirt would certainly help some gated communities in Florida. Want romance? Try some Tuscany earth! Feeling disorganized? We’ve got what you need, straight from Zurich.
My parents and brother all wished to be cremated with their ashes buried in their church’s garden in Florida. Until now, I never much thought about how that dirt might be changing the nature of that church, or even the town. Perhaps even now, as people walk out of that garden, they have an unexplainable urge for pierogi.
When not bottling dirt, Lavinia helps others realize their gifts via the Feldenkrais Method and the Creative Body. laviniaplonka.com Want more cosmicomedy? Visit cosmicomedy.com