Dirty Hands, Happy Heart

And other gifts from the universe

By Jim Dodson

When all else fails, Mulligan the dog and I head for the garden.

Possibly because I hail from a family of Carolina farmers and rabbit tobacco preachers, digging in the dirt is not only second nature and something that draws me closer to my maker, but also serves as a cheap and effective therapy in a world that seems increasingly shaped by the insatiable gods of work and money.

For many Americans, work has become something of its own secular religion. According to Gallup, Americans average more hours of work per year than any of our fellow developed nations, yet 87 percent of U.S employees don’t feel fulfilled by how they earn their living. That’s a staggering problem that helps contribute to rising depression and addiction across all sectors of society.

In 1919, as Fast Company recently noted, 4 million Americans went on strike to demand fairer wages and a five-day work week — the beginning, historians point out, of the so-called American leisure class. As a result, weekends became enshrined in the culture. The bad news? We’re losing ground to our obsession to work longer and harder with diminishing returns, the average American working a full day longer than the 40-hour work week fought for by our early 20th century ancestors.

Maybe you’re one of the fortunate ones who loves what you do. I certainly am, having enjoyed a varied journalism career and book-writing life that has taken me to places I only dreamed about as a kid. Today, I own the privilege of serving as editor of four robust arts-and-culture magazines staffed by a talented crew of folks across this state. We’re a merry band of storytellers and artists who love what we do and never take that gift from the gods for granted. How we spend our time away from the job says a lot about us, a lesson some of us had to learn the hard way.

At age 30, in 1983, I was the senior writer for the largest news magazine in the South, the Sunday Magazine of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a magazine where Margaret Mitchell once worked and the South’s finest writers appeared. Over my seven years in Atlanta, covering everything from Klan rallies to presidential candidacies, I took only two or three full weeks of vacation. When I finally received the summons to Washington, D.C., for the interview I’d grown up hoping for, I felt utterly empty, burned-out, ready to find a new way of earning my daily crust.

The unexpected epiphany came following my big interview in Washington when I phoned my father from the outer office of Vice President George H. W. Bush. I’d been one of the first reporters to travel with Bush during the 1980 presidential campaign and gotten to know him fairly well — sharing a love of baseball, beer and New England.

My dad asked how the job interview went. I told him it seemed to go well,  save for one small problem: I wasn’t sure I wanted the job — or even to be a journalist any more.

“I have an idea,” he said calmly. “Why don’t you change your flight plans back to Atlanta and stop off in North Carolina?”

The next morning, he picked me up at Raleigh’s airport and drove us to Pinehurst.

My Haig Ultra golf clubs were in the back seat of his car. They hadn’t been touched by me in years. For at that point, almost incomprehensibly I hadn’t played a full round of golf — the game I loved best — more than once or twice while living in the hometown of Bobby Jones. Instead, I’d worked myself into an early grave — or so I feared.

After our round on famed No. 2 we sat together on the porch of the Donald Ross Grill and talked over beers about what I feared might be a premature midlife crisis, or worse.

He could have laughed at my youthful angst. But he didn’t. My old man was one great fellow, a former newsman and advertising executive with a poet’s heart. My nickname for him was Opti the Mystic.

After listening to me pour out my tale of existential career woe, he smiled and remarked, “I wouldn’t give up on journalism just yet, sport. You have a God-given talent for stringing together words and telling stories of the heart. I do, however, have a small suggestion for you. You may laugh.”

“Try me,” I said, desperate for any guidance from Opti.

“Perhaps you should try writing about things you love instead of things you don’t.”

I looked at him and laughed.

“What kinds of things?” I asked.

He shrugged and sipped his beer. He was 66 years old, the age I am today.

“Only you can answer that. Use your imagination. What do you love? You’ll find the best answer there. It may sound ridiculously corny to you, but try telling the universe what you love and you may be surprised at the results. The path is never straight. But trust your gut. One thing leads to another, including people.”

Humoring him, I admitted that I loved golf and being in nature but didn’t know a soul in either of those worlds and couldn’t imagine how I would find my way into them. Once a single-handicap golfer, as I’d proven that day at No. 2, I couldn’t even break a hundred on the golf course anymore. Having grown up hiking and camping in the mountains and forests of my home state, it had been years since I’d been deep in the woods. I’d even loved mowing neihborhood lawns and working in my mom’s garden, but hadn’t done that in almost a decade.

Still, something got into my head. Or maybe it was my gut. 

A short time later, I withdrew my name from consideration for jobs in Washington, quit my gig in Atlanta and took a 2-month writing sabbatical at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts at Sweet Briar College.

It was springtime in Virginia. I wrote for three or four hours every morning, working on a novel about a Georgia farm family for a legendary editor at Harper & Row.

In the afternoons, I took long walks through the pasturelands, fields and woods of beautiful Amherst County, Patrick Henry country.

One afternoon I helped an elderly couple down the road weed their garden and took home a stunning bunch of peonies that reminded me of my mom’s garden back home in Greensboro.

The novel was a dud. My heart was never in it. But the legendary editor, pointing out that books would come when the timing was right, insisted that I call Judson Hale at Yankee Magazine in New Hampshire. I followed up on his advice and soon found myself working as the first Southerner and senior writer in Yankee Magazine’s history. I got myself a pup from a Vermont Humane Society, lived in a cottage by the Green River and taught myself to fly-fish. My heartbeat slowed. I even rediscovered my lost passion for golf on an old course where Rudyard Kipling once chased the game.

A few years after that, a story I wrote about a forgotten hero of women’s golf even landed me a sweet job at Golf Magazine and a decade’s service as the golf editor for American Express, a job that took me around the world and inspired me to take my dad back to England and Scotland where he learned to play golf as a soldier during the war. He was dying of cancer. It was our final journey. The little book I wrote about, Final Rounds, became a bestseller that’s still in print.

Opti had been right about all of it — the power of doing what you love, listening to heart and gut while expressing your desires and gratitude to a generous universe. Whatever else may be true, I am proof that one good thing — and more important, one good person — can invariably lead to another.

Over the next two decades, I built a house on a forested hill on the coast of Maine, fathered two wonderful children and basically invested their college funds into a massive English garden in the woods. A dozen books followed, including Arnold Palmer’s memoirs.

That job brought me home again thanks to a chance to teach writing at Hollins University in Virginia and simultaneously help my partners create distinctive arts-and-culture magazines that people in this state seem almost as passionate about as we are.

Today, I consciously belong to an intentionally slower world, taking time to do the work I love but never failing to spend time in the garden with my dog, Mulligan. A golf round with my childhood pal never hurts, either.

Perhaps I’ve just come full circle. In any case, friends tell me I’m more productive than ever. If so, that’s probably because dirty hands make for a happy heart, as an aging gardener once said to me.

That aging gardener was my mom, who had a magical way with peonies and roses.

May was her favorite month, the month where spring gardens reach their glory.

Mulligan agrees with me that our roses and peonies have never looked better. OH

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at jim@thepilot.com.

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