COMPOSTING…What’s On Your Rubbish Pile?
I’m sure many of you have planted gardens. You may have been so dedicated to the gardening process that you had a compost pile to enrich your garden’s soil. What we reap from gardening or farming (as in our lives) depends on what we put into it. In farming/gardening it means feeding the soil the right nutrients and one excellent way to do this is composting.
Lately, I’ve been purchasing farm fresh produce from local country farms. It’s harvest time for many local fruits and vegetables. Foods such as tomatoes, peppers, green beans and it’s corn season. There are also a number of fruits available locally like berries, cherries, peaches, and melons. It is so exciting to see these colorful foods displayed in cardboard cartons or loose or in bundles on a farmer’s wooden display table. After so many years of not being able to access this farm to table experience so readily… well it feels wonderful and makes my heart smile.
As I’ve marveled at all these bountiful delights with my refrigerator full of colorful produce, composting brought to mind an old writing metaphor. I came upon the concept of ‘composting’ in regard to writing in a Natalie Goldberg book. She’s a writer who has written many books on writing and bringing oneself to the page, basically putting pen to paper and just writing, freely and openly, with no editor, no hesitation.
What I recall about her mention of composting is its relation to the many experiences good, bad, indifferent and even insignificant that we have tossed on to our compost pile of life. We all have them, experiences, positive or negative, that have helped to shape and deepen our lives in many ways. And according to Goldberg it can be enriching to pay attention to our compost pile, there are nuggets there to explore.
So, it made me think of all the rubbish from my life I’ve thrown on to my compost pile. Things old and forlorn tossed aside. Things not worthy of our time. Or are they?
According to Goldberg, sifting through our compost heap of rubbish may prove more heartening than we at first sight can imagine. You’ve heard the old cliché when one window closes, another one opens. That’s what this exploration of our garbage pile is about, it may be tedious, difficult and unnerving even, but if you can take the time to sift you may just uncover how your compost pile has yielded unexpected fruit in your life.
I would invite you to sift through your garbage, place the words “compost heap” in a circle on the middle of a page. Now sift and as you recall experiences you’ve tossed away put them down in a web/cluster around it. You may find a piece of rubbish that merits its own cluster. Follow it through, relax into it, don’t judge what’s good garbage or bad garbage just put it down.
When you’ve exhausted this exercise, take a look at your webbing or clustering and be open to the ones that have energy or call out to you, even the ones you shy away from. Think about how this event influenced your life. Something that was dismissed as a mistake, a wrong choice or mediocre led you somewhere else, somewhere unexpected … this is what you want to explore and write about. This is where you want to begin.
Here are some ideas to prompt you in your exploration may show up in your clustering/webbing:
- fun time/sad times
- memories with loved ones
- past loves
- childhood memories
- trips we’ve taken
- jobs we’ve had
- a lousy job endured to just to pay the bills
- an overbearing boss
- an unpleasant encounter at the store
- a bad grade that was undeserved
- a fight with a friend
- the loss of a loved one
- an illness that has past but is not forgotten
- a disintegrated marriage
- lost opportunities or paths not chosen
- living through an oppressive situation
My writing from compost webbing —
As I look at my webbing I see many pathways I dreamt of on my life’s road. I tackled many pursuits, some started were not completed and others completed with no road to fruition. Like my Elementary Education certification. I thought that was the answer for a newly divorced, single mom with young school age kids. Seemed the perfect parallel career to accommodate their school hours and vacations. If only it had worked that way.
I taught for two years, making so little money I could barely pay bills. When I didn’t receive child support I’d be stressed to the hilt. The school paid my health insurance, but I found I had to pay my children’s insurance on my credit card. Needless to say, that career path didn’t last long and I returned to the restaurant where I had met my ex-husband as the operations manager.
I never wanted to be in the restaurant business and I can’t tell you how many times I swore it off only to find myself back on the floor running around serving and catering to customers. This is not how I saw my working life at all.
It was a reasonably good place to work and I did truly like the people I worked with and the customers, but I knew I could do so much more. I tried leaving twice more, once in product sales and the next in real estate. Both times I returned to the same restaurant garnering a bit more money and few more perks. Yet keep in mind, there was never 401k or retirement plan of any kind.
This is how I spent the best working days of my life, always dreaming what if, and knowing I had so much more to offer. The years past and my focus had to be on raising my son and daughter. My goal was to make sure they both went to college, followed their dreams and did not end up working in a place because they had to, like their mother.
As one went off to college and the younger was in high school, I again decided to try for my Masters’ degree with a plan to finish my working life not in hospitality. The big goal was to go for a Ph.D. and work at a mid-west college teaching, living in a peaceful, pastoral setting. Ahhh! This was a career you could work at until you were old and gray. I knew I had to work forever at this rate.
I graduated with my Masters the same year my daughter graduated high school. As she moved on to college I thought I would soon follow once I earned my doctorate. With two children in college and no more child support my finances became a tricky operation. Bottom line I had to keep working. So, I readjusted my plan – find a job at a college and earn my doctorate for free while I worked. I started applying to colleges in Arizona and in the mid-west (where I really wanted to live).
Best laid plans as they say, after at least 100 applications to all types of college positions, nothing came my way. I was forlorn, a few years had passed and this dream was withering on the vine. Eventually, I moved to the big desert city of Phoenix (ugh!) where there was a much better pool of jobs in general. With a professorship dead and buried, I found work with what turned out to be a wonderful nonprofit focused on early childhood development.
I became the agency’s first community development manager which meant I represented the agency to the community. It was my job to inform people about the incredible services this agency had to offer young children and their families in mental health and child development, disabilities services, literacy/language development and family support services. Ironically, managing a business and my few years of teaching garnered me the position.
I made relationships across Arizona because of our statewide services. I got to know the movers and shakers in the early childhood development world locally and nationally. All of whom were doing marvelous things to give young children the foundation they need to succeed and live a fruitful, positive life.
Funny as I write that last sentence, giving young children a fruitful life…. See that’s what this unexpected, un-looked for job gave me… a fruitful career. For the last nine years of my working life I contributed to an essential, important cause. It was not teaching as traditionally thought, it was not the sciences that I had once dreamed of, it was not the art I hoped I would make, but it was mindful, thoughtful, heartfelt work that I enjoyed providing.
As I look at my webbing I see the many things I desired, the many things I pursued and what I see is that these in the end contributed to an unforeseen opportunity that gave me value and enriched my life as I traveled to retirement.
Now I sit far from the Arizona desert, back in the mid-west – yes in that peaceful, pastoral setting I dreamed of – realizing that we cannot always see where our path is going and we cannot always control where it takes us, but all those discarded pursuits may actually provide the fruit you hoped for in a very unexpected and surprising way.
In her book Writing the Natural Way, Gabriele Lusser Rico introduced the concept of “clustering” also known as “webbing,” as a creative technique to return to the playfulness and wonder of childhood storying. Traditional schooling programs our brains to write in a prescribed way that follows a sequence of events. When writing for school we write from the cognitive rational part of our brain. The creative part of the brain is often shut out of the process, which discard any emotional or sensory experience from the events in the story. This kind of writing can often feel dull and unimportant, which lead a lot of people to turn away from writing or retelling their life experiences through the written word.
Children love to create stories and hear stories. They learn how to translate themselves through the stories they create. The psychologist Renee Fuller termed “storying” as a term for what children do to try to create wholeness out of their experiences in an adult world. Our ancient ancestors also storied their daily experiences and life stories with their community around the fire. Images carved into rock or painted on rocks told the story of hunting and life in the early communities. Stories are a way for humans to connect, to have relationships and to express who they are to others.
Gabriele Lusser Rico explores how adults lose the sense of pleasure and wholeness in their writing that they had as children. As adults we trade curiosity for the mundane, delight of the new with worry for the future. Adults replace a free sensory notion of the world with a preconceived notion that has been written in a prescribed formula.
According to Gabriele, we do not lack ideas for writing, but we lack the access to them. Her clustering model allows for the creative part of the brain to be very active. The child curiosity and wonder are reignited.
To begin clustering Gabriele suggests that a single word, or a few words, are written down in the middle of the page. Then circle it. Jutting out from the initial circled word draw lines connecting to other words or phrases associated with the original word. Some words might become their own nucleus with many spokes coming out from them with connecting images or thoughts. Continue to allow the creative mind to make these connection and form patterns until it feels like you have exhausted any new ideas.
Below are some examples of words to choose from to begin your creative clustering experience. You can also place the name of a person or specific experiences you might want to explore deeper in your first circle. Include sensory experiences as a way to expand your memory and bring it to life. I choose the word prompt “things found” and wrote about my Gramp’s chair. I also provided an example below of the clustering I did first that led me to the short written piece. You can choose just to cluster or, if the story wants to be told, allow your clustered memories to take shape to form your story.
Fear, Pain, Hunger
Age, Body part’s (stomach, shoulders, feet etc…)
Myself, My mother (father, grandfather. . .), childhood memories
Letting go, Time, Dreams
Things or people Lost/found, things desired, things despise
The name of a person, a place or a time in your life, friends, enemies, person admired
Dinner table, favorite foods, places to eat
Travel, vacations, Events, situations and circumstances, concerts attended
Things said/things not said, things known and unknown
Jobs lost/jobs found
Pets you have had in your lifetime, car’s in your life
My Gramp sat in his bedroom chair twice a day, once to put his shoes on and once to take his shoes off. I don’t know where the chair came from or why it was the chair in my Gramp’s bedroom, but I remember sitting on his lap as he sat to get ready for the day and later to end his day.
The chair was a wood frame, burnt umber, with a hunt scene of horses racing across the chair in an eternal chase for the fox. A conservative block pleat wrapped around the edge of the seat and- a wood frame with line webbing criss-crossed beneath the horses and their riders. It had a barrel shape back that was softened by a cushion shaped with a larger surface for the back and two smaller sections that appeared to wrap around and hold my Gramp’s shoulders, supporting his rotund body comfortably. The chair sat lower to the ground like it was made for the purpose of putting on and taking off shoes.
I used to sit on my Gramp’s lap after he laced up his brown leather high top shoes. We sat there together in our generational union looking at pictures of people I never knew and would never know. Gramp kept a piece of corrugated cardboard wrapped around a parcel of photos tied with white string in his top dresser drawer. My Gramp would show me these small black and white photos, although they were more brown and cream colored. The photos were of people that never smiled and wore long dresses and men all in suits standing in place they just stood on a porch or what looked like a backdrop of plain cloth. Taller ones in the back and smaller ones in the front. All of them the men and woman wearing high-top leather shoes like my Gramp’s. Some of the photos were on what appeared to be a sheet of tin, the colors black and gray. Gramp always looked at them, all these people that he knew and loved and now missed, with joy as he named them and told a little story or two about a few of his family members, my ancestors.
There was a picture of my Gramp as a young man after he graduated from college in engineering. He was on a ship heading to Canada as a graduation gift from his father. I didn’t recognize him in that young skin, wool pants and matching jacket. He had what looked like reddish-brown hair and even though he didn’t smile he looked into the camera with a slight grin. I suppose he felt proud of his accomplishments and excited about his travel adventures. I loved to look at that photo, always trying to find the Gramp I knew in that tall slim body. I tried to imagine what he was like back then, a young man so full of energy and with a bright future ahead of him, sitting there on a boat alone about to embark on a journey.
I would look through each and every photo and hold onto the metal ones. I was so amazed at how they got a picture on this material and I wondered how my Gramp could know so many people that came from a time I was not to experience. He would put them all back in order and wrap the corrugated board around them for protection. He tied the white string in a coil around them, securing his memories before laying them to rest in the dresser drawer on top of his handkerchiefs. They would be tenderly lifted from their repose in the evening and the ancestral tails would be my bedtime story that lulled me sleep.
After fifty years, I have his chair again and it sits in my extra room. It had been in a basement for many years and never attended to or sat on or even noticed. I ran my fingers over the old tattered fabric with the horses and riders now faded, the back cushion missing, and the wood discolored, and I remembered my Gramp, now among the ancestors. I plan to restore this chair and maybe I will sit in it and share photos with my grandson and tell stories of my Gramp, his great- great Grandfather. But the photos will be in color now and he will see some wonderful smiles and goofy expression on the faces of our family. I will bring out the ancient parcel of photos and show them to him, but I will only remember some of their names most likely not all the details of the stories. Those stories now all live within the faded colors of the small thumb size pictures and metal sheets.