Thursday, January 06, 2011

Eggshells and Onion Rinds

Natalie Goldberg had this to say about the process of composting:

It takes a while for our experience to sift through our consciousness. For instance, it is hard to write about being in love in the midst of a mad love affair. We have no perspective. All we can say is, "I'm madly in love," over and over again. It is also hard to write about a city we just moved to; it's not yet in our body. We don't know our new home, even if we can drive to the drugstore without getting lost. We have not lived through three winters there or seen the ducks leave in fall and return to the lakes in spring. Hemingway wrote about Michigan while sitting in a cafe in Paris.

Our senses by themselves are dumb. We take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this "composting". Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

When I have students who have written many pages and read them in class, and the writing is not all necessarily good but I see that they are exploring their minds for material, I am glad. I know those people will continue and are not just obsessed with "hot" writing, but are in the process of practice. They are raking their minds and taking their shallow thinking and turning it over. If we continue to work with this raw matter, it will draw us deeper and deeper into ourselves, but not in a neurotic way. We will begin to see the rich garden we have inside us and use that for writing.

Often I will stab many times at something I want to say. For instance, you can look in my notebooks from August through December 1983 and see that I attempted several times a month to write about my father dying. I was exploring and composting the material. Then suddenly, and I can't say how, in December I sat transfixed at the Croissant Express in Minneapolis and a long poem about that subject poured out of me. All the disparate things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy and unity - a bright red tulip shot out of the compost. Katagiri Roshi said: "Your little will can't do anything. It takes Great Determination. Great Determination doesn't mean just you making an effort. It means the whole universe is behind you and with you - the birds, trees, sky, moon, and ten directions." Suddenly, after much composting, you are in alignment with the stars or the moment or the dining room chandelier above your head, and your body opens and speaks.

Understanding this process cultivates patience and produces less anxiety. We aren't running everything, not even the writing we do. At the same time, we must keep practicing. We must continue to work the compost pile, enriching it and making it fertile so that something beautiful may bloom and so that our writing muscles are in good shape to ride the universe when it moves through us.

So I go to the large, large bin with my own tea bags and egg shells, dead leaves and onion skins, prawn shells and papaya shavings. Also some sand that Mum poured in, because she thought it was becoming a bit too, well, noisome. I take out the big stick and mix it all up and dream about when it would have broken down to soil that I can use. And I glance over at the turtle tank which is full of water, rich in nutrients, to speed the plants on their merry way up. And I dream of the parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme which will spring up in my Christmas-themed pots (RM4.95 a pot)that may or may not get added to my Christmas baskets. (I think of new things every year).

I haven't done any mind-composting for a long time. My notebooks are all in KL. Here, I lie on the bed and read Harry Potter (all done now), or listen to songs on Youtube, or sit with Titi the turtle on my lap, dabbing aloe vera on her injured back foot (Toto the turtle has a lot of excess energy and frequently turns vicious). Titi sits placidly on my lap, the water dripping into my jeans, her little head extended slightly, and she dreams.

Toto, whom I've let out in the drain where I can watch him, is on a quest to get out of the drain. I watch him try to scramble up sides that are too high. I watch him fall on his shell and then right himself. I watch him use the length of hose pipe that has been carelessly left in the drain, for leverage and managing to scramble up on the wrong side of the drain (the one that won't lead to freedom). I watch him walk up and down proudly (I escaped the drain, I escaped the drain!) and favour me with a contemptuous look.

I watch him do all this while I pat Titi on the shell and speak softly to her. She's a good turtle. She's my pet. The other, well, if we could build a sufficiently large enclosure in which I could let him go every day, I'm sure he'd be less frustrated. A lot less.

The days are dark and the rains pour down. Everything is wet, dripping. The dogs are sleepy in this winter weather and they yawn and curl up.

Like me.

I yawn and curl up with a book and then fall asleep, my mouth open, drooling onto the pillow.

Mum's cries of "Jenny, wake up and come and have some tea!" fail to penetrate.

So I'll lie here and compost for a little while longer.

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