Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Worms Go In, The Worms Go Out...

One thing I am looking forward to so much that I spend happy spare minutes doodling up plans, picturing the results, promising myself that it’s “coming soon” is…. compost. Yes, I have a hidden lust for recycling garbage. It has been almost a year since I was last able to compost, and I have a jones to see a pile of steaming straw, leaves and coffee grounds in my backyard. Those of you who have not taken a walk on the wildlife side need to picture the immense pleasure of throwing away the wettest, nastiest parts of your trash -- and finding rich, brown soil the next season. It is nothing short of a miracle, well worth the effort of layering dry over wet, and tossing it around a few times over the intervening months. For one thing, I have no idea how the word gets around to so many worms -- I don’t put them there! But within a month, the bottom of the heap is full of happy worms, and the resulting worm shit will create a happy garden. I’ll never forget my little brother moving out near me one year, getting “volunteered” to help turn the compost in the Fall and laughing his head off at my rapturous description (similar to the above) -- and then the next spring having his “revelation” -- yelping and gesturing about all the incredible dirt that magically had appeared in the pile. I enjoyed my “big sister” moment quite a bit.

Those of you who buy your candy bars and bottles of pop, your boxes of computer disks, etc. because they promise a possible $10,000 “free prize” -- you need to look at this really, truly “something for nothing” that is available to so many. Having rented for a year, I know that it’s not available to all, and that saddens me. But having also lived in a group situation, where I have gone to the compost bin and found old bread, meat bones and cat litter, I am not naïve enough to suggest that apartment houses can sustain compost bins. This is a commitment that has to be made by the individual.. oddly, the computer phrase “garbage in, garbage out” applies here, too -- not everything can be composted, at least not in the same bin. I have been reading about old farms and how they recycle “everything but the curl in the pig’s tail“, but unless you are set up for the full recycle process (sounds like about 5 acres) complete with animals who will eat any spare meat scraps, and making soap and candles from tallow, then some stuff does end up in the trash. But any vegetable scraps, coffee grounds (I add the paper cone filter), cut grass, dead leaves -- weeds if you are brave and have at least a journeyman level composting ability -- all of it that would have ended up being hauled away as trash becomes the exact same wonderful rich stuff that you buy for $6.99 a bag under the name “Black Gold -- with worm castings”(that’s wormshit -- but you knew that, right?). Instead of $30 every spring plus the gas to transport it, you have free compost! Alright, some folks would argue that there is a bit of sweat equity involved, but again, why pay $200/month for a gym when you have the chance to work it all off in the backyard? And depending on your pile, it’s not even that much heavy lifting… but I suppose I’m probably preaching to the choir. You wormheads are reading this and nodding eagerly, the others have clicked over to another blog… ah, well.

Since it’s just us recycle freaks here now… I’ll confess that I am looking forward to figuring out how to reuse as much of my purchased stuff as possible. Compost is actually the easy part. All those plastic meat trays are a challenge… I know that the solution is to buy in bulk and select carefully (and - vegans are screaming - don‘t eat meat!), and I will also enjoy trying to figure out which packaging becomes the best recycled art (if nothing else can be done with it, make art?). But really, there is a limit to how many soap bottle maiden dollies I can craft… and I know I’m not alone in noticing the correlation between slowing down and being able to deal sensibly with one’s garbage. With only one foot in the conspiracy-theory camp, I wonder sometimes if racing us around isn’t a really good strategy for making us buy more and more disposable items? I have spent a lot of time this past year trying to make my own lunches, reuse my lunchbags, etc… and whenever I have a day with too many appointments, it all goes astray and I end up eating fast food and tossing the container. But that’s another blog.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Passing Seasons, Passing Life

This morning the sun is streaming down on the horse chestnut, and the leaves glow butter yellow and spring green. The fact of the coming winter, or their dead companions below them do not seem to sully the brilliance as they create a sunlight bouquet. When the wind picks up, a snowfall of brown leaves culled from somewhere in the branches begins to shower down on the drifts piled on the lawn. It is early morning, November, and I have the gift of time to ponder these beautiful dying leaves, as I watch through the picture window. Across the lawn, I see Sara walking with her cup of tea, heading for her ceramics studio; starting the day with some creativity. It encourages me; a fellow artist -- she is putting the art first, instead of stacking it behind laundry and shopping, as many women do. Likewise, I’m working on the writing when the morning, and my energy, is young and fresh, before I’ve had the many tiny disappointments that do as much as “free radicals in the bloodstream” to wear on me and sap my strength.

I don’t understand why it takes as much courage to sit still here, to give myself over to recording my thoughts and the best description of the day that I can muster, as it does to face down an angry patient in the psyche unit where I used to work. Why does it take courage to reject the American values of shopping, racing around, going to every event one can cram in or sit glazed-eyed with tv or internet when you can’t? Especially since most of the time we are engaged in these standard practices, we are also simultaneously complaining about them? When I first anticipated giving up my office job and finding a very frugal living situation so that I have time to pursue my creativity (art and writing), I thought it would be pure pleasure. Now I find the pleasure is mixed with an amazing amount of anxiety and guilt -- could it be that in following the standard lifestyle, we avoid having to ask ourselves -- daily -- what our lives are about? Because that is what is coming up, over and over. Why does that horse chestnut hypnotize me with its calm beauty? Why am I so driven to chronicle the neighbor’s sheep over the seasons? Why do I spend hours on one 16-line poem about a lake I love? And what does it say about me as a friend or family member that I would prefer this to some social gathering or chance to chat on the phone? Perhaps these are women’s questions -- why do I prefer creative solitude to relationship? (Though of course I’d love both -- it’s just that they each take time, and often I have to choose). But the question of why am I different from the herd is a universal question, genderless, and asked throughout time.

I watch the shadows drawing in, shortening as the sun works its way up the sky. In November the shadows will be abundant through the day, at least at this latitude. I feel my usual pang of sadness at the lateness of the season; not surprisingly, middle-age has brought the deep connection to harvest, dying and the ending of so much that was vigorously flourishing all summer. Hopefully there are a few seasons left for me to anticipate, yet it still takes courage to sit here and feel the pull as the leaves break, drift and fall to the ground, to decompose into the soil. Often I shake off the melancholy and grab a rake -- anything to be busy, to make active use of the situation. Today I’m resisting; I’m trying to experience the November morning in all its glory and grief, to simply be with the melancholy beauty. (Okay, I am writing about it -- that is activity, and not simply being… but it’s as close as I can get.)

On reflection, I think part of the courage requirement comes from the fact that when I’m still enough to feel the many emotional currents that are not just in my life, but in my surroundings, ugly fears arise. When I chronicle the sheepcote, I also must, to be honest, describe the plowed up field that now has ribbons of white concrete curb, like a map drawn right in the ground -- a map of the 32 new houses that will be crammed into two acres. The stubble of wheat gives way to the stubble of wires sticking from the ground; the pipes and pink-ribboned stakes that dot the mud… and feel like a stake in my heart. Everywhere the cancerous growth of cookie-cutter suburbs spring up, almost overnight. The land stretches out, helpless, waiting to be sliced and diced and transformed into something unrecognizable. Even massive old trees like the horse chestnut have no protection from this impetuous devouring -- “it could happen to anyone, anytime” is the message, just like cancer. And being still, walking the lanes, brings up that unnatural death as well as the seasonal death that is often disguised rebirth. In making my choice to back off from the mainstream and find a more quiet sidestream life, I have also chosen a life that seems to be under assault from all sides -- how long before it’s not even feasible? I’m just about to move away from this quiet, wonderful place to a town much farther out in the country, in the hopes that I can defend my choice financially for at least several more years… but even there I ran across another McMansionville going up on the other end of town; cookie-cutter houses crammed so close you have no need of side window awnings -- nor room for them! -- and my fear of being overwhelmed by this culture’s suicidal rush to corporate dependence. Another community totally reliant on cars to rush the kids to soccer or drive to the Walmart in the next town -- and to start demanding the same cookie-cutter stores that they supposedly moved to the country to get away from? Or are they dong what I’m trying -- looking for a cheap version of what they have in town? But in their case, they want suburbia to come to them -- god forbid! I hate to say this is making me actually hope for a “crash” soon, but it is… somehow this spoilage of our natural beauty has to end, and if there is no other way to stop it, then a crash it has to be… It will affect me as much as anyone, but as someone who loves nature as much as I love family & friends, I will suffer willingly.

And this process feels surprisingly like middle age -- aware that an ending will come; that the life and energy we have now will wane, and yet trying to live in and love the moment -- now -- when it is still here. Not looking back at the abundance that is no more, not looking forward to the inevitable winter, the dark night -- sitting here with the glowing yellow and green leaves, breathing in and out the crisp Fall air; giving thanks for today’s beauty and life.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

I am… a Writer!

I will never forget the day that it finally dawned on me that all the wonderful stories and poems I had been learning in school and filling myself with at home came from actual people -- not dead people, but people who actually made money with their writing! By this time, I was already industriously scribbling in any notepad or pile of paper I could get, doing double homework whenever we were assigned creative writing (in Catholic school, built on the Imitatio Christi, --imitation is the only form of learning -- that wasn’t often) and also, by 4th grade, amusing my friends with short limericks using their names. And many little stories written just for me. But it wasn’t until seventh grade, when I had come back from the blissful year away from the Westfield cliques, and had once again been relegated to underdog, that I by the purest accident, discovered mana from Heaven in the form of a magazine.

Ted’s Smoke Shop was one of those oversized closets that used to pass as stores in small towns -- it literally had one “aisle” that became seriously overcrowded with three customers. It had floor-to-ceiling shelves on three walls; I swear the fourth wall was only big enough for the door. So going in was not exactly an anonymous expedition, given that Ted - I suppose it was he; a shy 7th grader didn’t ask -- occupied the back third of the place himself. About three quarters of the shop held smoking items: cigars, cigarettes, lighters behind glass -- it was, as it claimed, a “smoke shop”. But it was also the only place to find magazines other than the three popular women’s pubs that Woolworth‘s had. It’s probably hard to believe a 12 year old could be so naïve, but I don’t think I ever noticed the “men’s” magazines on the lower shelves… I went in to find puzzle magazines, at least until I found it -- the Holy Grail -- a magazine with an inch-high banner that brazenly proclaimed, “The Writer”.

I was dumbstruck when I saw it; chills ran up my spine and made me dizzy. I recall glancing at Ted as if he might forbid me to pick it up, but he merely watched as I lifted it from the rack. It was, I believe, the June issue -- anyway, it was the one that always had the “Light Poetry Markets” (as I discovered, they covered markets in rotation) and it had a glossy solid spring green -- lurid, some might say -- cover that, sans images, listed in black and white the top articles, saving on color printing in a way no current magazine can. I flipped through the advice articles -- imagine, someone kind enough to tell me how to write! But it was the markets that floored me: page after page of “…poems on nature, children, family - 25 words or less, 2 cents per word” that literally opened a whole new world for me, in that moment. With shaking hands, I paid my dollar and quarter, money I had been saving -- yes, I was a very weird child -- for the pocket Shakespeare plays that Westfield Book Store sold. I have no idea what form of snobbery convinced the Bookstore that magazines were below them, but I never saw a Writer issue there… I had to run the gauntlet of Ted’s every time; ducking in like a… but I’m getting ahead.

Outside the shop - inside it was too crowded to do this - I tucked that magazine into whatever school bag I was carrying (they ranged from brown leather accordian-sided saddlebag with brass corners and a 2 inch wide belt closure to green oilcloth rectangles that tore after a month or so) and walked home in a frenzy of expectation. As fast as I could manage, I got through my recitation of the day at school and raced upstairs. I devoured that magazine, reading every word -- even the ads, even the masthead -- as I goggled at the idea that there were lots and lots of writers all over the country -- and that every month a new magazine of advice and paying markets was released to them… no, to us. For that day I joined, forever, the ranks of Writer. Maybe only in my dreams, but irrevocably. I am embarrassed now to think of the ardor that possessed me in those first delicious months.

Embarrassed, but also a little proud. Who else but a dyed-in-the-wool writer would hide the magazine in the largest textbook I had, to read illicit bits of sage wisdom instead of geography during class? Who else would actually hide the magazine from everyone -- friends, family -- in terror that someone would point out all the reasons I couldn’t be a writer? Who else would lug the heavy family Smith-Corona to the attic bedroom and type three copies of my little doggerel poems onto onionskin (stolen from Mom’s desk) so that I could mail off my first -- it felt like a secret society -- submissions? Only an addle-pated, DNA-selected, born scribbler would have been so affected. The cover literally fell off that first issue, as I read, and re-read, and re-read (anything worth doing is worth overdoing -- has always been my motto)… and, like some obsessive perv, I lurked around Ted’s as the month drew to a close, looking to see if a new issue of the magazine had appeared. The magazines were in the back right corner, the better to shield the men’s glossies, I suppose. But I couldn’t just look through the window, or I would have. I remember the acute embarrassment, the inability to ask about the magazine (again, for fear of being told I had no right to it), and finally, after the third or fourth time, Ted finally understanding what I was looking for and telling me what date it usually showed up -- I snapped it up the day it arrived, and then the scene repeated each month, since I couldn’t bear to think of it sitting there for more than a day without me, and was often forced to return 2-3 days running. It think it amused Ted, I know my emotions were pretty obvious and perhaps touching… but I never did ask.

I can not imagine, even now, being confident enough to have asked for a subscription. I’ll bet there are families in which a 12 year old asking to subscribe to The Writer would have been cause for joy and pride -- but I knew instinctively mine was not one of them. There were no writers in my ancestry, and I had already been given pointed advice by many family members about my over-use of the library… so an easy access to writing life was out. And, oddly, the library didn’t carry that magazine until much later -- or, possibly it was in the adult section of the library, which was strictly off-limits for an child not accompanied by parent. I did get a waiver from the librarians (who I knew very well by then) when I was in either 7th or 8th grade, at least two years early… they knew I wasn’t going for D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller, though I did find a certain forbidden pleasure in Rabinadrath Tagore, who would have been objectionable to my family simply because he was a poet and foreign. But anyway, I considered it a top honor -- much more than a simple sale -- when I finally got an article published in The Writer twenty years later… we each have our secret Everests.