I’ve come to understand that life “composts” and “seeds” us as autumn does the Earth. I’ve seen how possibility gets planted in us even in the hardest of times.
Looking back, I see how the job I lost pushed me to find work that was mine to do, how the “Road Closed” sign turned me toward terrain I’m glad I traveled, how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to find new sources of meaning. In each of these experiences, it felt as though something was dying, and so it was. Yet deep down, amid all the falling, the seeds of new life were always being silently and lavishly sown. ~Parker Palmer
I know disappointment feels particularly bitter when I’m the one at fault, realizing I could have done things differently, not letting go when I kept hanging on.
I know that my failings, like leaves that flame out as everything around turns cold and brisk and unforgiving, eventually fall to the ground, to be forgotten compost by spring. Yet I don’t forget.
I know hard times become the seeds and nurture for new growth and new life, like a planting of possibilities in the soil of regret.
I’m given chances, again and again, to try to get it right. All is grace.
Spread between rows of beans, last year’s rusty leaves tamp down weeds. Coffee grounds and banana peels foster rose blooms. Bread crumbs scattered for birds become song. Leftovers offered to chickens come back as eggs, yolks sunrise orange. Broccoli stems and bruised apples fed to cows return as milk steaming in the pail, as patties steaming in the pasture.
Surely our shame and sorrow also return, composted by years into something generative as wisdom. ~Laura Grace Weldon, “Compost Happens” from Blackbird
As a farmer, I spend over an hour a day cleaning my barn, and wheel heavy loads of organic material to a large pile in our barnyard which composts year round. Piling up all that messy stuff that is no longer needed is crucial to the process: it heats up quickly to the point of steaming, and within months, it becomes rich fertilizer, ready to help the fields to grow grass, or the garden to produce vegetables, or the fragrant blooms in the flower beds. It becomes something far greater and more productive than what it was to begin with.
That’s what my past clinical work in detox and treatment of addictions was like.
As a physician, I helped patients “clean up” the parts of their lives they can’t manage any longer, that are causing problems with their health, their families and jobs, and most of all, their relationship with their Creator. There isn’t a soul walking this earth who doesn’t struggle in some way with things that take over our lives, whether it is work, computer use, food, gambling, you name it. For the chemically dependent, it comes in the form of smoke, a powder, a bottle, a syringe or a pill. There is nothing that has proven more effective than “piling up together” learning what it takes to walk the road to health and healing, “heating up”, so to speak, in an organic process of transformation that is, for lack of any better description, primarily a spiritual treatment process.
When a support group becomes a crucible for the “refiner’s fire”, it does its best work melting people down to rid the impurities before they can be built back up again, stronger than ever. They become compost, productive, with the wisdom and readiness to grow others.
This work with a spectrum of individuals of all races, professional and blue collar, rich and homeless, coming from all over the state for help, was transforming for me. I worked with incredibly gifted nursing and counseling staff, some recovering themselves, who dedicated their careers to this work.
As Jesus says in Matthew 25: 40–‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Nature teaches that nothing is lost.
God teaches we seek out the lost until they are found and then and only then, the work of transformation begins.
“He (the professor) asked what I made of the other students (at Oxford) so I told him. They were okay, but they were all very similar… they’d never failed at anything or been nobodies, and they thought they would always win. But this isn’t most people’s experience of life.
He asked me what could be done about it. I told him the answer was to send them all out for a year to do some dead-end job like working in a chicken processing plant or spreading muck with a tractor. It would do more good than a gap year in Peru.
He laughed and thought this was tremendously witty. It wasn’t meant to be funny. ~James Rebanks from The Shepherd’s Life (how a sheep farmer succeeds at Oxford and then goes back to the farm)
In our barn we have a very beat up old AM/FM radio that sits on a shelf next to the horse stalls and serves as company to the horses during the rainy stormy days they stay inside, and serves as distraction to me as we clean stalls of manure and wet spots in the evening. We live about 10 miles south of the Canadian border, so most stations that come in well on this radio’s broken antenna are from the lower mainland of British Columbia. This includes a panoply of stations spoken in every imaginable language– a Babel of sorts that I can tune into: Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Russian, French and of course, proper British accent English. But standard issue American melting pot genetic mix that I am, I prefer to tune into the “Oldies” Station and reminisce.
There is a strange comfort in listening to songs that I enjoyed 40-50+ years ago, and I’m somewhat miffed and perplexed that they should be called “oldies”. Oldies always referred to music from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, not the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s! I listen and sing along with a mixture of feeling ancient and yet transported back to my teens. I can think of faces and names I haven’t thought of in decades, remember special summer days picking berries and hear long lost voices from school days. I can smell and taste and feel things all because of the trigger of a familiar song. There is something primordial –deep in my synapses– that is stirred by this music. In fact, I shoveled manure to these same songs 50 years ago, and somehow, it seems not much as changed.
Or has it? One (very quick) glance in the mirror tells me it has and I have.
Yesterday, I Got You, Babe and you were a Bridge Over Troubled Waters for this Natural Womanwho just wants to be Close to Youso You’ve Got a Friend. There’sSomething in the way ICherish The Way We Were and of courseLove Will Keep Us Together.If You Leave Me Now, You’re So Vain. I’ve always wanted it My Way but How Sweet It Is when I Want To Hold Your Hand. Come Saturday Morningwe’re Born to Be Wild.
Help!Do You Know Where You’re Going To?Me and You and A Dog Named Boo will travel Country Roadsand Rock Around the Clock even though God Didn’t Make the Little Green Apples. Fire and Rain will make things All Right Nowonce Morning is Broken, I’ll Say a Little Prayer For You.
I Can’t Get No Satisfactionfrom the Sounds of Silence —If— Those Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head. Stand By Me as It’s Just My Imaginationthat I am a Rock,when really I only want Time in a Bottle and to just Sing, Sing a Song.
They just don’t write songs like they used to. I seem to remember my parents saying that about the songs I loved so well. Somehow in the midst of decades of change, there are some constants. Music still touches our souls, no matter how young or old we are.
And there will always be manure that needs shoveling.
Our toes, our noses Take hold on the loam, Acquire the air.
Nobody sees us, Stops us, betrays us; The small grains make room.
Soft fists insist on Heaving the needles, The leafy bedding,
Nudgers and shovers In spite of ourselves. Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning Inherit the earth. Our foot’s in the door. ~Sylvia Plath from “Mushroom”
This overnight overture,
a parturition of “ink caps” after a rain.
As if seed had been sprinkled on the manure pile,
they sprout three inch stalks
still stretching at dawn,
topped by dew-catching caps and umbrellas.
Nearly translucent as glass,
already curling at the edges in the morning light,
by noon melting into black ooze
by evening complete deliquescence,
withered and curling back
into the humus
which birthed them hours before.
It shall be repeated
again and again,
this birth from muck,
a brief and shining life,
and dying back to dung.
It is the way of things
to never give up
once a foot’s in the door.
…all I know is that we must cultivate our garden… ~Voltaire from Candide
This year, once again, we’re late getting our garden in — there have been too many other things happening in our work and home life to even think about getting the garden in. Starting a garden in June is not something I recommend to anyone. It requires bushwhacking to make a suitable bed for the seeds.
Thankfully, my now newly retired husband — normally part-time farmer now full-time — was up to the job.
The weeds, never discouraged by cool rainy weather, have instead been emphatically encouraged. They grow with exuberance, happily seeding themselves, thank you very much. The garden plot had become a veritable forest to contend with before the soil could be prepared for seeding.
My husband set to work on the jungle on hands and knees, digging into the turf of weeds, loosening their grip, pulling them out, shaking off the clinging clumps of dirt from their roots and turning over fresh soil to dry in the sun under a fresh dressing of warm composted manure. Along with creating multiple trenches for our vegetable seeds and starts, we planted prayers that there was still enough time left in the growing season to actually bear a harvest.
I admit there are plenty of times my life feels like our neglected garden plot. If not kept tended, if not exposed to enough warmth and light, if not fertilized with the steaming loam from a well-composted manure pile, if not kept clear of the unwanted weeds that take hold and grow no matter what the weather conditions, there can be no harvest of value whatsoever. I will accomplish nothing other than sustaining self-sowing weeds for the next generation to battle.
I leave behind a life unrecognizable as a source of nurture as it is overrun by weed creep.
Each year we’re determined to do better but we know we’re running out of time and gardening seasons. It isn’t just the resultant sore back and dirty fingernails that serve as reminders of the hard work of tending one’s life like one’s soil. It is that burst of sweetness that comes from eating the first fresh peas, the sharp tang of a radish straight from the ground, the bowl of greens unsullied by chemicals, the onions, potatoes and squash stored away in the root cellar for winter consumption.
Most of all, it is the satisfaction of knowing we accomplished something wonderful with our own hands — guided gently by the ultimate Gardener who won’t allow a few weeds to overrun us.
It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work.
Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall,
driving horses, sweeping, scouring,
everything gives God some glory if being in his grace
you do it as your duty.
To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives him glory too. To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dung fork in his hand,
a woman with a slop pail,
give him glory too.
He is so great that all things give him glory
if you mean they should. So then, my brethren, live.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins fromSeeking Peace
Thanks in large part to how messy we humans are, this world is a grimy place. As an act of worship, we must keep cleaning up after ourselves. The hands that clean the toilets, scrub the floors, carry the bedpans, pick up the garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.
I spend over an hour every day year round through all seasons and weather, carrying dirty buckets and wielding a pitchfork and moving manure down this barnyard lane because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life. It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes.
In so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.
I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am. I never want to forget to clean up after myself. I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship our God with dungfork and slop pail and wheelbarrow.
It is my privilege. It is His gift to me.
It is Grace that comes alongside me, helping me to live out each day, pitching the muck and carrying the slop and making me clean again – spring, summer, fall and winter.
Under the grass are ignorant, as they eat the earth,
Of the good they confer on us, that their silence
Isn’t a silent reproof for our bad manners,
Our never casting earthward a crumb of thanks
For their keeping the soil from packing so tight
That no root, however determined, could pierce it?
Imagine if they suspected how much we owe them,
How the weight of our debt would crush us
Even if they enjoyed keeping the grass alive,
The garden flowers and vegetables, the clover,
And wanted nothing that we could give them,
Not even the merest nod of acknowledgment.
A debt to angels would be easy in comparison,
Bright, weightless creatures of cloud, who serve
An even brighter and lighter master. ~Carl Dennis from “Worms”
We hope for a sunny spring day soon to lure us outside for yard and garden prep before the anticipated grass and weed explosion in a few short weeks. We’ve been carefully composting horse manure for over ten years behind the barn, and it is time to dig in to the 10 foot tall pile to spread it on our garden plot. As Dan pushes the tractor’s front loader into the pile, steam rises from its compost innards. As the rich soil is scooped, thousands of newly exposed red wiggler worms immediately dive for cover. Within seconds, thousands of naked little creatures …worm their way back into the security of warm dirt, rudely interrupted from their routine. I can’t say I blame them.
Hundreds of thousands of wigglers end up being forced to adapt to new quarters, leaving the security of the manure mountain behind. As I smooth the topping of compost over the garden plot, the worms–gracious creatures that they are–tolerate being rolled and raked and lifted and turned over, waving their little bodies expectantly in the cool air before slipping back down into the dark. There they will begin their work of digesting and aerating the tired soil of the garden, reproducing in their unique hermaphroditic way, leaving voluminous castings behind to further feed the seedlings to be planted.
Worms are unjustly denigrated by humans primarily because we don’t like to be surprised by them. We don’t like to see one in our food, especially only part of one, and are particularly distressed to see them after we’ve digested our food. Once we get past that bit of squeamishness, we can greatly appreciate their role as the ultimate recyclers, leaving the earth a lot better off once they are finished with their work.
We humans actually suffer by comparison, so for man to be called “a worm” is really not as bad as it sounds at first although the worm may not think so.
I hope to prove a worthy innkeeper for these new tenants. May they live long and prosper. May worms be forgiving for the continual disruption of their routine.
May I smile in gratitude the next time someone calls me a worm.
But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. ~Psalm 22:6