Monday, July 19, 2010

a meditation on the compost in my backyard and the one in my soul

This is a slightly modified version of an essay I read at Revolution on Sunday....

I am slightly obsessed with my compost. A few moments ago, I trekked out in the steamy heat to the Darth Vader-looking compost bin beside my house, and I dumped in a fresh bucket of rotting food. Sometimes the discarded food looks almost pretty. Some days I have bright green watermelon rinds, purple-stained onion peel, or bits of green and red strawberry hulls. Today, though, the food I dumped wasn’t really that pretty at all. There were brown egg shells, white cauliflower stems, some slimy peach pits, and a few yellow, wilting parsley leaves. As I stood over the bin and emptied my bucket, a sour smell arose from the bin’s acrid depths, and gnats and flies, disturbed from feeding on the rotting carnage, buzzed in annoyance around my head.

I suppose I can’t say that my experience of dumping compost was particularly pleasant, but it was immensely satisfying, and it was also comforting, for reasons I didn’t fully understand until a few weeks ago when I spent a little time meditating on my compost obsession.

Compost, as I am sure you all know, is rotting organic matter. It’s the stuff that is discarded, ugly, smelly, moldy, decomposing. We may serve compote to guests, but we certainly don’t serve them compost, even if we could grace it with wilting parsley. Most of us stuff our compostable food down the garbage disposal or scrape it off of our plates and into the trash. Some of us, though, are slightly obsessed with out compostable food, perhaps because we feel some affinity to it.

Compost is, to me, a bit of a miracle. The bacteria present in the rotting flesh of a bruised strawberry can nourish next year’s strawberry patch. The vitamins in those discarded green edamame pods will break down into rich, black dirt that will make next year’s tomatoes that much sweeter. I know this, which is why, every couple of days year-round, I lug out wilted spring greens, bright watermelon rinds, orange pumpkin shells, and the leafy tops of winter root vegetables. And then, in the Spring, I watch as Matt tills the compost into our garden.

It’s amazing, really. Our trash becomes a treasure. This year, with the rotten food we have tilled beneath the ground’s warm surface, we our nourishing watermelon, cantaloupe, sugar snap peas, peppers, tomatoes, basil, lettuce, beets, beans, sweet potatoes, eggplant, and onion.

This is life. Extracted from death.

I feel such affinity with my compost because my soul is just like that compost. It is life. Extracted from death.

The compost bin of my soul is even more unsightly than the Darth Vader version we have in our back yard. It’s ghoulish, really. Monstrous. There is so much that is rotten that I have tossed into that my soul’s compost bin.

Honestly, I don’t want to tell you what is there. If I tell you, you might not want to visit my garden. You might assume that the garden of my soul is as wretched and putrid as that very same soul’s compost bin.

But if I don’t tell you, then you won’t truly understand the miracle that is compost. You won’t understand how something so rotten can become so beautiful.

Let’s open the lid and poke around a little.

Almost daily I toss in some insecurity and impatience and snarkiness. Sometimes I dump in a lie or a handful of pride or a sprinkling of gossip. There’s some big stuff in there, too, that is going to take awhile to break down. There’s the mold of perfectionism I continuously try to press myself into. Many days I wonder if that one will ever really break down into rich soil. There is also a large pile of ugly things I have said and ugly things that have been said to me. Then there are some things too painful to talk about here, really. If you dig deep enough you will find more grief and shame than I really care to sift through.

It’s ugly in there.

But here’s the thing: I can take that putrid mess, and I can dump it in my trash, where it will then go compost in a landfill, but it will not nourish anything but the trash around it.

Or, I can take that compost in all of its rottenness and ugliness and stench, and I can work it back into the soil of my soul, where it can nourish my soul and become something beautiful. I choose to believe that God, as the gardener of my soul, will help me till the soil and tenderly nourish the fruit that is all the sweeter for the garbage that has mixed with the sun and the rain.

Today, I invite you to visit my garden. Feel free to poke around in my compost, but also please enjoy the ripe offering I hand you, the sweet fruit nourished not only by the sun and the rain, but also by the tears, the sadness, and the shame. And when you go home, take care of your own rotting compost. Work it into your soul and into the souls of the community surrounding you, and know that you and God can turn all that is bruised, rotting, and ugly into something truly beautiful.


  1. Okay so first of all I loved this post Jill. Secondly, I really want to compost. I don't know how to get started. No one I know but you does it. Will you teach me? Thanks xoxo

  2. Faith, I would love to talk to you about compost (although Matt is much wiser on the issue then I am)! It would be a great excuse to get together, which we sorely need to do. If you would like to actually come see our compost, let's wait a few weeks, because right now my kitchen has no walls and no floor, and everything within the kitchen is scattered in various rooms throughout the house (it is CHAOS, let me tell you, although it will be very worth it in the end). Can't wait to see you again! :)

  3. Yeah, that would be great! Evan goes to basketball practice on Sturday mornings at the Roeland Park Dome so I garage sale for 2 hours while he practices. (We take turns driving with another parent)Since it's super close to you maybe in a few weeks I can come over to your house and hang out while he is at practice? :)

  4. That sounds like a great idea! I would love to see you again!

  5. I love your metaphor. Thank you for writing about it and sharing the hope with us. I really wish I'd read this before last weekend! And I really wish I hadn't missed so many blog entries. But anyway, I love this essay. Maybe my compost will bring forth something beautiful, too.