On Creativity, Compost, and Monsters in Our Midst

In these early days of October, I'm struck by the special kind of generative energy that comes with the fall.  Now, I know that many of us are  feeling that an ungodly amount of that energy is currently being siphoned off by the terrifying orange-faced monster currently rampaging across our national scene...but still.  

When we return to the immediacy of our own daily lives, our work, our loves, the scattered crimson and gold leaves we walk through on the way to the car or mailbox... when we return to our real present experience, many of us feel that inner quickening that October brings.

Why would it be that a time of darkening, release, and turning inward would be connected to a sense of renewed generativity?

I think Natalie Goldberg's thoughts on composting hold a big clue.  In her book Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg offers the metaphor of the compost pile to describe the slow process through which we make sense of our experiences and turn them into something new.  I love the way she talks about how our physical bodies require time to sift and sort through the layers of our experience in order to make meaning of them.:

Our senses by themselves are dumb. They 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…But this does not come all at once.  It takes time…we must continue to work the compost pile, enriching it and making it fertile so that something beautiful may bloom. - Natalie Goldberg 

So maybe, as the "go go go" spirit of summer shifts into the "letting go" space of fall, we all more or less consciously shift into a time of working our own private compost.  As the leaves fall and we put away the beach towels, fold up the deck chairs and pull out the hats and scarves, we are, in the process, turning over a layer of experience and mixing it into all that has come before.  

The compost image also helps us see that "letting go" is not a final act.  The experiences, dreams, half-baked ideas or imagined selves that we release and allow to fall away all become magically transmogrified into the soil we walk forward on.  They feed the next set of ideas, experiences, or selves that are wanting to emerge.

For me, creating collages and assemblages are my very literal way of doing just that.  Through the process of creating – the wonderful hours spent in solitude, sifting and combining and gluing and painting – I actively construct meaning for myself, I touch ground with my inner life, and I discover what I most need to learn.

Now, I know how easy it is to fall into the idea that our creative play is in some way frivolous or silly, not as important or impactful as our “real work.”  But, I think Goldberg invites us to see that whatever your way of 'working the compost pile' looks like, it is ultimately your way of accepting responsibility for caring for your own deepest needs.  It is an organic source of energy and fertility that allows everything else you care about to grow and thrive.

Whatever that practice is for you, I hope that you will gently persevere with it this fall, in active defiance of the orange monster roiling up out of our collective closet.  I hope that you will allow yourself to play in your stores of accumulated experience like a kid playing in a leaf pile, tossing up your memories and worn out stories and letting them settle back down around you in a new order.

This is not unconnected to the work we collectively have to do, right?  If we want to be part of growing something new and soooo much better,  we've got to be willing to roll up our sleeves and work with the garbage heap of experience - and, like it or not, the garbage has been stirred up all around us. We can freak out and run around pointing and shouting "garbage!" "garbage!" or we can figure out what it looks like to nudge along the decomposition of the rotten bits so that they might someday be part of something fertile and life-giving.  

This is the time to let your creative practice, whatever that may be, remind you that this kind of transformation is only possible when we commit to working with what we've got, as patiently and steadfastly as we are able.