Writing from the Compost Heap

“We have to look at our own inertia, insecurities, self-hate, fear that, in truth, we have nothing valuable to say. When your writing blooms out of the back of this garbage compost, it is very stable. You are not running from anything. You can have a sense of artistic security. If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.”    Natalie Goldberg


Writing from the compost heap of personal experience and archived memories is a little like creating art from bottle caps, recycled aluminum cans and gum wrappers. You have a sense there is some way to go about it that will make it shine, and take the viewer or reader somewhere other than the local landfill. I’ve seen such art on display at various art museums and it is remarkable. And then I’ve seen some, as well, that made me shudder – garbage heaped on a palette, spray painted and offered up as art. Maybe it was a commentary on the crass materialism of modern man, the soullessness of the communal culture. Whatever it is was I didn’t always get it.

I have friends who compost their garbage, and I have heard them talk about the things they throw in and the additives, like worms and worm casings. That is a little beyond the power of my stomach to endure. I’m a little wimpy when it comes to worms. I think composting is a worthy pursuit. If I lived on an acre of land in a rural area I might try it. But it is not so practical in a suburb where the Homeowner’s Association monitors a great many of my activities.

With the advice of Natalie Goldberg echoing in my mind, I continue to sift and sort my memories for useable material. I’ve been to this trough before, and now I return for another foray.  A compost heap of memories isn’t quite the same as a physical pile of grass clippings, discarded vegetable peelings, egg shells and coffee grounds. But the sorting process can often be just as messy.

Natalie Goldberg mentions insecurities and self-hate. “Self Hate” is an awfully strong sobriquet or label. We don’t all hate ourselves, yet there are aspects that we don’t like. Sometimes they can be changed and sometimes not. I was never a physically robust youngster and my skills in physical pursuits, sports and high school PE were not stellar. In grade school we played foursquare and volleyball. I had trouble returning the ball or directing it to another square in foursquare. In volleyball, I rarely succeeded in serving the ball over the net and had difficulty keeping a volley going. Maybe if my parents had been sports enthusiasts or had inclinations towards physical excellence, it would have been different. We would have practiced at home, we might have had a volleyball net on the back of our lot and with some coaching I could have improved. But neither of my parents had any interest in sports, not even as a spectator. Although in her later years, my mother became quite a follower of Dodger baseball. Go figure.

It was painful in school, wanting and trying to fit in. I would get in line with the other kids to play foursquare and as I rotated in, I could see the other kids roll their eyes. They weren’t thrilled but tried to endure putting up with me for a short stint until I was out. It never took long. I looked with envy at those beefier girls who had strength in their hands and wrists and could slam the ball. They could even compete with the boys. I once got hit directly in the face from a volleyball returned over the net too forcefully. Before I could get my hands up to even think about returning the ball, the ball had landed squarely on the bridge of my nose and broken my glasses. And then I was afraid to tell my mother, because I knew we didn’t have a lot of money and replacing them would be expensive. Continue reading

Recapturing Details

“We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important.  Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter. . . Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency.  A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer’s task to say, “It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a café when you can eat macrobiotic at home.” Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside…We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

I think if I were to go back to the house where I grew up, if some time warp would permit, and walk in the rooms and the hallways, I could take up now as if I never left.  I could go into the kitchen and know which cupboard to open for a plate, a soup bowl or a glass.  Which cupboard to open to remove a can of soup and which to open for a kettle in which to heat the soup on the stove.  Why is it that those details remain so clear?

Our kitchen in the 1,000 square foot house was not crafted from expensive materials.  Our house was built in 1948-1949 in that post war period when materials were scarce and expensive for builders and homebuyers to come by.  The counter tops were Formica with metal molding strips along the edges and over time it started to show worn patches from being cleaned and wiped so often with a sponge or a dishcloth.  The cabinets were plywood, stained and varnished a maple sort of color, though it was painfully clear they were plywood.  They were not veneer and there was no attempt to fool the eye into thinking they were something they were not.  The floor was linoleum, again one of those post-war grades and of a non-descript pattern that didn’t show stains and spills readily.  It was practical.  When I watch HGTV now and see granite counter tops and art glass back splashes, cherry wood cabinets and high grade ceramic floor tiles, I am amazed that some people consider these necessities, rather than “nice to have” or luxuries.

Under one counter were built in “bread boards” or “eating boards,” larger than the average cutting board, the kind with knobs that pulled out, each one about 25 inches wide and about as deep.  There were two of them, side by side, separated by about 2 inches.  They could be used for rolling out pie crust or sugar cookie dough, for food preparation or chopping vegetables.  We also used them as a kitchen table.  At meal time, we pulled both of them out as far as they would go, to make an eating/dining surface of about 52 x 25 inches, with the crack in the middle separating the two.  My father would sit at the far right end facing East, my mother would sit in the center to my father’s left, facing South, and I would sit at the other end facing West and facing my father, with my back wedged up against hinge side of the refrigerator door.  I sat on a four-legged kitchen stool with no back; it was hard to fit a chair at that end because of the close proximity of the refrigerator door, smack up against my back.  Hence, the stool.  And if the refrigerator had to be opened any time during the meal, I would have to stand up and move the stool to allow for the door to open.  My parents each sat on a chair pulled over from the adjacent dining room.  We used the dining room only for company. 

In the early 50s, we had an incomplete set of pastel dinnerware, mostly dinner plates and a few salad plates, cups and saucers.  Over time many pieces broke and were discarded.  Most that remained were chipped.  In reviewing the different patterns I’ve found on the web, I think they were probably LuRay dinnerware, made by the Taylor Smith & Taylor Company.  Continue reading

Wheel of Guilt

Who or what sets the bar for quintessential guilt?  The Catholics?  The Jews?  The debate has raged for decades, perhaps millennia.  Other essayists, writers, bloggers and ethicists have written about it, Woody Allen has joked about it in many films; Jewish comedians working the Borscht Belt have too.  And so, I come forward to offer my own take on the matter. 

Sometimes the roots of guilt are subtle and sometimes they are as apparent as a chainsaw firing up.  The bringers and tutors of guilt can be Jewish mothers, rabbis, priests, nuns, televangelists and Catholic mothers.  You can feel guilt from eating non-kosher food if you are Jewish.  In the “old days” Catholics could feel guilty for eating meat on Friday.  Years later, when the meatless Friday restriction was abolished, my mother wanted to know “What about all those Catholics who went to hell for eating meat?  What will happen to them?”  Well, she was kidding, but only barely.  In those days, these were issues to be taken seriously.  You could eat vegetable soup on Friday and feel righteous, only to find that the soup had a beef stock as its base when you read the soup can ingredients after the fact.  Oops, guilt.  If you broke your dietary fast prior to taking Communion (fasting from midnight was required), oops, guilt.  Sometimes it was exasperating to go to confession on a Saturday afternoon, be absolved, then have a date Saturday night where you might commit one of those impure sins of the flesh, and by the time of Sunday mass be concerned that you were not in “a state of grace” and therefore have scruples over receiving “the body and blood of Our Lord.”  Oops, guilt. 

But what is more concerning is the subtle effect these “guilt trips” (for want of a better term) have on our subconscious.  I have found articles maintaining that Catholic Guilt Syndrome is a real, bona fide mental condition.  For some, it is normal to arrive at adulthood and be able to shake off these shackles of guilt and realize that you have been overly scrupulous, that some of the things you agonized over were trivial.  And so, hopefully, you let them go.  Yet others simply cannot, because the guilt has seeped below the surface and become a part of who they are.  Like toxic material (toxic metals, industrial waste, pesticides, hormones, etc.) sinking into the soil and then over time into the ground water, psychic guilt pervades your thinking, even your unconscious dreaming.  You feel unworthy to have a good opinion about yourself, because after all, isn’t that a sin of pride, being too puffed up?  You apologize for living.  You become self-effacing, unable to hear or receive compliments, unable to use your gifts and talents as a worthwhile whole being.  You don’t pursue lofty goals for fear of becoming too proud.  Instead, you content yourself doing little things – gardening, being a good housekeeper, being a good cook.  I think women are more prone to this than men.  Continue reading

Walking on Delos

A few years ago I took a small boat tour of Greece and the Greek Isles.  A number of friends and acquaintances took the same tour and it was an enjoyable and memorable excursion.  When I hear Greece mentioned in the news and hear of their financial woes, I think back on some of my memories of this trip.  Yes, Athens is crowded and dirty in places.  And some of the ruins are not as well kept and preserved as might be ideal; the Parthenon is crawling with tourists who aren’t very considerate.  And likewise with Delphi.  It is a shame, considering the influence of that ancient civilization on so many modern endeavors.  In many ways, Athens is like a lot of many large sprawling metropolises that have undergone many iterations.  A McDonalds is across the street from ruins with crumbling columns and plinths and toppled statues.  Just like the Alamo is now situated almost in the middle of a modern shopping mall in San Antonio, the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles is a block away from a Marie Callenders restaurant, and old Mission San Juan Capistrano is just a block away from a Taco Bell and a Jack-in-the Box.

So it was a delightful surprise to arrive on the small island of Delos and find that the island is uninhabited.  We went on a small boat from our larger ship docked in Naxos harbor.  There are no hotels, no shops or souvenir shacks on Delos, no tourist convenience stand at which to buy sodas, candy, postcards or film.  We were advised to bring our own water.  There is only one very small, modest museum staffed by two or three souls.  It is like the island that time forgot.  According to Greek mythology, this was the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo.  Delos was very important to the ancient Greeks as a major sacred site, perhaps second in importance only to Delphi (where the oracle once predicted all manner of good and ominous happenings).  It was so sacred that, at one point, no one was allowed to be born or to die there.  Those about to do either were rushed off to a nearby island. Continue reading

Civilizations Come and Go

A great many folks these days wonder if we here in the US are witnessing the beginnings of the decline of an “empire,” not unlike the beginnings of the fall of Rome.  The US as a nation is just a little over 300 years old, and our greatest glory days may have been in the manufacturing days of the industrial age, in the late 1800s and early 1900s when inventive genius was king, where factories boomed and automobiles rolled off the line in assembly plants, where textile and carpet mills flourished and the American heartland was the great bread basket.  We had great might and strength in the two World Wars. 

Now we look around and see that manufacturing is largely outsourced to foreign lands where labor is cheap.  Look at the labels in your clothing to see where the garments are made:  Sri Lanka, Colombia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan.

More and more tech and customer service jobs are outsourced to India, much to the consternation of many domestic customers who feel they can’t get a straight answer to a simple question.  Johnnie can’t read, or reads poorly.  I know because they are in my workplace and I see the poor grammar and spelling on resumes and in inter-office emails.  Job descriptions include:  must be able to read and write correct grammatical English.  That is not to discriminate against immigrants; it is simply a requirement for certain jobs like law clerks, technical writers, journalists, editors, and so on.  It can no longer be assumed that a high school graduate will automatically have these skills.

Our graduates have an incredibly poor sense of geography.  Not only do many not know where Austria is a on a map, but some don’t know where certain US states are in relation to their own home state.  Our national debt is huge and we are the brunt of jokes all over the world.  Late night comedians make fun of these same issues.

So, are we really in a state of decline?  Well, I’m not a social historian or an anthropologist.   So, I can’t speak with absolute authority on the subject.  But, I do have an opinion.  Look first at a few prior civilizations that once enjoyed a longer period of power, domination and splendor:  the Ottoman Empire, the Austro Hungarian Empire (the Hapsburgs), the Mayans, the Incas, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks, the mighty British Empire. Continue reading


Andy Warhol Rocks

Soup can on canvas
Viewers are so critical
Andy Warhol rocks.

Perspective Quite Off

Perspective awry
Day glow hues blare like car horns
Hockney’s canvas mocks.

A Pickled Sheep

Lamb in plexiglass
Formaldehyde bound too young
Lesson from The Broad.


Cut up cows and limbs
Muted screams in cubist hell
Guernica tells all.

Roadside Bombing

Explode, shriek, flee, flail
Roadside bombing makes a hell
Stalks the daily news.

Sub Prime

Greed breeds treachery
Sub prime impetus for doom
Only specters loom.


Italianate hues
Defy builders’ clear vision
Art freed from prison.


Defy convention
Rude dissent in urban malls
Sneers from Goths in black.


Fabrics herald art
Utility meets vision
Wild, bright, textures awe.


Cast warriors, sentries,
Guard him after death, victor,
Slain dragon ruler of eld.

Times Have Changed

There is a commercial that observes “times have changed” as part of its central message.  I don’t even recall the product being hawked now, but I know I like the ad and think it is clever.  Mostly, I am thrilled with all the new technology and advances that enhance modern life, but every now and then I am totally surprised and caught up short.

I realized just how much times have changed, at least for my microcosm, when I listened recently to a presentation in a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation.  This was not a usual service where the regular minister was in the pulpit, but rather one of those “alternative” type services, common in many UU congregations, where members (two or three) speak on what it is they believe (or in the case of agnostics, what they don’t believe).  The UU denomination does not have a creed, but allows members to find their own path and beliefs through questing, exploring, questioning and being true to themselves.  In this denomination questioning is encouraged, and agnosticism and atheism are viewed as viable choices.  In such a “This I Believe” service, members may include a bit of biographical background, and may also include historical information about the faith they were raised in, often different from where they are now.  Some may have changed denominations more than once over time and changed paths.  They often also mention certain life-changing events that were pivotal in their decisions, or mentors that lead them to where they are, or spouses, life partners, parents, friends.

In this particular presentation, the individual (I’ll call her Abby – not her real name) spoke of such a life-changing event.  She was in Japan, nearing the end of a six-year stay, and was saying a tearful goodbye to a woman friend, and somehow with the emotions that ensued, found herself making love to this other woman spontaneously.  Yes, lesbian sex.  And this woman, the congregant, had apparently been unwilling to question her own sexual inclinations prior to this point and feels this was a turning point, where she claimed her real sexual identity (although she didn’t officially “come out” until a few years later).  And she added that immediately after this incident, her asthma went away completely and attributes the “miracle” to the fact that this act purged her of repressed thoughts and feelings she had been harboring subconsciously for a very long time.  With hindsight, she feels all that repression may have caused her asthma.  She said she’d had moderate to severe asthma for a very long time and struggled with its symptoms on a regular basis, yet the symptoms magically abated.  Golly, this should be written up in a journal of pulmonology – lesbian sex cures asthma.  Who knew?  Could you see this on Dr. Oz?  I immediately wondered what that meant for me.  I have asthma.  But I’m heterosexual.  So I’m doomed? Continue reading

The Magic of Television

Ours was one of the last families in our neighborhood to get a television set.  It was either 1953 or 1954.  There were starting to be conversations in my classroom about television and programs children had watched the night before.  I felt cheated that I couldn’t join in the sharing.  I remember many a time running, literally, across the back lots of the neighbors’ properties (in those days there were no fences or horse corrals to impede my progress, and each lot was a full acre, usually with just empty land at the back) to another house about a quarter mile away, without telling my mother where I was going.  I was six and seven during those years, and if a child did that today and stayed away an hour or more without the parent knowing where they were, there would probably be hell to pay.  Or fear of abduction or other horror.  But, I lived through these forays unscathed.  I would go to the home of Ann and Squeaker Coats, to watch their set.  We would watch Howdy Doody and Pinky Lee.  And then my mother would telephone Mrs. Coats if the party line were not tied up, to confirm that I was there and to tell her to send me home for dinner.  Or if it were late fall, my mother might drive over with the car so I wouldn’t have to cross the back lots in the dark, and then she would chat with Mrs. Coats while I finished watching Howdy Doody and the antics of Clarabell the Clown.  I can still hear the laughter of the boys and girls in the Peanut Gallery laughing as Clarabell romped across the stage with his seltzer bottle, spritzing Buffalo Bob, and honking his horn. Continue reading

The Stuff of Poetry

I followed Yeats to Sligo and Wordsworth
To Grasmere and paid my respects at their graves.
I breathed the late afternoon air at
Tintern Abbey and photographed a sunset
At the edge of Donegal Bay, where I paused,
Poised myself expectantly, my senses and my
Pencil sharp, my mind eager for an epiphany.

But they didn’t call my name.  No bright
Whimsy beckoned.  No muse revealed itself.
All was hollow and silent except the
Gusting breezes on The Cliffs of Moher.

And now, years later, filtered by
Pointillism in trendy galleries and the
Brash bad manners of TV sitcoms,
I see puny inspirations in the daily
Routine of freeways and fads, popular
Fiction and crosswords, microchips
And mass marketing, CDs and fast food.
My life is awash with layer upon layer
Of meaning seeking its own level.  I dodge
Symbolism and am weary trying to catch
It all as it whirls by, like a too eager
Toddler dizzied by riding the carousel,
Drunk on the loopy sound of the calliope.

I think George knew it would be like this.

Gestation: Q and A for a Poet

What is the gestation period for a poem?
I think it depends on the genus and species
of the specimen.
Perhaps an hour for a limerick
And maybe a few years for a sonnet
Possibly months for a haiku.
Some epics aren’t born but evolve
over decades after a tidal tumult in the mind
And a single prescient
metaphor ages a lifetime
in the soul.