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.

Janis Ian had a hit song, “At Seventeen,” and some of the lyrics were:

To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
the world was younger than today
when dreams were all they gave for free
to ugly duckling girls like me…

When the song was popular in 1975 and 1976, it struck such a chord with me that a great many painful memories came rushing back. By 1975, I had achieved a few successes in life – I had both a BA and MA in English, I was working, I was independent, I’d bought my first house. I’d had a few boyfriends by then and I knew that at least some men found me attractive. Yet that old hurt and angst and daily fear of rejection because I couldn’t measure up in sports was like an invisible stigma. And those lyrics brought it back with gusto.

My dismal sports prowess continued into high school. I wasn’t good at basketball or baseball, and I was the last to be chosen for either team, and then the team captains would argue over who “had to” take me. Usually I would end up in the outfield in baseball, and I would pray no one ever batted the ball so far that I might have to retrieve it. My batting was terrible too. I discovered that I was decent at fencing, roller skating and ping pong. But how often, at a church picnic or family barbecue do you have a pick-up game of fencing? When there was a ping pong table in the mix, in someone’s garage or game room, I could usually hold my own. In college, I learned I was moderately decent at golf, but never pursued the sport as an adult.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I felt shame over my sportif shortcomings. I never quite got to the place where I felt I was a bad person or completely unworthy to belong to the human race, yet some part of my being felt it was very wrong that I’d been shortchanged in the realm of sports skills. It just didn’t seem fair. Sure I was good in academic pursuits, but as we all know that rarely makes you wildly popular in grade school and high school. And I also never attended a high school prom and that smarts too as a memory – probably something for another essay.

Well, I guess that is where that old saw “life isn’t always fair” comes in. I’ve experienced it first-hand. Many of us have. For those who sailed through childhood and adolescence with more successes than shortcomings, well, maybe my disclosure doesn’t resonate. But there are enough allusions by writers and bloggers and geeks and the socially stunted to confirm for me that growing up is painful. It wasn’t just my misperception. And it might be worse now with all the bullying and gangs. I know I wasn’t the only one. This realization makes me feel better in the now, but the scars are still there. Self esteem is often hard won. I am in a totally different place now, happily so. But I have special empathy for the geeky kids who seem not to fit in, and I hope they find their niche in early adulthood so their life can become lustrous and full. And if there is a way to erase all those old tapes that nag at ones’ self-esteem, I hope they find a way to do so.

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About Connie

Connie Pursell is a baby boomer and a technical writer in the world of healthcare claims. Did Jesus Have a Cat? is her first book of essays. Connie misquotes Shakespeare: “Some are born quirky, some achieve quirkiness, and some have quirkiness thrust upon them.” She thinks she was born quirky but didn’t find her voice or full quirky potential until her later years. She grew up in Lancaster, California and earned a BA and an MA in English from Cal State University, Long Beach. In addition to essays, she also writes poetry – a couple of poems are included in the book. She is active in volunteer activities, makes beaded jewelry and lives in Laguna Niguel, CA with her three cats.