There’s something special about the convent garden. It’s not just the six-foot sunflowers, or the lazy rows of ripening apples, or the sleeping cats who wander absentmindedly through the flower beds, although each of these has held me spellbound momentarily. Nor is it in the rows of cornflowers and cosmos, the ripening strawberries, the loganberries and elderberries fattening in the insect-rich hedge. And it doesn’t start in the Lady Garden or the new orchard or the meadows full of wary sheep stretching down into the valley. It starts behind the plants and the flowers and the hedges, in the unexplored corner where we make our compost.

The compost starts life in several bays, separated by old pallets. Some contain compost ready to go onto the garden; others collect its constituent parts, as yet undigested. Cut grass, boiling down into blood-warm mulch. Vegetable and plant cuttings (bar the most virulent weeds). Food waste from the kitchen, tamped down in metal bins. And fresh woodchippings, which steam as the shovel lifts away each hunk. Over two mornings I layer these ingredients into tall compost barrels, where they will begin to rot down, as millions of tiny bacteria digest the mix and excrete nutrients which can be reabsorbed into the garden. The compost will be turned and moved into a second barrel, then finally a third barrel, where it can be stored until needed. I’m instructed carefully on the layering of the compost: first a dry, or ‘brown’ layer of woodchippings, then a mash of ‘greens’, the vegetable matter; at the moment our pile contains a lot of comfrey, which I’m told aids the breakdown. Then the food waste, and then finally heaps of steaming grass, packed down on top. And so on until the barrel is full.

Part of coming to a religious community is confronting yourself, all the things you ignore or try not to acknowledge. I’ve come dashing in from the noise of the world like a soaked dog running in from a storm. Now I’ve learnt my way around the house and the names of the Sisters and begun to understand the Office Book, and I feel like I’m barely beginning. We bring so much baggage with us. So much mental noise. I have a lot to learn about silence.

If I am to learn to love composting, then I have to look at it differently. While it’s still a chore – a smelly, tiring chore – I find it hard to enjoy. The pleasure of learning something new and understanding the excitement of the gardeners brings me a little closer to happiness. And I’m happy to be useful, and to be working. But everyone I speaks to sees something more in this task. It’s a spiritual experience. I inwardly groan, and start the task. Composting as metaphor. Composting as a way of personal growth. Isn’t this a sermon illustration I’ve heard before?

The woodchip is the easiest layer to lay. It’s satisfying to run the wheelbarrow across the lawn, piled high with wood, and to hear it rattle into the empty barrel. The dry wood and the spaces between it will help make space for air, aiding aerobic digestion. It will absorb excess moisture and prevent the compost from becoming slurry. Each ring of a tree is a year’s wisdom. How many years are re-released here? Each splinter is a day of growth, a day of birdsong and rain on the hills.

The woodchip will be the Community, for their structure and experience, for their guidance and wisdom, and for the sheer love that radiates around them. On this layer, I will build my compost. Ha.

Next, the vegetation. I bundle comfrey, courgette stem, yellowing brassica and dried flowers into the tub. After a little deliberation, I decide that this layer will be the good things I bring with me. My skills and experience, my ability to learn, all that is in me that gives life. But these two layers aren’t quite enough to start a compost. There’s no heat yet.

Thirdly, the kitchen waste. I plunge my gloved hands into a week-old stew of rotten apples, egg shell and potato peelings. Everything squelches. I thank the Lord, without irony, for my genetic lack of a sense of smell, and wish I’d picked tougher gloves. This layer is the catalyst. It’s desperately needed. And it stinks. Easiest labelled: this will be my ‘sin’ layer, all the things I don’t want to confront, everything I want to hide from sight (and nose). Some of it slides down the sides of the bin and I crouch in the nettles to scrape it up. Something damp seeps though my gloves.

With the food bin recovered for the moment, I turn to the last layer. Some of the grass I cut that morning; other cuttings are older and have begun to dissolve. They are horribly warm, and the fresh taste of cut grass has begin to alter into something much more earthy and intense. We have essentially made our own manure.

Grass, piled and left to rot, creates incredible heat. It can spontaneously catch fire, someone tells me. In the compost, it will cook our layers, creating the environment for the bacteria to digest everything else. But on its own, it dissolves into slime. The magic is in the mix. In the metaphor I’m now absorbed in, as I pat down this last layer, grass will be prayer. It will be the heat and fire that changes the rest of my life, if I hold nothing back: my life as an individual and in Community, my skills, my failures, my fears, my loves, everything must come to prayer. And so I close the lid of the composter, and stand mesmerised, looking at what must be my life. Is this what I am? Heat and commotion, packed down into one human-shaped vessel? A compost of constituent parts, that somehow becomes a life?

And then I remember the garden. I have forgotten it even exists, I’m so absorbed in my task. When I turn round it seems more beautiful than ever. This is where the compost will go, and where it will create new life. And it comes to me that perhaps when I look at my life, and I focus on the compost – especially on the slime and the rotting food waste – God looks at my life and sees the garden, and longs to tend it and walk with me under the apple trees. Tend the compost, and see the garden grow.

This morning at breakfast I finish reading Thomas Merton’s No man is an island, and after I finish reading I sit with my tea and wonder at the garden Merton describes. For every challenge he raises – and there are many – the description of the life lived in relation to God becomes more and more beautiful.

So here’s my final thought from the compost bins: God sees the whole of you, and how beautiful you are, and loves you with the tenderness of a gardener walking in the early morning through a newly-flowering crop. Everything you bring, good and bad, is compost for your life. Every hard lesson and mistake, every joyful memory and good work, and it can all be used by God to enrich the garden of your life. But you are not the compost. You are not the sum of your mistakes and successes. You are the garden, and the garden is wonderful.

Bonus Post: Damselfly

Something I’ve been thinking of uploading for a while! I don’t write prose often (enough), but a couple of weeks ago I was set the challenge of writing a short piece of insect transformation for a formative assignment on my Science Fiction: New Worlds module. (I know – I’m ridiculously lucky in my degree options!) I took the instructions liberally and this was the result.

Damn Self Lie

So it begins.

I admit that upon entering the consciousness of the selected creature, a recently hatched and seemingly perfect male Ischnura heterosticta (that is, the common damselfly), I had not expected to experience a high degree of disorientation. The process I have undergone is not by any means a true transformation – my own, blessedly human body is asleep in its harness, its regulatory functions preserved by the instinctive and mechanical instructions of my still functioning cerebral cortex. Instead, my consciousness is inhabiting the fly’s nervous system, via a temporary electronic transference.

My choice of the damselfly has somewhat baffled my colleagues, but it is a perfectly rational one. I might have transferred myself into a dog, or even an ape, but this seemed like a petty challenge to me. The brain of an ape is of a similar size and only slightly reduced capacity to that of a human; to mimic human consciousness within an ape, who even on their own is able to learn to communicate and solve simple puzzles, would not only be simple but might present problems in distinguishing the two consciousness’s. Suppose that, on waking in the ape, I would be able to use a computer – how would I be able to tell that my functioning intelligence was entirely a product of my own transmuted brain, and not enhanced or supported by the natural intelligence of the ape? No, instead I have selected a creature who seems to me the most alien, most devoid of humanoid intelligence. I admit that I am no entomologist – I have little knowledge of the behaviour of insects – but I have always thought them quite simple creatures, and therefore perfect for my task – should I be able to rewrite the human psyche onto the body of such a creature, I should be able to tell if it has been perfectly replicated without distraction by the desires and instincts of a higher creature, such as a mammal. As to it being a damselfly, I will admit that it was a purely whimsical choice. I have always thought them contentedly stupid creatures, but excessively beautiful. It pleases me that if I should done the garb of another order of creation for a few hours, it might be one whose movements are those of the slenderest ballet dancer, artful and aimless.

But I digress. I was about to describe the moment of my awaking in this new and unfamiliar body. For some moments after I had attached the last electrode and set the program to work, I seemed to be lightly asleep, and my consciousness drifted into hazy worries about the lock on the laboratory door. In the next moment, I became intensely aware of my body. It reminded me the most of waking from dream-sleep, when the dreamer is aware of their presence in the room and the heat of their awakening limbs, but as yet unable to move. I felt the strangeness of my new body extending around me, but as yet was unable to cognate its parts – the wings held above the body in rest, the bulky thorax and extended abdomen, the cage of the pronotum in which my now minute heart beat haemolymph at a pace so fast I could barely make out – but no, I could. As I woke my senses had slowly recovered, and seemed now attuned to my environment, and I realised that I could hear each individual beat, although the rapid pace had been too fast for me to distinguish before. Indeed, the world around me seemed slow: I had positioned a little clock beside the vivarium so I might keep track of the length of the experiment, and it showed barely a minute had passed since commencement. To business, then.

Before starting out, you must understand, I had carefully planned how I might spend my brief time in hexapodic form. I had planned a series of experiments for myself, designed to allow me to test my intelligence against my insect form. Among them was a maze, whose route I had memorised, to test my powers of recollection; a series of toothpicks with which I was to attempt to form patterns, and a few other small puzzles I had meticulously crafted out of tiny fragments of rubber and wood, hoping desperately that my calculations as to the creature’s weight/strength balance would be correct. However, as I began to take in my surroundings these considerations slipped from my mind (or perhaps I should say, the insect mind which I was inhabiting). I had instinctively tried to stand, as a human might on waking in a strange space, but my brain had not corresponded to my new body – it had not translated my human desires into insect mechanics. Instead, my wings flapped desperately, thrusting my light body with impressive strength at the glass walls of the tank. I hit it and fell to the floor dazed. It seemed that I would struggle to accomplish my tasks if I continued to imagine instructing my human body – I must let the human mechanics fall away, instead of trying to read them onto the damselfly. It made sense to me, even as I lay sort and irritated: there is no logical reason why the body of a fly should correspond to a humans. I could not think of insects as altered humanity. To function in this body I must learn to think as the damselfly. With irritation, I relaxed, and my lithe body moved – the limbs darted forwards and I returned to the place I had started. It was a beautiful motion; my abdomen lifted and balanced my heavy body against the ground. I was almost startled enough to fly again, but I instructed myself to keep calm and allowed my wings to close above me.

Having established some rudimentary control of my body, it now seemed to me fruitless to waste my time on my preset tasks. The rubber smelt strange and unappealing – I registered and processed this thought with a little surprise – but there was another smell emanating from the far end of the vivarium, far more pleasant and interesting. I flew over to explore, and discovered that on the other side of a cloth partition I could distinguish the thin blue streaks of other damselflies. Surely I would use my time far better to interact with these creatures? In observing our differences – but then she saw me. She was new hatched too, cornflower blue, ladylike, and as she flitted up to the cloth and then back into the cage I cursed myself for not allowing a communication hole between sections. I should speak to her – no, speak was not the right word. Indeed, I do not believe that any of the thoughts that presented themselves to my mind in that time came in words. Instead, a bright, unfamiliar understanding came to me – of how to dance so that she might ignore my brood brothers – but I quelled it in horror. These were not my thoughts. If some insect consciousness remained, I must repress it, although it would make an interesting addition to my study. The overwhelming primal instincts of the lower orders. An argument to our superiority, certainly: could an insect have turned its back on that glittering nymph and returned to scientific tasks of mazes and matchsticks? I could not laugh for lack of a human mouth but the laughter rose up in my mind as I squashed the insect in my brain and returned to human consciousness, fully Professor Dorian.

At that moment, the damselfly consciousness who I had unwittingly transferred into my human body broke free of its restraints and stumbled blindly into the vivarium, tugging free the electrodes which formed its only connection to the machine. The insect was awake[1]. More I could say, but the life of the damselfly[2] is mercifully short.

[1] Yes, this is my only ‘reflection on one of the texts studied in this block’. Sorry.

[2] And indeed, the formative assessment.


Since I last posted, I’ve been writing more poetry and working editing the poems posted in my last post, as well as a few others. I’ve had some feedback on some of my work, so I’m hoping to improve it and re-submit it, or post it back up here with improvements. Until then, have something I wrote for my Creative Writing: Prose class this week! I’m not usually a prose writer, so this was something of an experiment for me. 

His birthday was the day before Christmas. He used to come round to my house after school, and play with my toys. I went to his once or twice, but I was scared of his dog, a puppy with huge ears and a bark that could be heard in every room of their maisonette. He came with me on trips to Legoland and tea parties in the hall of our little house, the only room with enough space to spread out a picnic blanket. He had a round, squishy face, with big red cheeks and appealing, love-me big eyes, although I’ve forgotten the colour. His hair stood up on its own. He showed me his penis once, in class, whilst the teacher was taking the register, but I was too prim to look.

There were two main games we played together; in one we both had horses, which we took to gymkhanas – he loved that word –and in the other he was my daughter, and always my daughter.  We would take over a picnic bench under the stunted trees in the middle of the yard and turn it into our house, and for half an hour, I’d swap places with his real mother, always tired, who worked days and nights to keep the two of them in their house, and I’d look after him. His favourite thing was make-up. I had to sit cross-legged on the bench in front of him and pretend to apply make-up to my best friend’s face, whilst he fluttered his eyelashes and pouted at me, absorbed in his mirror reflection, the girl he was looking at. Sometimes I’d escape him for a few minutes to play kiss chase with the others, pursuing the beautiful Aaron, who had dark Jewish eyes, over to the bike shed where I’d remember that I was six, and far too bashful to kiss a boy. On these occasions he would follow me disconsolately around the playground, waiting for me to return my attention to him, his spaniel-face fixed firmly on me

Friendships like those attract attention. The day we learnt this, my fickle six-year old self had decided to give him my full attention. We were playing our second game, his favourite game, when a gaggle of older girls approached us. I had been looking for something on the ground – a leaf or stone to transform into some potion or other, or perhaps just pulling up one of my south-bound socks – when my shadow was obscured by theirs as they formed a circle around us, arms linked. My ‘daughter’ looked up in apprehension, so I glowered at them on his behalf, but I was scared. They were year twos almost old enough to go up to the Junior school, masters of the grand age of seven. But scariest of all was their leader. I never knew her name. She was about a foot taller than the others, copper-haired and freckled, and strong. She could skip further than anyone else, jump further on sports day, see over the fence into the nursery school next-door. She sat on the benches at the back of the hall instead of the floor. Some girls said she’d been kept back a year. I don’t know if this was true. What I do know is that she was cruel.

It started with a chant.

‘Joanna and Adam, sitting in a tree! K I S S I N G!’.

I stood riveted to the spot, and waited for him to save me, but he was a statue, stuck in the mud, waiting to be untagged.

‘First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage!’. Joanna and Adam, sitting in a tree! K I S S I N G!’

This was unbearable. Surely they’d go away soon, if I stood still enough, if I crossed my arms and glared hard enough…

‘Kiss her.’

The red-headed girl had made her decision. She was bored now and she wanted to see us truly humiliated.

‘Kiss your girlfriend.’

I looked around desperately for a way to escape, but there was none. We were surrounded. I tried to step away, but the circle moved with me, pushing us together. I remember how he looked at me, like a little dog trapped in a corner, waiting for me to reassure him, and I tried to signal to him that we should run. We’d split up at the fence, head different ways along the edge. I’d run down by the year two classrooms, and head for the girl’s toilets – the agreed school safe zone – and he’d go round the perimeter, back towards to pre-fabs where the reception kids had their classes. We’d keep running until the bell went for the end of lunch, leave our tormentors far behind, even the ginger girl with her long legs, and we’d be okay – and Adam kissed me, full on the lips, slobbery, to hoots of satisfied laughter, at the exact moment when the deputy headteacher stepped out of the school to ring the bell and saw us, six years old, necking in the playground.

After that, they decided it might be better if I had a different friendship group, maybe some nice girl friends to play nice girl games with. When we moved up into year two a few months later, I was introduced to two nice, ordinary girls who were my best friends until I moved away, two years later. They stayed friendly for a while, until the year they discovered boys, and I got left behind, somewhere, still looking for a friend to sit with me on the hot tarmac, pick up cherry stones, play at putting on make-up.