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Existential Composting

I recently started composting. Let me help you visualize that. I live in an apartment. With a couple small balconies. In the city. In the tropics. And I’ve recently started composting.

“It will smell! There will be bugs! We will be living with a pile of trash!” These were the protests and worries of my family and friends.

But why should composting be only for those living in more rural or suburban areas with wider, open spaces? There must be a way. So, I did what I usually do in these situations. I went about learning from others and then putting together various techniques to fit my specific context. And that’s how, several hours later, I had a plan. I’m a bit over a month into my composting journey now and am learning much along the way. There’s something that just excites me about the process - garbage from my life is sitting in a bucket on my balcony churning itself into rich soil that will nourish my balcony garden of herbs and other plants and, therefore, my body and soul.

And then the metaphor came. I have had several recent conversations with friends and colleagues about how we are nurturing our projects and our lives. Do we try to take the fast, flash in the pan approach or do we do it the hard way, gradually tilling the soil and nourishing seeds into saplings into trees into a forest? And if we are tending our soil and our trees, where is our compost? Are we able to take the garbage in, of, and from our lives and allow it to transform into the rich soil that nourishes our dreams? Or do we attempt to farm in arid land next to a growing mound of trash without ever connecting the two or tapping their hidden potential?

But how, exactly, do we achieve this transformation? What are the ways, thought processes, or other practices that allow us to churn our life garbage into something nourishing? How do reflection and reflective practice, mindfulness, movement, music, creativity, and nature play into this equation? What do we need to say to ourselves and do with ourselves to keep churning our garbage into nourishment? I’m headed to a resilience retreat in a couple weeks where I’m looking forward to further exploring these questions.

When I talk to people about my composting, there are usually some chuckles, a small bit of interest, and a whole lot of people who think I’m crazy. When I start explaining how I’ve managed to achieve odorless, clean compost on an urban balcony, most people’s eyes glaze over and I watch as they look for an exit - either to the conversation or the room.

When I talk to people about my life compost, that is, the garbage in my life that has transformed into rich lessons, there are still a lot of people who think I’m crazy, but for a different reason. Many people would easily ask me for advice based on my experience with difficult management dilemmas, but they would never seek advice from my experiences of workplace harassment and bullying. They wouldn’t even dare ask if I have personal experience of any sort with those topics.

Years ago I was psychologically harassed in the workplace. It lasted a year, during which it took a serious toll on me as I experienced all the personal impacts alongside the usual excuses from those in power. Eventually it ended, and I started working to move on. Now it is years later and I am sometimes a bit surprised at how often lessons from that time in my life come to bear on my present. It seems that bucket of compost is now growing some good trees in the forest that is my life.

Yet, when I recently mentioned my harassment experience in the context of a related discussion and used it to illustrate a few relevant points, the reaction to my admission of harassment was, as usual, notable. There is always a bit of uncomfortable startled surprise that I would discuss this kind of experience, as if I broached a taboo subject. Yet, why wouldn’t I? These are serious issues in our workplaces and nothing is learned or gained by keeping them secret, not to mention the incongruity of intent between “we want to have a discussion about harassment” and “but please don’t share”. In my case, the icky, smelly bits have decomposed and what I am left with is rich, earthy, dirt to use for whatever comes next. It is part of who I am and how I approach things.

I want to live in a world where we can more freely talk about all our garbage and compost, noting the lessons along the way and building on them as we continue to walk on. And I want to live in a world where we all compost - both physically and metaphorically.

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