Grateful for a Miracle

Miracles don’t appear on demand, to deliver happy plot twists. They storm stories too weak to resist.

I am writing this entry to clarify my thoughts on the latest swerve in my journey towards publication, and light this stretch of path for other writers. If you have written a book you always assumed would at least be published by a small press, if not one of the Big Five, and you are half-welcoming, half-dreading the prospect of releasing that assumption – this post is for you.

Throughout the ten years I spent drafting, revising, and refining my memoir, I believed (with a few blips – I do remember telling a fellow writer, at Byrdcliffe in 2007, that I’d self-publish if I had to; she spoke up for the benefits of creative collaboration with a publishing partner) that it would be corporately published. I believed, further, that I could control the two key variables affecting the success of my pursuit of corporate partnership: my manuscript’s quality and my own persistence.

If you want to, you can find stories of authors who were rejected by a thousand agents, only to hit the jackpot with number one thousand and one. Authors who heard crickets from a hundred small presses, only to receive a roar of welcome from the hundred and first. The moral of these stories is, roll with the punches. Stagger up from the mat. If you rise enough times, if you endure enough bruisings and batterings, you’ll wear out your opponent. Black-eyed and staggering, you’ll ascend the dais, wearing the crown.

What’s wrong with this moral? It glorifies abuse.

At Zendik, I hoped that one day, if I worked hard and endured, Arol would induct me into her inner circle. She stood above me, empowered by my acquiescence to someday dispense – or forever withhold – the ultimate reward. Therefore, I feared her. And (to a lesser degree) I feared those already gathered ’round her. I also envied them; they had what I craved. So I could never partner with Arol or her intimates, could never engage them in fruitful relationship.

As an aspiring author, I hoped that one day, if I worked hard and endured, a corporate entity would induct me into its inner circle. People in publishing stood above me, empowered by my acquiescence to someday dispense – or forever withhold – the ultimate reward. Therefore, I feared them. And envied those who had what I craved. So I could not engage them as colleagues, or friends.

I did not know that quality matters little, absent partners bewitched by the peculiar flavor of a particular text. I did not know that persistence can be a vice.

If I sound melodramatic, I apologize. I have belonged to this version of my own cult for a long time.

I choose, now, to get out. To re-form my relationship to publication. To step forth as a whole human, subject to no one, serving my book-being. Knowing it will flourish, no matter what path it takes into the world.

Bookbeing Seeks Body, Home

Four months after sending my memoir manuscript to a small press (at their request), I mustered the gumption to write them and ask for a rough sense of when they might make a decision. Four days have passed; I haven’t heard back. This lack of response does not give me any definite information about the press, or the status of my manuscript; how I feel, in relation to it, does give me information about how I might like to proceed.

How do I feel? Like a dog scratching at a window, whining to be let in.

I notice a string of accusing questions: What’s wrong with you? Why haven’t you landed a book deal? What do you lack?

I try to answer: I’m not good at networking or self-promotion. I haven’t worked hard enough at composing shorter pieces and submitting them to periodicals. I don’t tweet. I’m barely on Facebook. I haven’t built a big enough platform.

Then, I question the questions: Where do they come from? Whom do they serve?

Charles Eisenstein, who self-published The Ascent of Humanity, going bankrupt in the process, interprets his failure to attract the partnership of a publisher as a test: Was he really serious about delivering his story to the hearts and minds of other humans? Or was he simply attached to the money and glory he imagined publication would bring him? If he’d been after money and glory, he would have given up.

In the past nine months, many of my motives for delivering my book to the public have fallen away. What remains? Gratitude for the gift of books I’ve been shaped by; desire to contribute my own book to the stream, to honor that gift.

I’m realizing that the words I’d use to describe my book to a field of potential reader-supporters would differ dramatically from those I’ve used to describe it to publishers and agents. Why? Because, in the past, I’ve been trying to make my book sound sexy, garb it in dollar signs. But, were I to describe my book directly to readers, I could speak with greater honesty and intimacy – I could speak as I would to a friend. One inclined to want what I offer, as opposed to one seeking reasons to say no. I think now of Zendik – of seeking belonging from this entity that needed a certain amount of human-power for survival, but had no particular attachment to my unique being. Is violence – dispensing of persons – inherent in any process of application? Any situation in which humans drop themselves, their work, into some kind of pool?

Were I to interdependently publish (thank you, Rivera Sun, for this term), I would need to make the final decisions regarding date of completion, finished form, and the like. I would need to choose whether to hire a copy editor, whether to request writer friends to give it a last close read. I would need to decide on a cover. I would be the final word. How could I be sure, in this situation, that the book produced would be good? Fully realized? The highest version of its most beautiful self?

The truth is, I’ve read corporately published books that were not fully realized – books rushed, it seemed, through the process and off the presses. Corporate publishing, small press publishing – neither guarantees a fully realized text.

I want my book to be fully realized. I want to deliver it to readers. I want to pay forward the priceless gift of books I’ve been receiving all my life.

Poop to Table

We all want to know where our food comes from, right? Or anyway we find it soothing, when dining out, to see a list of farms on the menu. That way, we can pretend that every item on our plate – even the Tater Tots! – was grown by a jolly hipster with a pitchfork.

One Brooklyn eatery is building its brand around providing patrons with even more information about their food’s origins – some might say, too much.

The first thing you see, when you step through the door of Poop to Table, is a series of vitrines displaying different kinds of shit: goose turds like splurts of olive-green oil paint; tidy piles of goat pellets (think clumped-up Raisinets); a greenish-brown mound of “road apples” (horse crap); a cow patty the size of a dinner plate. On the wall above the display is a circular arrow inscribed with the steps in the cycle of life: Eat. Shit. Fertilize. Harvest. Eat some more.

Anna Brown, 36, Poop to Table’s founder, owner, and executive chef, is no stranger to exhibiting shit. As a sculpture student at Pratt, she gained notoriety by installing a luxury port-a-potty on the quad, featuring red velvet walls, radiant floor heat, and a marble seat. The catch was that poops dropped into a clear glass chamber, in one corner of the stall, for all to see. She called it “Everybody Shits (Sometimes).”

After graduating with honors, Brown headed north to apprentice for the summer on a biodynamic farm near Red Hook, New York. There, her interest in poop broadened and deepened. Making her daily rounds – mucking the barn, feeding the chickens, mowing between orchard rows – she found herself pausing to admire one perfectly formed shit-pile after another. “It was like each animal was a sculptor, doing the Andy-Warhol multiple thing, but not to make money, or build some brand – just to authentically express its unique identity. Like, hey world, here I am! And I’m beautiful.”

That fall, when she returned to Brooklyn, Brown found that she could no longer self-consciously make art objects. Her next step, she saw, was to collaborate with farm animals on a more organic creative process – by starting a restaurant themed around their poop.

* * *

After examining – and Instagramming – each specimen on view in the foyer, I entered Poop to Table’s busy dining room (rustically appointed with a sawdust floor and real soot staining the exposed brick) and settled onto a stool at a table for one. Perusing the menu (printed on card stock made from elephant-dung), I noted that the dishes were grouped not by course, but by the type of poop used to fertilize their star ingredients. Eager for the varieties of scatalogical experience, I chose one dish per section: macadamia-crusted squash blossoms (goose), paprika-steamed beets (cow), cover-crop porridge (horse), and dandelion stew (goat).

Each was excellent in its own way. But in a sense this medley of savory delicacies was merely a prelude to the main event: sampling from the list of sweets, labeled “Humans.”

That’s right, humans. We poop too. And our poop can be useful.

Did you know that for centuries, in rural China, farmers competed for travelers’ “night soil” by erecting supremely inviting privies by the side of the road? Who needs a blackwater system, when you can feed your crops “the other black gold”?

Sure, the food at Poop to Table is good. But the real reason the place is packed, night after night, is that it offers the farm-fetish set the only chance they may ever get to shit in an outhouse. And the roughage-rich menu, combined with free refills on coffee (cockatiel), ensures that most patrons will indeed go home with the hippest selfie ever.

In a far corner of the back yard stands a weathered wooden shack, sided with mill ends. A hand-lettered sign on the door reads, “Welcome to the Poopenheim. Donations gratefully accepted.” (To avoid shutdown by the health department, Brown registered the outhouse as a museum, with a single interactive exhibit; in her Pratt days, she fended off hygiene complaints by proving that poop is a form of speech.) Inside, there’s a toilet seat attached to a bench concealing a five-gallon bucket; there’s also a supply of coffee husks, for covering your offering once you’re done.

The rest of the yard is dominated by a half dozen wire enclosures (where the poop, covered with straw, rots untouched for a year or more) and bed after bed of kale, Brooklyn’s national vegetable. The “humanure” (as it’s called, once it composts) feeds the kale, which the cooks – in a bid to elicit contributions from those who’ve yet to give – use as the base for every Poop to Table dessert.

Eager to do my part – and bag that selfie – I ordered “The Steamroller” (kale truffles, made with super dark chocolate), promising myself I’d return sometime for “The Green Tutu” (kale chiffon pie) and “The Scrubber” (steamed kale topped with toasted hazelnuts and a drizzle of maple syrup). Sure enough, as I washed down my last bite of truffle with a gulp of “Smooth Move” herb tea, I felt a welcome rumble down below.

* * *

The day after my meal at Poop to Table, Brooklyn was drenched by torrential rains. After the sun came out, I headed to Haz-Mat Whole Foods (the one plopped down on a brownfield, at Third Avenue and Third Street) to sip kelp-kale kombucha on a patio overlooking the Gowanus Canal. Pinching my nose against the stench of combined sewer overflow (poop to table, in a different way?), I pulled out my phone and studied the image I’d captured of my moment of glory on that backyard throne.

Damn, I looked hip! Yet I felt sad. Soon the kelp-kale would work its magic, and I’d rush for the nearest flush toilet. Most of us care where our food comes from. But who cares where it goes?

What I Do for Money

For the past three weeks, I’ve been devoting almost all my writing time to paying work. Today I’m in between assignments – and considering a morality trap I’ve fallen into, with regard to pay.

A year ago I took a gig with a local business that makes heroic efforts to slim the waste stream. I admire this business and its owner: I’m all for collecting food waste by trike; at the time, I still believed in recycling. And so, as I saw it, I was getting paid to Do a Good Thing. For a short time, this story reconciled me to low hourly pay and powered me past my disgust at having to handle countless dog poops in small translucent bags.

Then, two events – one physical, one mental – intervened: I hurt my arm by lifting a staggeringly heavy bag of wet dough higher than I should have. And I realized that when I collected and re-sorted waste at the local park, I was not compensating for the errors of my fellowbeings, but cleaning up after corporations.

My current gig (which pays far more per hour than my swim in the waste stream) is in no way a Good Thing. It is not always true, but it is often true, that high hourly pay corresponds with serving the overprivileged. Also, this high hourly pay allows me to confine my work for money to a few hours per day, a few months per year – which in turn allows me to devote much of the rest of my time to tending our precious living web.

For now, I choose to separate work for money from work for love. Giving and receiving from taking and being taken from.

The morality trap says, you should find a way to make money by Doing Good Things.

The trouble is, money is not set up to follow Good Things. Debt-based currency (the kind we use) wants the rich to get richer and the poor to disappear. So, trying to make money by Doing Good Things means fighting the nature of money. This can breed exhaustion, depletion, loss of heart.

Of course, it may not be possible to sequester Give from Take. Maybe I taint my gifts with what I do for money. Maybe, in plainly stating whom I serve through my paid work, I defend against that taint.

In the Haven of Earthly Delights

I leave Earthaven (for Asheville, then Greenville, then Beacon) tomorrow morning. This time, I’ve been here two weeks. In those two weeks, I’ve taken a class in natural building (involving cob, clay wattle, base plaster, finish plaster, and earthen paint). I’ve explored the Medicine Wheel jungle garden (while harvesting cherry tomatoes, which lead you from spot to spot, like blazes on a bright trail, until you’ve roamed every spur). I’ve eaten weed salad (mint, wood sorrel, lemon balm, basil) for breakfast almost every day. Yesterday I braved the Mealmaster (MW’s grouchy old wood-powered cooking stove) for the first time in two months – yes, I created a few discs of charcoal, but overall my roasted sweet potatoes (and toasted sunflower seeds) turned out okay (as did my three salads, one of which comprised grated beet, ugly apple, and tromboncino squash, seasoned with onion, garlic, and homemade mayonnaise). In the past, when I’ve cooked, I’ve usually been so focused on planning and making the meal that I’ve neglected to prepare anything for the pre-dinner hippie-joy hand-holding circle – but this time was different! We sang the refrain and one verse (the only one I’ve written) of “This Food Is Your Food,” before digging in.

This afternoon I will return to the clay wattle project started during natural building class – adding wall-fill to the pooper out back of Medicine Wheel, so those who poop can be shielded from both elements and prying eyes by something more substantial (and elegant) than a sheet. Two days ago I mixed a big tub of heavy clay slip (clay and water); yesterday I mixed it again; today I’ll mix it a third time, then dip sheaves of straw in it and wrap said sheaves around bamboo poles, to form a solid mass. For this work, I wear a special outfit – one of my very old, threadbare, hemp-cotton Texture Clothing dresses, once chocolate brown, now faded to the color of the clay slip when it covers my skin.