Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. (Zen proverb)
I can remember my delight when I first encountered this proverb years ago, though my understanding of it was purely intellectual – its wisdom played no part in my daily life, which was focused more on striving for personal achievement. Now, many years later, I may be beginning to grasp what it means. Many tasks fill me with the sense of magic or spirit. I want to share three in particular: writing a story, cooking a good meal and making compost.
These three activities have more in common than you may at first think.
Writing (or telling) stories: I’m a writer of historical fantasy, and my stories are full of motifs, ideas and references from the ‘cauldron of story’, that pot containing all the rich materials from traditional tales: a magic ring, a cloak of invisibility, a wise crone, a world tree, a trickster, a questing youth, a jealous queen. The cauldron also contains additional ingredients added over the years by master storytellers such as Shakespeare, who took some of the existing brew to enrich his own storytelling and put in ideas of his own. Like many other writers, I’ve dipped items out of this ever-evolving soup of the imagination – a harp made from the bones of a murdered man; a girl whose brothers are turned into swans – to create a fresh story. And I’ve added my own stuff to the mix. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the process often happens almost despite me, and that’s where the magic comes in.
Cooking a great meal: I’m talking about soul food, something nourishing created from scratch to share with friends and family. It may be a soup full of home-grown vegetables and herbs, or bread baked with a granddaughter, or a cake based on a grandmother’s recipe. The gorgeous colour of freshly chopped tomatoes, the smell of basil and oregano, the resilience of bread dough under the hands, the slowly developing richness of a soup simmering on the stove, these talk to us at a visceral level, using all our senses to remind us of the earth’s bounty and how blessed we are to share it. This is nature, culture, love and spirit wrapped up in the simple activity of providing.
Making compost: The alchemy of raw materials breaking down and changing, the industrious activity of worms, the transition from heap of shredded paper, grass clippings, carrot peels and so on to a dark, rich brew of nutrients for the garden – these are wondrous and deeply satisfying to observe. The meditative routine of adding new materials, turning the steaming heap with the fork, watching over it as it matures, is profoundly calming to the spirit.
In a way, these are all the same activity: you take the raw ingredients and work with them, and something entirely new emerges. In each case, there is magic at work – the wondrous, ancient magic of nature, the subtle magic of culture, the profound magic of love. Next time you turn your compost heap, bake a cake or tell a story, know that something deep and mysterious is working in you.
Juliet’s website is at www.julietmarillier.com
She is a regular contributor to genre writing blog Writer Unboxed
Photo credit: © Rainer | Dreamstime.com