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Humility, derived from the Latin humus, meaning “soil, earth.” I've been thinking a lot about humility lately, particularly now that I have begun a daily writing discipline this year, in hopes of writing a book.
Much of the writing I've done so far doesn't seem to be worth a crap. Perhaps that's why the theme of humility keeps returning for me. To become humble, like humus, is to bow low to the creative process. Learning humility through the writing process means adopting a posture of surrender and acceptance — to the moments of illumination, to the blank stupidity, and to the lines of thought that really stink.
Bow to it all. This isn’t a posture that comes easily to me at all. I’m more of a this-is-a-waste-of-my-time, results-oriented, failure-phobic kind of yoga gal. This is a wee little challenge for me.
But building humus is not only the theme of my writing, but also our farming. The chickens, out in their yard, have been diligently working to destroy sod and to create soil for the berry orchard we hope to plant this spring. The chickens just do their thing: they scratch and they poop. We have been adding a deep bedding of leaves this winter to the chicken yard so that with the help of the chickens, we are creating compost right where we’ll need it, jump-starting the creation of humus on a portion of our rain-washed, depleted clay soils.
The funny part is that with all the heady work of writing about things like humility this month, I've been feeling pretty crabby and cramped. The weather hasn't afforded many opportunities to be outside. But yesterday, I was out working in the chicken yard with Will, raking leaves, moving chicken tractors, and getting the electric fence back in working order. For hours afterwards, I was so happy, full of fresh air and joy. And I realized that for all my writing, I haven't been grounded enough in simple physical movement, nature, and doing. You can think about humus, or humility all day long, but it’s meant to be embodied.
Spirituality is a dirty business. Any creative endeavor, or challenge you say “yes” to taking, is a way of creating rich inner humus. For each mistake you make, you are generating compost for your soul. In that sense, anything that stretches you, scares you, but calls to you nonetheless, is a spiritual discipline, something with the potential to teach you, keep you humble, and give you new opportunities to make rich humus for future growth.
Messy stuff, this process of making soil, much less adding a new layer of deep bedding to your soul. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I suppose most people treat the dirt like dirt because they can step on it. We have so little appreciation for our soil, for our souls, for things simple and close to the ground, or for the virtue of lending basic support to others regardless of merit, as the earth does for each of us. I’ve heard it said that humility doesn’t mean that you think less of yourself, but that you think of yourself less. This is my idea of true spiritual greatness, being secure in your worth and providing fertile, supportive ground for the world.
So far, I’ve made humility sound a bit like a drag, or perhaps that’s just how it plays in our culture addicted to the heights, reaching the top of the ladder, striving for the pinnacle of achievement, moving up always to bigger and better things. We all like to feel “up,” not “down,” and so on. Once you start paying attention to our language, you realize how hard we’ve been trying to get away from our origins, the earth.
Children, though, those naturally closest to the ground, show us that there’s delight in the muck, and the mud, and even the crap. They feel the way we all long to feel again, they certainly don’t feel low, but they do have an earthy, connected, wonder-based approach to the world. They are not yet too terribly proficient at many things, nor do they need to be at the top of their game, or field, to be happy. These are the humble ones, those who play as their work, who create compost through failed endeavors with joy and wild abandon, taking little thought of themselves but instead radiating love outward.
We adults stand on the soil that these children provide. More often than not, we grow and thrive in their presence as never before in our lives, in part because with their arrival we finally start to act as the ground ourselves: feeding, cleaning, hugging, laughing. We're no longer so self-absorbed, but now thinking more of another, or others.
Watching children at play, though, I can see how far I have to go in learning to be like a child again, returning to simple, grounded joys like splashing in puddles, catching frogs, asking questions, singing songs, making forts. This is the spiritual practice of humility, returning to our origins as children and as humans, returning to an embodied relationship with our natural world, and the earth.
Spirituality is a dirty business. Nothing grows without humus, especially the seeds of spirit that blow where they will. Messy fun, this process of building soil and enlivening our souls. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.