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Dancing with the Dark Mother at Beltane

compost bin

It may seem strange to focus on one of the dark goddesses in this Beltane season of fecundity and renewal. But Kali Ma is my Beltane goddess.

My altar to Kali Ma is the yard-square, black-plastic compost bin that takes up one corner of my garden. Every morning I walk out into my garden, lift the bin's lid, and look into the heart of my Dark Mother. Then I pick up a spading fork and turn the compost, chanting "Jai Ma" all the while. I could easily say that turning the compost is the single most important part of my personal spiritual practice.

The compost seethes with heat from the microbial breakdown of the organic material, and fuchsia-colored worms writhe in the mixture. New life is coming from old. Kali Ma eats death and grants us the possibility of rebirth and renewal.

I feed my compost bin the usual kitchen scraps, garden trimmings, shredded junk mail, and coffee grounds. Because I am a crone who lives alone, there's no way I could produce enough coffee grounds for this bin. Fortunately, Starbucks, like every other business in the Bay Area, has a mandate to reduce the amount of solid waste generated. They bag up their used grounds in 5lb. bags and give them away free for the asking.

Whenever I lift the lid, I get a reminder of my own personal mortality. No matter how carefully I tend it, someday my body will be food for worms. The same thing happens in my garden.

I became a serious gardener the year my eldest son was killed in a mountaineering accident and I learned that my husband was infected with the AIDS virus. Surrounded by death and loss, I felt Hokusai's great wave was about to swamp my boat.

The only possible antidote was trying to bring something to life. And what I chose was my garden. I made a magnificent garden with blazing red Flanders poppies, delphinium spires the color of my lost son's blue eyes, fuchsias that lured a horde of hummingbirds, and sunflowers that peeped over the fence to all passersby. I remember standing in the garden at the vernal equinox that year, seeing my army of white tulips parade beneath Lady Moon's watchful glow.

The irony of my seeking life in my garden is that every day I also was forced to encounter death. The tulips dropped their white petals, the poppies dried to hay, and the delphinium went dormant and died down to the soil level. Try as I could, there was no way I could defeat the natural cycle of the plants' lives. I had no choice but to trim away what was dead and desiccated and toss it into my compost bin.

I empty out the bin every year around the vernal equinox. I have a full cubic yard of compost and it takes me several days to spread the wealth around. I carry compost by the bucket, and take a trowel to lift and deposit a good-sized mound around each plant. Then I water carefully, and step back to watch the compost work its magic.

At Beltane everything explodes into bloom and life. The pansies are the size of teacups. The sunflowers — this year I am growing 11 different kinds — are growing so fast that I can almost hear their joints creak. Lacy blue lobelia spills from all the pots, and the air is scented heavily with jasmine and lemon blossoms. All the plants' flowering parts sing out their siren Beltane song: "I'm here, come and fertilize me." If I were a prudish Victorian, I'd be tempted to veil some of the flowers because they are so luscious, sensual, in fact, downright erotic-looking.

But they bring me back to Kali Ma. All the plants, fed with Ma's good compost, are rushing onward to their destiny: fertilization, seed-bearing, then death and destruction. This morning I watched as a scarlet and white Danebrog poppy unfolded its wrinkled petals. Tomorrow those petals will fall to the ground, and I'll gather them up to place in Kali Ma's gaping mouth.

Kali Ma and my compost bin teach me the futility of dualism. I can't divide the world into light and dark, death and life. Everything cycles around again. No matter how brilliant the color, how enticing the fragrance, how silky the petals' texture, the plants all have the compost bin in their future.

And so, in a somewhat different way, do I. I place a wreath of flowers on my old gray head and dance with my sisters in a verdant meadow on Beltane morn. But I must remember that my dark mother waits for me. Jai ma!

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