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Smelly, Raw, and Out Of My Control

The Compost Heap of Motherhood

It’s eighty-five degrees with an occasional breeze. I’m standing naked in an open field, no cover from the sun, hands resting atop my 30-week-pregnant belly. The smell of rot is everywhere.

This is my maternity shoot. Inspired by Serena William’s gorgeous maternity photos, I wanted to see my black, full, body portrayed the same way. But instead of disrobing in a sterile studio, I had the bright idea of posing in front of an industrial compost pile at a 7,700-acre ranch in the middle of September.

   Flies are everywhere; they land on my sweaty breasts, alight on my thighs, and buzz between my legs. When the photographer takes a break her assistants frantically fan me with their light reflectors.

Behind me, the compost stretches for yards; ripe and rank and rich with bugs, this ain’t your grandmother’s cute, backyard, food-scrap bucket. Flies are everywhere; they land on my sweaty breasts, alight on my thighs, and buzz between my legs. I keep smiling and sweating; when the photographer takes a break her assistants frantically fan me with their light reflectors.

In my professional life, I’m the founder-CEO of Soil and Shadow, a project management firm that designs economic and environmental solutions; our focus is on working with humans and communities instead of around them. I’ve spent my career in climate change and food systems advocacy; interacting with the environment is a passion.

Dirt, to me, is life. I wanted a compost heap as a backdrop to my pregnancy because we were both in the raw, visceral experience of creation. While I was growing a baby, this heap of decaying matter was becoming dense and nutrient-rich.

   Compost piles are full of potential. Lively and humming, they mirror our own minds. In our active thoughts and subconscious epiphanies, we constantly break down old ideas and belief systems to create new worldviews.

Part of Soil and Shadow’s philosophy involves juxtaposing soil fertility with social fertility. To be fertile means to be capable of producing life. Increasing fertility in soil means supporting the ability of microbes and fungi to feed seeds and grow strong crops. It’s a complex process with a lot of drama, Bacteria form symbiotic relationships; they go to war; they fall in love with minerals and water. They make life.

In social systems, the same logic applies. Our work aims to increase the complexity of relationships to create fertile ground for reflection, growth, and bonding. There is no good or bad, just potential.

Compost piles are full of potential. Billions of microbes and bacteria eat away at organic material to create a well-maintained compost heap’s rich, dense, dark organic matter; lively and humming, they mirror our own minds. In our active thoughts and subconscious epiphanies, we constantly break down old ideas and belief systems to create new worldviews.

The metaphor extends. Decay becomes putrid when there’s not enough oxygen. When we suffocate our own internal breakdowns and restrict their flow, we generate useless anxiety and stress. The result? Really foul compost piles.

I’m experiencing this dynamic myself. Ikenna, my little one, is now almost six months old. He’s the proverbial light of my life, and when I’m able to fully commit to responsive parenting he’s the sweetest child in the world.

  I am fertile with contradictions, beset by exhaustion, love, worry and joy in a mud pie that can taste terrible. I’m touching deeper grief and sadness than anything I’ve experienced before.

The key phrase there is “fully commit.” Devoting my attention elsewhere isn’t okay with him yet; we tried a nanny, but he rejected that pretty quickly. For now, I’m lying down with him for his naps; bouncing him continuously on a yoga ball; and going to bed with him at 6:30 p.m. and waking up with him at 6:30 a.m. because he can’t sleep on his own yet. I’ve reduced my work hours to laughable amounts. Trying to be on a conference call or write or do anything, really, means I can’t be with him in the way he needs.

I am fertile with contradictions, beset by exhaustion, love, worry and joy in a mud pie that can taste terrible. I’m touching deeper grief and sadness than anything I’ve experienced before. Every relationship is changing—with my parents, my career, my body, my husband. Even my relationship with time and space is changing, fundamental understandings of the world around me that gave me a sense of ease.

I’m shattering more every day. Beside me, Ikenna is the embodiment of pure sunshine and wonder.

As a career CEO, I’ve lived so much of my life in the future, always planning the next product, the next event, the next system. Responsive to the linear, give-and-get nature of the economy, it’s been very difficult for me to be in the moment. Before Ikenna, I ran my life like I was farming an industrial monocrop: I kept an eye toward a reliable, predictable yield and left no room for unexpected growth. I didn’t abide seasons of drought.

   I’m trying to embrace chaos as a sacred teacher. If I can make room for polarity, contradictions, and conflicts, then I can enter the world of wild, feral fertility. If I resist, I will rot.

Now I’m trying to embrace chaos as a sacred teacher. If I can make room for polarity, contradictions, and conflicts, then I can enter the world of wild, feral fertility. I can become a vortex of integration and compost my identity into something sharper, realer, and more powerful. If I resist, I will rot.

Fluidity is one of the biggest things I’m learning from motherhood. Ikenna changes so dramatically from one week to the next that it’s impossible to plan in the linear way I once did. Instead of always looking ahead, I’m forced into a new paradigm.

Now my life is like a biodynamic farm. Weeds are everywhere; they grow alongside the crops, creating unanticipated symbiotic relationships and extra work. Everything is wild—my heart, my mind, my business practices, my body. I’m sleeping less and developing more innovative products and ideas than I ever have before.

I’m allowing the feral nature of life to infiltrate everything.

This is what fertility looks like. It’s rich and it defies attempts at control. Working with it means integrating myself into the wildness, asking what part of the cycle of destruction, creation and sustenance I’m in and acting in accordance.

These are the questions I ask in the communities I work with, the questions I’m now daily aking myself: What is being broken down? What is being created from those pieces? What will it take to sustain what is being created?

Motherhood has been a lesson in getting messy and doing a bit of composting. Trusting that whatever I lose will come back again, richer, fuller, more complex and more full of life than it was before.

My little Ikenna continues to be my wisest teacher on this journey. In a way, he is constant breakthrough, because he doesn’t hold onto anything. May I be as wise and as gracious.

My maternity photoshoot continues to be a reference point, a tangible moment in time when I fully represented a wild, fertile richness. When I look at those photos, I see raw power and strength. I see vulnerability that makes me better. When I’m struggling to oxygenate my breakdowns, to quite literally breathe, I remind myself of that giant heap of scraps doing sacred work just beneath the surface.

 

Photo courtesy of the author

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Nikki Silvestri
About the author

Nikki Silvestri is the Founder and CEO of Soil and Shadow, a project development firm working to create systems change while improving relationships between communities.

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