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Not my backyard chook set-up, but it'd be great if it was - there'd be oodles of rituals to be found

Not my backyard chook set-up, but it’d be great if it was – there’d be oodles of rituals to be found

We’ve all heard of writers who have certain rituals they put themselves through before starting a work, or when finishing a work, or when the work has gone off into what’s likely to be a dreadful dead-end.  Some writers only start putting words down on the page when they have three blue Bic pins lined up nicely on the desk; others have to take a walk up the hill and down the trail and over the creek.

No doubt you have your rituals too, whether you’re a writer or not.

For me, it’s cleaning out the chook-shed.  Yes, once I’ve fed the dog and had breakfast myself, once I’ve read the newspaper headlines online and checked the emails that have come in overnight and quickly scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed – as if my friends know something about the world the newspapers have missed; sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t – I head outside, feed the chooks, refresh their water, and clean out their shit-tray.  Yes, there’s a tray that catches their poo.

I have the world’s smallest backyard so in my quest to keep happy chooks there needs to be a judicious use of space, which has meant creating a two-storey coop.  To stop the girls crapping into their water while roosting my brother and I constructed a drawer that’s lined with sugar-cane mulch.  So this is my ritual, the last thing I do before heading to the writing room (which sometimes feels like a bower of bliss, other times it’s a pit of eternal doom, often it’s both at once): I lift the side hatch, slide out the draw, and with an old brickie’s trowel found in a secondhand yard, I carefully extract the little – or not so little, as the case my be – macaroons of chookshit and drop them into the watering-can at my feet.

It is, to be sure, a strange ritual, but also appropriate.

For a start it’s mechanical: open hatch, pull out drawer, scoop shit into watering-can.  Writing is all head, and fiction – its production at least – is amorphous and multi-layered and inherently complex and slippery and more often than not mind-warpingly unfathomable.  So it’s good to start with something that is so rudimentarily of the body.  And it doesn’t require much thinking beyond ‘Ooh, lots of crap today’ or ‘That one’s a bit runny – I wonder who’s feeling off?’ or ‘My God, that really does look like a macaroon’.  Of course, this whole process is analogous to writing: getting ride of the crap, cleaning up, putting the house together so everyone is happy and healthy and full of life.

But there’s more to it, of course.  Because each morning, once the watering-can has its scattering of chook crap at the bottom, I half-fill it with water and let it all stew into a foul-smelling swill.  Sometime later, it could be at lunchtime or during afternoon tea, I top up the watering-can with more water before finding a sapling or shrub or tiny little annual or perennial to give what I always imagine to be an intoxicating concoction.  So it’s also about turning the crap into a ripe juice that will make leaves grow glossy and green, stems thick and solid, moving everything along despite the harsh Southern Tablelands weather – the desiccating summers and the cutting winds and the wild wild frosts of winter.

Life, in other words; life against all odds.

Because surely that’s what writing is all about: creating richly living life from the most unlikely ingredients – paper and ink and a brain that, despite everything it knows, thinks it can do something with all this.  Regardless of the odds, which are so resolutely stacked against the whole wretched bloody enterprise.  For what’s in that watering-can is hope: faith, reassurance, optimism, aspiration, credit, trust.

There’s a phrase for hope: ‘a castle in the air’.

I call it chookshit in a watering-can.

I reached in and there it was, exactly where it should be, exactly as I expected, except it’s not a daily occurrence, no, I’m not lucky enough for that. But still there it was, just sitting there, left there, waiting for me to come by and collect it.

I picked it up. Between my fingers, in the palm of my hand, it was perfect, truly perfect, no markings, no scrapings of dirt. So warm, so recent, recently left for me to find – the best of presents.

I went to return to the backdoor but stopped. I stood motionless in the middle of my handkerchief-sized yard, Cat the Ripper catching the mid-morning sun by lying on his side in the veggie-patch mulch (a bed just for him, he thinks), sparrows chirping industriously in the bush of the potato vine on top of the pine-log pergola as if they had picks in their beaks and mining the sky – clink clink clink. But I stopped only because of what I held in my hand.

I couldn’t believe it, I was incredulous. And it really was the perfection that got me. The creamy colour, only a hint of coffee in the hue. And simple – the simplest of the simple. And smooth! Did I know of anything smoother? Dry glass perhaps, but this was microscopically pitted. So it was like bone, the thinnest of bone, a bony membrane. I could crush it. A slow, concerted turning in of my fingers and palm and it would be gone, an oozing gooey mess remaining, the sharp shell bits digging into my skin.

I got going again – I had work to do, words to write, stories to create – but at the back-step I stopped for a third time. Could there be anything more beautiful than this simple thing, so whole, wanting to be nothing more than this? Wouldn’t that be good – to be as whole as this and believe it, understand it, know it.

Inside the house at last I washed it in the laundry sink, but – oh of course – my efforts made it no more perfect. As I went into the kitchen I remembered some words that Lou Reed used to sing: ‘It’s such a perfect day/I’m glad I spent it with you’. It’s true: how glad I was to be in the company of that day’s backyard-chicken egg. Because I’m not perfect, and never will be.

(First published as ‘Joy in the little things’ in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 17 November 2012.)

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