I keep worms. Three bins of them, actually. They are my trash recyclers, and they live in a variety of containers—some plastic, some wood. I feed them all my veggie kitchen scraps and pillows of shredded paper, and they are supposed to reward me with lovely, fluffy, black compost.

One worm brigade lives in the middle of my garden tower in a long, wide plexiglas pipe. I’ve been futzing with these worms since the summer before last, and although they made it through the winter just fine, they had not provided me with any compost. Maybe they were hiding it somewhere. I have no idea where they were storing their poop, or “castings” but it remained a mystery to me. So, I turned my attention to my two newer worm bins that I started just this past spring. They were easier to access than the tube, and since the tube guys had proved a frustration to me, I just sort of abandoned them to their own devices.

Every few days, I open up the two new bins and divide the bucket of egg shells, coffee grounds, banana peels, sad vegetables, and encroaching slime between them. I gently turn back the gunk in the corners of the tubs to search for worms, just to reassure myself they are still alive and kicking. Sometimes I find large piles of worms–veritable hoedowns and hootenannies of the little red wigglers. Sometimes, I encounter a loan straggler or two, no doubt searching for the party off in some other corner.

The buckets also contain a multitude of other organisms. “Organisms” is a friendly, unthreatening word, so much more crowd friendly than the word “maggots,” which I also find in abundance in the tubs. I’m told that these soldier fly larva are just as useful in crafting compost as my worms, but they often creep people out. My four-year-old granddaughter, Taylor, who loves to hold a worm or two while I am feeding them, has not offered her hand to the maggots. When Taylor places the worms back into the bin, she always confides with a cupped hand to my ear, “I think they like me.” I can’t yet imagine her saying such things about the maggots and the springtails and the tiny spiders, but she’s still in training. There is hope, yet.


The bins are messy and unattractive. I don’t think anyone in my family other than me would enjoy sticking their hands into the dark mess of rot, but I find the gunk intriguing and filled with hope. Hope that the grey-green-brown will be turned to a deeper, richer, sweet-smelling black. That the dense slime and lumpy zucchini peels will be made fluffy garden food. That the rank process of decay will yield to its promise of rebirth.

Here in the Cuckoo’s Nest, on the psych ward where I am being treated for chronic depression, we on this floor are making like worms. Each of us is crawling, chewing, moving headlong through our own pile of dark, dank, mess. Some of us are in more condensed crap than others. Some of us are moving swiftly, some of us are sliding slowly around in circles, eating, eating, eating.

Some of us have thick networks of hard-ridged scars up our arms and legs from cutting. Some of us pace the halls, giggling at the cacophony of voices arguing between our ears. Some of us sit quietly and have dark circles under our eyes. Some of us are mad, some of us chatty chatty chatty. Some of us are resigned. Some of us are just very, very sad. Some of us are hopeful. Last night, one of us crawled worm-like around on the floor demanding cigarettes for hours.

But all of us are devouring our stuff.

I wondered why the staff let that person carry on for so long. In the old days, my caseworker told me, they would cart these ones off to their rooms and sedate them. These days, the person on the floor has rights. And the staff works hard to treat them with respect and concern. The trigger point for “room and sedation” call is violence. Otherwise, we walk around the person on the floor and give them space. But no cigarettes.

This place is our worm bin where we work to turn our dark matter into black gold. We are contained here for a short time—far, far too short for many who are here and will return to this ward over and over again through the revolving emergency room door. We gather into a group many times a day, but because the funding for such programs is short and the medical system has changed over the years, there are no therapists to guide us along in intensive group work. That sort of program would be for those who had far better insurance, or could afford the cost of a longer private program of retreat and recovery. For us, here, there are short sessions where we state our names and chat briefly about handouts on recovery and crisis management. And, of course, we have our afternoon crafting sessions.

My first day here, I painted a plastic sun catcher. On Halloween, I constructed a spider out of a tiny pumpkin and some pipe cleaners and paint. I was allowed to take the pumpkin to my room because I could not hurt myself with pipe cleaners and squash. But I have to leave the sun catcher in the locked craft room because it could be broken into sharp pieces.


Weeks ago, I had begun giving up hope for my worms. Months of regular feeding and bedding have yielded no sweet worm compost. I have been suspicious of the quality of my particular worms, and of the quality of woman who is keeping them. What is she doing wrong? Surely, she must be doing something wrong or there would be black-gold worm compost for next spring’s garden by now, yes?

Then, only a few days before I came here, I decided to pull the remaining worms—if there were any left—out of the garden tower tube. I had not checked in them in many weeks. I figured I’d best leave them to just be worms and quit expecting something miraculous of them. But, don’t you know, in that space of blessed benign neglect, they had performed their miracle. When I unscrewed the bottom of the long tube, black-gold sifted out, sweet-smelling and luxurious. Of course, there were a few tiny bits of eggshell left here and there, and maybe a clump of something or other, but the whole of it was sweet and fluffy, just like I had read about, but never seen.

Is it simply time that does it? Is it the amount of trips, back and forth through the dense, stinky dark? Is it the steadfastness of the worm heart that just keeps chewing, digesting, transforming? It must be all of these things, plus grace.

Soon, the cutter with the ragged ridges of scars is leaving and heading out into the world, a bit anxious at the prospect.  S/He has been in and out of the bin many times. S/He has flown the cuckoo’s nest and returned again and again, and figures s/he will return by intractable circumstance yet again. With all my heart, I am wishing him handfuls of black gold to be mined from the detritus of her hard journey.

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