My daughter-in-law has been with us for the past few days, and, like mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law everywhere, I imagine, we have had a few opportunities to exchange information about a young man we both have come to know pretty well. My son. Her husband.
OK, her husband now, my son.
Nonetheless, I was not surprised to hear that in a few months of marriage she had not been able to correct his lifelong habit of pretty much always leaving his stuff in the middle of the floor, or his love of cooking, which does not extend to cleaning up after himself. In other words, trashing the kitchen. No pun intended.
I tried, I told her. Sorry it didn’t take while I still had him.
But she seems to love him, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that we only think we can change the things in our partners we don’t like and keep the things we do like.
I’m not talking abuse or other unacceptable cruelties, but those smaller, human failings, but I would say that for the most part, we get what we get and love ’em anyway.
My husband of 15 years now keeps a messy office, but has managed to neaten up our public spaces, and he does the dish washing in the family, while I handle the cooking. These are not the potential battles we fight, or habits that annoy.
No, the dissimilarities between us, the differing ways of being, we notice and I periodically admit, have attempted to re-pattern, are in other arenas of our life together.
Take the way we walk our 100-pound Golden Retriever.
Last Sunday afternoon, we took the dog for a long walk. We were lucky in our timing. While it was quite chilly, it was dry and clear for the hour it usually takes us to go the long way around our son’s former elementary school before turning home again.
We take our walks together, but we approach our missions quite differently. I walk to get away from my usual tasks and cares, to get my heart rate up, to spend time with my family. Looking straight ahead, walking at a clip. Richard, on the other hand, focuses on filling up a bright blue N.Y. Times newspaper wrapper with litter, sometimes forgetting to warn the dog that he is about to make a sudden street crossing detour to pick up a just-spotted beer bottle or candy wrapper.
On Saturday mornings, if there is time between our usual chores and when he needs to take our youngest son to a soccer game or whatever other sport is being played in a particular season, he will leave the dog behind so he can pursue more deliberately his goal of neighborhood clean-up.
In a matter of minutes, he completely fills a 30 gallon plastic trash bag. In the years when my life has been enmeshed in what I see as big issues: child health, family planning, welfare rights, livable wages, economic justice, Richard has seemed to me less than engaged, going about his days writing and editing for trade journals, looking forward to slices of New York pizza, helping with housework and homework, chauffeuring children. For the longest time, his lack of what I saw pretty self-righteously as more cosmic involvement, exasperated me, especially when I was feeling worn out.
From my vantage point, my spouse was not meeting his covenant to clothe the naked, free the oppressed. I was shouldering all the responsibilities, taking all the risks.
That’s not true, he would retort mildly — his patience with my, hopefully, occasional bouts of arrogant indignity being one of his best qualities. He would point out that he writes checks each year to CARE and Save the Children and a half-dozen environmental groups. He has coached softball in an inner city league with all kinds of children and then driven them home. And, most adamantly, he reminds me, he picks up garbage, which he says is his spiritual practice and his contribution to the world.
My husband, by the way, not only does his individual thing by picking up litter on a daily basis, he talks trash. A lot. In the last two towns we have lived in, he has served on what is called the solid waste committee, the group that deals with the issue of garbage: recycling, land fill overuse, that sort of thing. He used to subscribe to a monthly magazine called Garbage, and has often told me that he looks forward to talking (trash) in those monthly meetings he attends, as much — well maybe nearly as much — as he looks forward to his Thursday night bowling league or a new pizza restaurant.
Picking up trash as spiritual practice. Talking trash as his contribution to the world.
I was talking to one of the members of this congregation earlier in the week about the topic of this message, how I have come to understand the relationship between spirituality and litter clean-up, not just from living with someone who considers this to be true, but from my own reading and experiences. For one thing, it’s about mindfulness, I told her, the now popular Eastern religious notion that, as Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama has observed, our way of being in the world is as much a part of our spirituality as formal expressions of faith and practice. In speaking of having a spiritual dimension to our lives, we have identified our religious beliefs as one level of spirituality. (Now regarding religion, he hastens to say, if we believe in any religion that is good.) But there is, he says, another level of informal spirituality, what the Dalai Lama calls basic spirituality — basic human qualities of goodness, caring, kindness, and compassion. How we daily conduct a truly spiritual way of life.
By being as much as possible in a very full state of alertness — seeing clearly what is actually right before us, paying attention, invoking the same attitude of caring for the small moments, the small experiences. Whether they be interpersonal experiences that connect us with fellow humans, or environmental experiences, that either connect us to, or disconnect us from, the natural world.
This Georgia Mountains UU member I was talking to told me that she has been passing by the same empty beer carton on the road near her property for weeks now. Passing by in a state of half-awareness, perhaps assuming, perhaps at least hoping, that someone else might deal with it. Pick it up, carry it away. Right a violation of the forest, restore its beauty.
We all do that at some point or another — pass on by — but lately there seems to be at least more notice being paid to the seemingly collective state of half-awareness, even complete indifference, towards what lies before and around us that manifests itself in piles of trash, acres of litter, in proportions that are staggering in what we like to think of as a developed society.
Julia Glenn Carter, the editor of a Georgia community weekly, has noticed and taken issue with the trash that is literally at her feet every morning as she crosses the grass to her office. In a recent column, she wrote that she had always imagined her declining days would begin with a purposeful stroll in the garden — song birds rushing to feast upon her daily offering of seed before the squirrels arrived. With the morning dew clinging to her feet, she wrote, she’d traverse the yard, plucking fragrant flowers ripe for picking, whispering sweet nothings to the wind. At one, in other words, with the holy beauty of nature.
Not so, she reports. In a routine, she says she fears will carry through the end of her days, most mornings begin instead with a romp across the lawn in front of her office, wet grass soaking her stockings and dress shoes, where she retrieves, in as graceful a manner as possible — not flowers, but a nasty assortment of debris. It’s a typical Atlanta-area spring, one person wrote the daily vent section of the metro newspaper: blossoms — and trash — all over the place.
Julia finds herself railing against those people who have deposited the litter: Who in their right mind, she asks, dares to toss his trash onto the property of another? Or on a larger level, who with a shred of decency casually soils our common environment with the by-products of personal consumption?
Obviously, she answers her own question, there are many.
To at least find some humor, if not illumination, in the litter she fights a daily battle with, she has taken to analyzing the debris in an effort to gain insight into the kind of people who would be so unmindful, so disrespectful. Beer bottles and paper cups with plastic lid and straw intact were so common, she discovered during this study, that they barely held her attention. She found candy wrappers by the dozens, particularly annoying, she found, because they tend to fly away just as you reach for them. One particularly revealing pile of garbage contained a Slim Jim wrapper, an empty box of sparklers, pistachio shells, the glass bottle from a vitamin-enhanced thirst quencher, and the inevitable candy wrapper. The leavings, she concluded, from a male suffering from a Peter Pan complex, confused about what is good for him.
Multiply the trash this one writer finds daily in the small yard of her office building times the mounds that accumulate on Georgia’s highways. And how easy it is, apparently, to numb ourselves to it. In this culture, where it is now possible to get whatever “nature” we desire by means of theme parks with their chemically maintained landscaping and water slides, or by envirascapes, indoor fountains complete with genuine polished river rocks and natural humidifiers, it is possible to never come in direct contact with what we have in all other eras known as non-human creation or wilderness.
Never step on a path in the woods, never see or enter a non-artificial body of water, a running stream, a natural lake. Never have to consider how our human waste (this time, literally) impacts nature, because we simply do not live in it in any real way at all.
We can speed along in our cars with our windows shut. And can choose or not choose to really see, to really be mindful of, the trash along the roadway, which is in some ways just a marker, just an outward sign of the greater extent of degradation and pollution that is all around us: in the air, water, and ground. Before nature really dies, in other words, it may already be dead to us in the sense that it has any relation to our lives at all, any connection, any meaning beyond how it serves our human needs.
On a drive one day recently up Highway 400, I was trying to pay attention, to be mindful of a radio program describing nuclear detonations that have been taking place in new parts of South Asia, causing legitimate fear about their use in regional skirmishes, and the long-term damage to the quality of life for the civilians in that region, the nuclear debris being created in their wake.
But I was continually distracted by the sight of a large truck in front of me, spewing litter, watching its payload of waste escape bit by bit, flying onto the roadway in some cases, in others landing on what remains of grass, what remains of piney woods. Plastic bags wrapped around tree limbs, paper stuck in branches like one gigantic orgy of toilet papering on high school graduation night.
Harmless enough superficial defacement, you might legitimately say, in light of the far more deadly global consequences of nuclear explosion or chemical spills, but degradation nonetheless. Part of the same indifferent or even deliberate abuse and shaming of the natural environment that is taking place along the same roadway: acres upon acres of land chewed up for container stores and fast food restaurants and mega gasoline stations. Piece by piece, day by day. Small deaths of nature that we either literally don’t notice or don’t allow ourselves to notice.
Environmental writer Ed Ayres, editor of World Watch magazine, in his book, titled, chillingly, God’s Last Offer, believes the world we thought we knew has become, in his words, a strange and agitated place in the past few years, rocked by economic chaos, by human conflict of staggering brutality, and by environmental disruption and destruction. He does not separate these three disturbing trends from each other. They are inevitably interrelated, he believes, and come from what he has identified as four megaphenomena: four spikes of crisis and opportunity to take what his title metaphorically calls the last divine possibility for redemption of our planet. Four spikes on a wheel: The carbon gas spike and its resulting global warming; the extinction spike, and the wholesale disappearance of species; the population spike and its burden on the individuals and the whole; and the consumption spike, and its challenges to the sustainability of our finite resources.
It is on this spike that we find the problem of trash, the by-product of unsustainable consumption, the most difficult of the phenomena to measure because, as Ayres points out, consumption in the year 2000 includes forms of activity that to most of us seems perfectly normal. Though to generations past and to generations future what is normal to us may be regarded as pathologically excessive.
For example, the average individual in an American household uses up 45 to 85 tons of natural resources per year, the equivalent of 300 shopping bags per week. Most of it ending up at the end of the cycle of increasing material want, want for stuff, want for convenience, as industrial waste, pollution, and solid waste — or trash.
Clearly, then, the first step of noticing trash, and the second step of getting it picked up, are only that, mindful steps along the way. My husband takes the personal step of collecting what he can, and working at the local level to encourage recycling. He also wrote the Governor a few weeks back about the amount of litter on 400, informing the Governor that when he called the Department of Transportation, or DOT, he was told that trash pickup is expensive and not the priority it once was. He asked the governor to tell him specifically how he intended to get the problem solved, how soon, and with what increased effort.
His correspondence has been met so far with deafening silence.
Nonetheless, he is acting with mindfulness and diligence, and perseverance in the face of the fact that the trash keeps multiplying, and the indifference to it seemingly growing day by day.
Despite a generally gloomy report on the imminent death of nature and his prophetic insistence that we must take up or forever lose out on what he calls God’s Last Offer to preserve a livable world, environmentalist Ed Ayres offers — in addition to the general spiritual grounding in mindfulness — four ways to salvation, as it were:
- Being in community. It is community, he says, that generates the passion to defend ancestral lands or sacred rivers, or mountains, or degraded roadways. If we belong to communities that are rooted in the land, we have a better footing for stepping forward in the future. We must work and live among people who share our principles, for example, of the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.
- We must restore or maintain a sense of place — not connected by Internet sites or TV churches, but real, physically distinctive places.
- We must have a sense of trust, not go into a state of siege or state of denial, having some faith that in the company of others, we can see transformation.
- The ability to be a part of nature, not an imposition on it. Not sucking up huge amounts of resources from a surrounding area and then expelling huge amounts of waste. Piles of trash.
So once again last Sunday, my life partner made his usual mindful round, bending to pick up what others have so mindlessly discarded, without public praise or recognition, perhaps without any notice at all. I adjusted my pace, as usual, for his fits and starts, searched for crocuses, and kept the dog from straying.
In different ways, both of our souls were fed, and there was some sense, however small and momentary, of the goodness and blessing of the earth itself, that creation alone holds all that is necessary, and that, as medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen wrote: Everything that is in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth is penetrated with connectedness, penetrated with relatedness.
Only clear away the trash, and behold.
May it be so.