Taking Simple Steps

Sharing the process of transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle


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Health of Nations

While I’m mulching my fall garden, a Sarasota County Utility van pulls to the curb. “What’s up?” I call springing towards a young man now lifting a concrete lid from the ground.

Crouched amidst scattered tools and tussled grass, he looks up enthusiastically, “We’re putting in new water meters whose signals can be read from our cars.”

 

Though his sincerity and diligence warm me, I’m agitated, thinking, I’m sure this will save money, and lifting heavy slabs in the heat can be a drag, but sitting in a car watching a screen doesn’t sound fun. Anyway, did anyone ask if I want this? And, what will these signals do to my nervous system?

 

Not knowing what to say, I wish him well and wander back to the soil.

 

I notice my tomato plant, eagerly stretching towards the sun. Yesterday, it was drooping in the heat, so I watered it. I feel its limbs, now firm. Great! I think, but wonder, do we want to become like this plant, needing everything brought to us?

 

Bending down, I continue laying chipped oak around heart-shaped squash leaves to buffer their roots from wind and heat. I think on generations of farmers digging soil to sow seeds, swinging scythes to cut hay, lifting bales to feed horses. Folks toiled and got tired as sweat cleansed their systems, muscles grew taut and minds were shaped by natural rhythms and boundaries.

 

Now machines can do our work and we can sit and watch. But tasks once completed in the course of our labor now need our will power to be accomplished. We must carry out and endure a fast to cleanse our insides, work out at the gym lifting weights to build our muscle and manage myriad conceivable activities to organize our time, lest we suffer disease, obesity and chaos.

 

But, I remember my friend Joe’s words last night at our book study. Sitting across his handmade coffee table, he says, “We aren’t helping young people develop their wills. By doing art and handwork, kids put themselves out into the world. But we cut out these activities thinking they’re frivolous.”

 

“Handwork and art develop critical thinking skills,” his wife Ann, sitting beside him on their couch, adds “without which, we can’t form our own initiatives. “ I nod, admiring her spinning wheel and baskets of spun and dyed yarn set behind her.

 

“And how can we be free?” Pete asks, stilling his swaying rocker, “if we can’t respond creatively to the world? My fiancée, Tanya, and I took her nephew, Carl, to the Kennedy Space Center last week. The kid kept his eyes locked on his pokeman game. He didn’t listen to the astronaut’s tales of explorations or look at the pictures of earth from outer space, only watched imaginary images on his phone screen.”

 

“What’s scary,” Debbie adds, “is that these activities shape neuropathways that form ideas and build our abilities and habits.

 

I cringe as the concrete lid clangs closed on the new meter. Sweat drips from my brow while one more societal wheel is set on the rail of automaticity. As neighbors toil at their desks unaware, I kneel on the soil wondering what to do.

 

An ant traipses across my elbow. I twitch and push it to the ground. Fireflies swirl by my cheek; white puffs float overhead. I look up to admire the procession, inhaling warm air, then wiping brown crumbs of earth from my knees, stand, walk to the hose and wash.

 

Munching purple hibiscus leaves I’ve picked, I slide open and closed the glass door and lift my crank radio from the kitchen table. I turn the handle a few rounds and listen to the broadcast while cutting dandelion leaves to steam.

 

Madhya Pradesh became the first state in India to create a Department of Happiness. Its Chief Minister who borrowed the idea from neighboring Bhutan says the department will work to “ensure happiness of the common people.”

 

Bhutan measures gross national happiness instead of gross domestic product as we do. The country preserves its natural resources by outlawing killing animals and importing chemical fertilizers. Forests aren’t cut down and people live amidst rich wildlife supplying their food and clothing needs.

 

What a different culture! I think. Here we are racing to maximize stock returns, minimize labor and cram pack productivity, thoughtless of our impact on plants and animals. We mechanize our work, thinking we’re lightening our load, but quicken the pace, leaving many of us stressed and depressed. What would a US Department of Happiness say about this?

 

Dishes washed, I walk to my desk, sit, reach for my pen and write my quarterly check to WSLR. While I have my health insurance premium automatically deposited monthly, I want to consciously send in this donation. I like that Amish people choose which machines to use and when. I’m trying to be as thoughtful. While I use a washing machine, I love to stand in the sun and breeze, hanging clothes on the line so run a dryer only occasionally during rainy season. I bought a car without a screen to show me what’s behind, preferring to turn my head. While this wouldn’t be the best choice for my mom, who can’t easily do so, it fits for me; I want to see and hear what’s behind my car using my neck muscle. So often we automatically think automatic is best, not considering there’s a tradeoff.

 

I wonder if our real energy crisis is our lack of will to get up and move.

 

“People seem to forget we’re here to develop ourselves spiritually,” David says that evening at the monthly salon in my living room. “We’re here to become better people, not sit back and be entertained. We’re wasting our opportunity.”

 

“My brother, Joe, took his dog for a walk at 2 am in the park across from his house last Tuesday.” Iris adds, putting down her glass of water. “The park’s usually vacant but he sees a light and then two people looking into the glare of their phone. He watches warily. Two more folks totter by in a trance. He slowly approaches and asks if everything’s okay.

 

“’Oh, yes,’” a young college student says eagerly, “’we’re looking for pokeman.’

 

“’Excuse me,’” my brother inquires and is directed to look at the young man’s phone screen. Puzzled, he asks, “’Don’t you fellers have anything more important in your life that requires you rest rather than walk around at 2 a.m. looking for an imaginary figure?’” Puzzled, the young man replies, “’I thought this would be a good thing to do. I’m not out drinking or taking drugs.’”

 

“Stumped, my brother returns to his house, but later thinks. ‘It looks innocuous, but they’re addicts, dragged around by someone else’s beckoning.’

 

“The guy who invented Pokeman was trying to get people out of their houses interacting with each other. And he has, which is a good thing” Iris adds, sitting upright on the couch. “But I’m concerned folks substitute this search through their cell phone for self-initiated connection with each other and nature.”

 

“We’re always trying to get out of exerting ourselves, “David adds, “not realizing we’re weakening our faculties and morale. There are lots of fun things to do,” he says, picking up his harmonica, wafting a melody through the air. “Like playing this harmonica with friends,” he says, putting it on his lap, “playing board games, baking cookies, planting a garden.”

 

“Muuuch more enlivening than watching image after image on a screen, one thought streaming into to another,” Iris adds.

 

“And more peaceful,” I say. “I can only take in so many words and images a day and then need to digest them. Doing things with my hands, like crocheting and needlework, helps me think through and make sense of things. And it doesn’t cost much.”

 

“Plus, you have something you made to give someone,” David adds, smiling.

 

I share of the Department of Happiness and we agree better to foster the health of nations than the wealth of nations.

 

 

 

 

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The Right Use of Plastic

I’ve come to accept plastic, sort of reconciling myself to its place in the world. Where ever I ramble, I run into it – vacuum packed tofu at the farm stand, fluorescent-colored bottle lids on the forest floor, broken lawn chairs at the curbside. I have to face it — plastic is here to stay.

I always cringe, though, when a waitress asks if she can bring a ‘to go’ box for my leftovers. This usually means Styrofoam, a form of plastic I don’t consider a friend — nor does the planet. Once Styrofoam is set free to roam the earth, it’s anti-social — doesn’t break down, mix or mingle like wood and paper do, giving themselves to the making of soil, contributing to the life cycle.

In fact, Styrofoam may never decompose.

That it keeps to itself may be a good thing though, because when it circulates, it wreaks havoc, causing cancer. I won’t put Styrofoam out with my garbage. And when I invariably acquire a piece from a generous neighbor bringing Christmas cookies, I gracefully accept my plate then sequester it to the closet to use as a paint palette. But I won’t take home Styrofoam intentionally.

So I ask, Can I have a piece of tin foil to wrap my veggie curry in? My preference, though, is to bring home leftovers in a plastic bowl and lid I keep in a potluck kit in my trunk and am trying to get in the habit of bringing with me into restaurants.

Plastic has become a basic element of our mobile lifestyle. Light and unbreakable, it’s convenient to carry. Cheap to buy, plastic cups, forks and bottles are seen as disposables and discarded after one use.

But throwing out plastic is costly.

While a paper bag takes a month to become soil and a cardboard box around two, a plastic bag can take a good hundred years to break down. And when it does, it doesn’t blend, but stays intact as tiny particles that creep into ground water and litter oceans.

Plastic pills are taken up by plants, fish, animals and us, or just hang around. Pacific Ocean currents have collected some of our throw-aways in a swirling plastic soup the size of Texas. Fish dine on bottle caps; birds don six-pack ring necklaces. Come high tide, the sea may deliver our debris to our shore.

For now, plastic seems content to seep from containers into hot soup, leftovers and lattes. Tricksters, called BPA, sneak into bodies and mimic female hormones, messing with reproductive and nervous systems. Scientists have seen BPA handed down for three generations in fish.

Let’s face it. Plastic lingers — perhaps in protest of our disregard.

So, I limit my holdings, making friends with the few pieces I have, trying to reuse them for their duration. Once I’ve got plastic in my sight, I consider it an orphan, with nowhere to go, at least for a long time. Or, I eye it as a terrorist, holding it captive, protecting the world from its antics. And sometimes, I simply recognize its value and reuse it.

Walking my neighborhood on collection day, I rescue chairs, tables and shelves from languishing at the dump. Or, I postpone their recycling.

When possible, I recycle. But not all plastic can be recycled. And only about 5% of what can, does.

Perhaps plastic has made us lazy. Intended to make lives easier, disposables mean less washing of dishes. But our loathing of labor may have led to our scanty recycling. We’ve given our selves more work, though. Because plastic won’t play nice with nature, we’ve got to babysit and find things for it to do, lest we suffer its shenanigans.

I remember the invasion of plastics. As a child, I recoiled at inert orange, purple and pink impersonators upstaging painted clay bowls, horse hair and wooden brushes, rag dolls and cloth diapers. ‘Real’ items breathed with life forces, holding imprints of human touch. They were books to be read offering insights to life, engaging and peaceful to be around. But plastic was a soulless worker who came, got the job done and left without giving you the time of day. Cold and lifeless, it felt deadening. At home, I clung to dwindling natural objects for comfort and inspiration, rubbing my fingers along irregular surfaces, tracing circles of grain, following stitches in rows.

As a young adult, I combed stores for genuine items, to find few. Used goods shops became my treasure-trove of long forgotten wooden pails, tin watering cans and glass pitchers. I brought them home and sheltered them as a naturalist protects a preserve.

I am a purist. This is hard work. Plastic is ubiquitous.

Nowadays, plastic still stops me in my tracks. Yesterday, I shopped for cane sugar, which I use for its mildly sweet flavor and even handedness with my blood sugar level. I scoped out the bulk section of a local natural food store, hoping to scoop some cane sugar into a bag I brought and transfer it to a jar at home. There was none –only palm sugar, a new item. I placed a few crystals on my tongue. ”Not too sweet,” I thought, “but not as rich a flavor.” I moseyed around the aisle to find cane sugar sitting on a shelf encased in a hard plastic container. “Too bad!” I thought, then returned to the bulk section to take a few cups of palm sugar.

That night, I made ice cream with the new sugar but didn’t care as much for the taste. So, do I buy plastic wrapped cane sugar? Or search further hoping to find it in bulk and if not adjust to an alternative? I believe so.

Taking inventory of my trash a few years back, I gasped at the glut of plastic hummus containers, pasta wrappers, forks, spoons and water bottles. Shamed, I vowed to purchase as little as possible packaged in plastic and started making my own yogurt, crackers and tooth powder. This summer, I hope to start making shampoo and pasta and muslin sacks for bulk items and produce.

I now carry a glass water bottle and keep hard plastic plates, cloth napkins and metal cutlery in my car for use at potlucks and take out. I bring in a metal spoon when I frequent a frozen yogurt shop and have ventured into a take-out pizza parlor with my own plate. Perhaps one day this will be common.

What’s plastic good for and what’s best made with natural materials?

I have never been a disposable razor fan and have bought replaceable cartridges. While they consist of little plastic, their cost has skyrocketed. Flabbergasted, I thought back on my dad’s metal double-edged razor using a simple steel blade. To me, this is the pinnacle of razor technology.

I searched family run pharmacies then chain stores but found no such models. Finally, on line, I bought an ‘old fashioned’ razor with paper wrapped blades and no plastic! All for a fraction of the cost of a plastic one! Eureka! The process took nearly as much time as buying a car, but I’ve redirected myself to one more plastic-free path on which I more happily roam!

If I need to have plastic, I try to glean used items from the curbside or buy them in thrift shops. The fields are aplenty. Eco-architect, Richard Sowa, harvested disposed items to make a floating island– a lasagna of plastic and soil.

Shower curtains, sneakers and toothbrushes of recycled material abound. When a new plastic item is called for, recycled is my choice.

But there are things plastic should not get its fingers on. A clear bag holding thrown out food scraps is a sad sight. This imprisonment of banana peels and peach pits from organisms eager to turn them to dirt is a death sentence. I delight in delivering food remains to the ground where they can join the dance of life.
As for us, as I’ve heard said, Let’s care as much about the containers we use as the food we put in them.


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Coming Together

Whenever I push down a pedal on my bike and glide freely, I smile. I salute the breeze brushing my cheek, bounce over pebbled dirt, swirl around lines of ants and soak in sun and sky. No barrier lies between me and the world.

I prefer to walk barefoot. Strolling through my neighborhood, I step on edges of lawns, discreetly, to saturate my soles with the pulse and ply of the earth rather than the inert block of concrete.

When I drive down rural roads, long tracts of undisturbed pines and saw grass lighten my breath. My back muscles relax. If houses or stores line the way, I scan for untrimmed bushes and trees to admire their free patterns of growth. I drink in life around me.

When I drive my car down busy, developed streets, however, I’m distracted. My mind meanders through what I need to do next. I revisit a conversation with a friend, probe through a radio show with Terry Gross or Ralph Nader. Finding no provisions on the road, I divert and ramble. I am rarely present.

Today, however, I stay on the street. Sitting behind my windshield, vibrating with the hum of the engine, I meditate on the metal frame separating me from folks driving by. I’m fidgety framed in mechanization, longing for life. As my car idles and sits at a light, I turn my head to the right to glance through the closed double pane of glass insulating a fellow traveler in the next car and me. Who is she? I wonder. What’s she thinking?

I gaze at the side of her head and shoulder bobbing in beat to music, I suppose and laugh. Her eyes dart towards me, sensing my grin. We smile. A horn honks from behind. Our eyes jerk ahead. We pull from the intersection. She drives away first.

I continue observing who is riding down this six lane road with me, until I break a mental-barrier, becoming more aware of people around me than the dashboard and wheel of my sedan. Connected with what’s alive, I’m engaged.

A few weeks back, I sit isolated in my office air tight in four walls. I wrestle with a to-do list bigger than my day: e-mail parents about tuition, order workbooks, write lesson plans and organize finances. I’m trying to access my online bank account to determine my balance. My shoulders tense as I type and retype answers to security questions. Who did I put as my favorite pet — the miniature schnauzer, Arnie, who hid under the couch when thunder struck or the black lab, Josey, I wore gloves to pet because I was allergic? How did I spell the name of my first grade teacher? Was it White with an “i” or “y”? Red lettered text repeatedly reports my answers are wrong. I grimace and turn to my cell phone to press numbers on the screen, listen to recorded voices and leave words in empty space. I have no time for this, I gasp. Then search online for an e-mail address to which I type my plea on the keyboard. I receive an e-mail directing me to a website. Exasperated, I give up.

The next day, frustrated, I walk into my bank to speak to a receptionist. I am taken aback by my realization that people work at my bank. I had forgotten. The pinkness of the woman’s cheek and wrinkles on her hand stir me. Her twinkling eyes and tale of her grandson’s wedding soften my heart. Light reflects from her pearl necklace, as she eagerly turns her computer screen to face me. Her ivory, oval-shaped fingernail points to the screen, as she talks me through steps to reset my security questions. Gratitude streams through my limbs. I am rescued from a deserted island.

With a lilt in my step, I hold the bank door for a young man entering. Our eyes meet. I breathe in his dutiful demeanor and exhale my relief. I am connected to humanity and long to stay situated in its midst.

The next morning, I sit around a wooden table on the porch of the Quaker Meetinghouse in Sarasota. Live Oak and pines rustle behind Friends sitting across from me. We are musing about how to rally members of our meeting to live more sustainably. After an hour and a half dialogue, the chairperson of our committee asks us to send him an email about our thoughts on a statement about climate change. My neck tightens at the idea of booting up my computer and typing an e-mail. I want to blurt out my thoughts now, but our meeting has gone on too long. The chairperson wants to go home. I sigh and realize I crave a technology-free diet. I need to cut out the excess distancing me from others.

I text my friend Jessie to make plans to walk at Celery Fields and talk. I call Joel to set up a time to sit at his patio table and chat about community housing. When I need to type a question on my laptop to Casey in California or press the screen on my phone to speak to Hannah across town, I picture waves and wires delivering my text and voice to folks over miles I can’t tread. I keep in mind the people with whom I can relate because technology links us. And I’m grateful.

I’ve started writing letters to my two nephews and niece. They reside in Berkeley, CA, New Paltz, NY and Berlin, Germany. I have never lived close to them and want to nurture a bond. I treasure reading the swirly loops of my nephew Cali’s letter “a’s” and slanted crosses of his “t’s”, sensing his enthusiasm pressed into paper.

My niece, Elsa, who lived in a Buddhist monastery several years only communicating by letter, welcomes the exchange. She says when she first reentered mainstream life she immediately got sucked back into social media. She has since weaned herself off Facebook and Twitter. We share about how we both monitor our intake of information through cell phone and e-mail, checking messages only once or twice daily, stopping the crazy back and forth compulsion of moment to moment replies. Having felt like a cog in a machine, pushed and pulled by its rapid pace, we now set our own rhythms.

This afternoon, I sit next to seven-year old Steven. I am helping him prepare for the Florida Standards Assessment in Reading. This is his first standardized test. He hasn’t been initiated. He is unaccustomed to its demands. He sits beside me relaxed, breathing deep. I suggest he read the questions first and underline key words. I point to the first question and read, Which sentence from the passage contains a simile? What words are most important here? I ask. He rereads the question, sounding out a few words, syllable by syllable, pauses then lifts his pencil and underlines the whole sentence. I direct him to the next two questions and he does the same. We then look at the passage. He reads in a pondering pace, stopping after words to consider their meaning, relating them to his world. I am anxious for him, knowing we have much to cover, concerned he will move too slowly and fail the test. I admire his presence, though, grounded and unhurried. Is this something I want to change?

The next hour, Shirley, a high school junior, shows up texting, face down to her phone as she plops her College Board Official SATI Study Guide on the table, wraps up her reply and clicks off her phone. She stuffs it in her oversized purse and turns to me with an agitated grin. She angles herself onto the chair and flips open her book, ready for business. I really had problems with this section, she reports, glaring at a reading passage.

How have you been, I ask?

Five tests and a term paper this week, she reports. Not much time for our homework, but squeezed it in during lunch.

I point to the first question and ask her to underline key words.

Her eyes jump to the first paragraph and she explains, It says here the woman didn’t pay for her ride. I don’t get why the answer’s not “C”.

I trace my finger along the question and ask, Did you read all the words in the question?

Her hand races to another question, And this type of question really gets to me.

I nod and think to myself, Years of schooling have taught her to cut to the chase, making it hard to settle down and take stock. How do I help her find grounding? Is this what the goal is, I wonder, to subdue natural sensibilities and responsiveness and rewire students to pass multiple choice tests?

That evening, I lie in bed. Starlight streams through my window soothing and inspiring me. Relaxed, I close my eyelids. I picture neighbors, lying in their beds too, in solace. I drop the walls of our homes and see us dotting the landscape. We retreat from our laden bodies leaving behind the frenzy and mazes we’ve set and drift in a dream state, mingling with the heavens.

Dare we awaken in the morning, renewed with resolve, and returned to our separate bodies, homes and cars to build bridges that link us?