February 6, 2020 § 7 Comments
I’ve been having a lot of weird thoughts lately. Like, the fact that I’ve been throwing stuff away my entire life. This now strikes me as a crazy thing. Or wondering, how much garbage in a landfill somewhere is directly from my own hand? Then, I think to wonder, what was the first thing I ever threw away? The largest? The worst? How does my invisible pile of lifetime trash stack up against everyone else’s?
I suppose such thoughts are bound to be inspired in the stopping, because the whole practice of throwing things away is like a kind of forgetting, a physical amnesia. I forget YOU milk carton! And I forget YOU granola bar wrapper! We all enact this ritual all day long, every day. Which makes a kind of sense: if we all had to keep and look at everything we’d normally throw away, we’d probably go insane, right? I’m imagining nightmares of being chased by every milk carton I’ve ever known.
But sometimes I like to keep objects just to help me remember things- it’s the hoarder in me. So on the desk by my computer I have a tiny little shrine composed of a wood box and a piece of gravel. One day recently, as I was walking through our house I stepped on this piece of gravel, tracked in from our driveway as sometimes happens, and picked it up with annoyance. Without thinking, I headed for the trash, when I realized (as I have done nearly every day over the last month) that there was no trash to put it in. I stopped, stymied.
I looked at the piece of gravel. What the heck was I doing? What, I wondered, had I ever been doing?
I mean, seriously. It’s a freaking rock, Eve, I admonished myself. Rocks aren’t garbage… they’re nature. Why would I throw a rock in the trash? To be trapped in a non-degrading plastic bag, hauled to the landfill and sit there, smothered for the next umpteen zillion years? Sure it’s tiny, about the size of a plain M&M, but how many times have I thrown away a piece of gravel, and how many other people have done just the same thing? That, like anything, adds up.
How much more effort would it really have been for me to open the front door and toss that pebble out into the yard? At some point I must have made the mental calculation-oh I’ll just put gravel in the trash because that’s easier, but the difference was truly miniscule: between opening a door and not opening a door. And I know I’m guilty of myriad other, similar infractions… how many times have I tossed out a paperclip or a safety pin just because the trash was closer than the drawer or box where I keep these things? How many pencils have I thrown away because they were missing erasers, or simply weren’t sharpened, because we already had a handful that were? We live in a time of material abundance unprecedented in human history and clutter is the thoroughly modern phenomenon that comes along with it. Surely I can’t be the only person who has ever thrown “perfectly good” things into the trash out of a strange sense of pure, unadulterated self-defense?
But what gives me the right, I wondered for the first time, to send something to the landfill? When did we become such masters of the universe? When did we become so careless with our resources?
The piece-of-gravel revelation has played out in our house over the last few weeks in dozens of different ways: what once we would have thrown out, now we are, for the first time, compelled to really look at… and find another way. I’m sheepish to admit that in the past whenever a clothespin came apart I considered it “broken” and would pitch it: too hard to fix! Probably impossible. I’d think. But when that happened to me the other day I sat down and in about a minute and a half figured out how to put it back together. I felt quite unreasonably proud about it, too.
And when my older daughter Greta came across a huge entanglement of random yarns and craft scraps that had somehow all been shoved together in the bottom of a tote bag, she looked at me questioningly… what on earth were we going to do with this? Any other year, we would certainly have thrown it away. Instead, we sat down and started untangling. It sat on the coffee table for a few days getting progressively better in installments until one day it was no longer a horrible mess at all, but instead a neat pile of several different balls of yarns and fabric strips. Again I felt both proud and a little ridiculous for feeling proud. I keep thinking: those bits and pieces can now be used. Used! I felt like an alchemist who had discovered how to turn trash into gold nuggets.
But the real discovery, I think, is that it was never trash in the first place. Trash is a made-up idea, invented in the name of convenience, which I’m coming to view as a dirty word. Because that lovely idea, as it turns out, comes at a terrible, terrible cost.
So sure, I saved a teeny, tiny rock from the landfill and who cares. But it’s a teeny, tiny rock that represents something much bigger, and that’s why I keep it on my desk, to remind myself that just because our culture accepts something, doesn’t mean it makes any sense. Sometimes it’s just a matter of stopping to really look at something for the first time that can change your point of view entirely.
Sometimes it can even be something right underfoot.