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Small Stuff

For quite a while now, I've had a growing concern about plastic and its impact on the environment.

Pagans, of course, theoretically worship the earth, the land, and the cycles of nature. And not only do many Quaker meetings maintain an environmental witness, but Quakers have long been enjoined to "examine our possessions for the seeds of war."

What if we examined, all of us, our possessions for the seeds of a different kind of war, the war our species is waging on our planet's health? What if we thought for any length of time about the true costs of the lives we live, and the conveniences we feel entitled to?

This thought has been returning and returning and returning to me, in waves that leave me rather breathless. I'm starting to think of these waves of pain--sometimes pretty intense pain--as a kind of labor. I'm starting to think of this kind of pain as the difference between having a concern, and laboring with one. It feels an awful lot like needing to give birth.

I think perhaps I can no longer bear to live as though my convenience is worth the death of ecosystems. I think I can no longer bear to choose quickness and comfort and modern ease over the lives of others, from whales and sea turtles to the plankton that forms the basis of all life in the sea--and, indirectly, most life on land.

Specifically, I find myself convicted that I am killing the planet I love through my heedless, selfish, foolish reliance on disposable plastics.

(Here is the video that pushed me over the edge a few weeks ago, from a growing personal concern to a sense of being placed under and laboring with a spiritual concern.)

As I mentioned, I've been concerned about plastic for quite some time. I've been gradually removing more and more sources of disposable plastic waste from my life--starting with the easy stuff, like no more of those horrible plastic grocery bags or water bottles. And while I always do recycle what is recyclable, I have learned how inadequate that is--plastic, unlike glass, aluminum, or steel, does not truly recycle; it only "downcycles" for a limited number of cycles before it becomes waste forever.

For it will take hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions of years, for plastics to ever fully degrade. They will choke macroscopic and microscopic life for every one of the years in between--not to mention the toxic chemicals they release into the environment for decades, if not hundreds of years, first.

When I think of this, the plastic container holding a package of cookies, the plastic bag holding my bread, the plastic bottle of shampoo or condiments or milk seems like an obscenity to me.

I think of how Quakers have responded to moral obscenity in years past, and I am ashamed.

I think of Elias Hicks, who was so opposed to slavery that not only did he refuse to wear or use cotton cloth, but as one story has it, when he suddenly suffered a stroke while traveling in the ministry during a heat wave, despite being unable to speak, he managed through his agitation to communicate to his hosts that he could not bear the touch of a cotton sheet upon his body. Through his restlessness, he eventually made clear his distress; he would not, could not, rest easy until that cotton was replace with a woolen cover, heat wave or no heat wave.

He knew that sheet was foul with human sweat and blood.

I know that plastic is foul, too. I know it. We all know it, don't we--not just about plastics, but the thousand thousand ways human actions are destroying the planet?

Elias Hicks knew how to be faithful. Do I? Do we?

Can I bear not to be? What am I going to do with this?

I think that being faithful to the Spirit of Life is a lot like being faithful in a marriage. Let's face it: most days, most of us don't have to choose whether or not to cheat on a spouse. It's not that that the big stuff doesn't matter... but it isn't what's in the frame on a daily basis. It's not normally what makes it or breaks it for us, and for those we love.

But we do have to find a way to not get bitchy when they've left their underwear on the rug, or come home late or too tired to do what we wanted them to, or whatever other small test of love and patience daily life brings to our lives together.

It is my experience that it is in the small things that human beings are least faithful to each other. I suspect it's true for being faithful to our gods as well. And it's when I look at the small things in my daily life, the details, that I am most keenly aware of my faithlessness.

My friend Marshall Massey has said that one mark that a leading is really from God is that it will be large, and probably lead us to do things that will be very difficult or inconvenient for us.

I think that may be right, sometimes. But I also think it's only partially right.

I am not sure where this concern, this leading, this thing is going to lead me. I don't think it's going to lead me to quit my job and go live in an unheated yurt in the desert; I hope in doesn't lead me to relinquish my beloved computer (made with plastic!) and the world I share through that computer.

But I'm getting a clear signal that the way I am living is not All Right. Yeah, God loves me anyway--that's a done deal, unconditional love if ever I've found it--but I'm making Her very unhappy.

I just don't want to make Mama unhappy like this any more. So a few things around here are going to have to change.

First of all, what will not change: this blog, at least for now. Quaker Pagan Reflections is home to a very wide range of my experiences and concerns, and I'm keeping it that way.

But, as of today, I'm adding a new outlet for my writing: the Chestnut House blog. That's where I'm going to track my attempts to be as faithful as I can, first to that leading I think I'm feeling to reduce my plastic consumption, and second, to live a more environmentally-friendly life generally.

I make no promises not to talk about the environment here, on this blog... but over on Chestnut House, you will see the results of my attempt to dramatically cut my use of plastic.

Beth Terry, over at Fake Plastic Fish, has cut her use of plastic to about 4% of the typical American total of 88 pounds per year. I don't think I'll be in her league, and certainly I won't at first. But I'm going to do what I can. The new blog is where I'm going to write about how.

Chestnut House is where I'll be posting the mechanics of that struggle: starting Tuesday, June 1, I will be saving, photographing, weighing, and logging all of my plastic use. Every bit of it--or an explanation for what gets left out.

If you want to, you can keep score. I'm going to.

Expect a lot of very practical posts there--how to make ketchup may be an issue I'll take on soon, for instance, as I am running low, and I can no longer find any in glass in my local stores. Expect it to be nit-picky with details, because there seems, from the limited amount I've done already trying to cut down on plastic in my life, to be no end of that.

I don't know how I'll do. I want to live with integrity; I want to be faithful to the Light that's speaking to me.

But I doubt I'll be graceful about it, any more than I have been about the small ups and downs of marriage. I am not an environmentalist saint--I love my fast food, pop-culture, easy-access American life too much for that. But then, maybe sharing that struggle is worth something, too.

I'm starting with the small stuff.

Next time I write on this subject, it will be over there. (I'm thinking of writing about shampoo... or maybe baking bread.)

Blessed be.


Anonymous said…
I'd like to make a note, because it's something that is very important to me and some other pagans out there: there are plenty of pagans who do not worship the earth. They worship the Gods and Goddesses of their tradition, not the earth or its cycles. Beware of painting all pagans with too broad a brush and assuming that all pagans believe the same things about the earth and its place in pagan spirituality.

Beyond that, the thing that has distressed me the most about use of plastics is the Deepwater Horizon incident, which is still not resolved. Crude and natural gas still spews into the Gulf of Mexico at an unbelievable rate, and much of that crude would have been used in the manufacture of molded plastics, like that of this keyboard I'm typing on right now.

But we're so very deep into this kind of life, I don't know how to really change to make enough of a difference, without embracing the "green martyrdom" and going off to live in a woodland cottage and shun civilization altogether.

Hystery said…
Cat, my list of things I won't use/buy and those that I severely curtail is getting longer and longer. That's kind of a bummer. Damned inconvenient too. On the other hand, over the years as I've tested myself in this manner, I've learned new skills and discovered new joys. I've enjoyed sharing the journey with like-minded folks like you who encourage me to keep going and who teach me lots in the process. My other blog, the Green Apron, records some of my more practical thoughts on learning to live more sustainably. I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts in your new blog.
ef said…
I'm getting to the point where I think shunning civilization altogether may be the answer. I'm also aware that I'm highly unlikely to survive very long personally without civilization (while the vast majority of life is more likely to survive longer the sooner civilization goes)

I applaud your initiative here, and will be watching to see how it turns out. I also just finished a book that harps somewhat on the lack of difference one person's purity makes. (the author would advise you to blow up a plastics plant, I think) - while your contribution, Cat, to the massive amount of plastics this country produces and throws away in a day is probably not significant, or even noticeable, it will be interesting to hear how hard or easy it is to give up, what you miss, etc. - I've been thinking more about it myself lately, and giving up plastic would seem to mean giving up potato chips and sour cream (a recent obsession of mine) - like you said, possibly ketchup (I tried to make some recently, and it was awful) :(

I personally have more or less given up water bottles and grocery bags (I ask for paper or bring my own, or just carry things if I haven't gotten too much) - tower records in philly used to not let me leave the store without putting my merchandise in one of their bags, so I stopped shopping there in college :) but there is SO MUCH.

best of luck!
Hystery said…
I've gone without ketchup for a long time now. (could never find one I was certain did not include unethically produced tomatoes). I use hp sauce instead. It comes in a glass bottle.
T.L., I'd like to respectfully draw your attention to the specific phrase I used in my piece. I did not say that Pagans all worship the earth; I said we worship "the earth, the land, and the cycles of nature."

If there are Pagan pantheons that ignored all of those domains, I am unaware of them. Those of the past have been expressed in local terms, in general--pagans of the past had no need to be concerned about the health of the entire planet, for they had not yet endangered it as we have.

However, we have the example of the entire Classical world to see that ancient pagans were very good at finding the connections between the gods they knew and the needs they had. Sometimes that involved finding new deities--was there a Cloacina before the invention of sewers?--and sometimes it involved existing deities acquiring new areas of concern--the worship of Odin, for instance, far pre-dates the discovery, in historic times, of the the runes (which scholars generally attribute to cultural contact with Rome) legend says he bought with his suffering on the World Tree.

Our ancestors were more interested in the practical aspects of religion than in purity of identification. And while I do not in any way trivialize the need for non-Wiccan Pagan religions of today to contradict assumptions that Wicca represents all of Paganism, neither do I think it is either wise or honors our ancestors to back away from our environmental concerns, just in case anyone thinks we're engaging in them because we're all just like the Wiccans.

Let's handle the identity confusion and theology questions apart from the urgent demands--which I believe our gods and the spirits of land and plants and animals are all joining in--that we do what we can to avert disaster.
Along those lines: one thing my life as a Quaker has taught me is the importance of doing things, not in order to fix the world (either all by my lonesome, or in partnership with humans alone) but as a form of faithfulness to a spiritual calling. When we live faithfully to the gods we love, sometimes they can assist us in accomplishing wonderful things. But even if we cannot change the world, we change ourselves, and deepen our own relationships with our gods and each other.

All by itself, that is a reason to change.

Will I wind up in a green martyrdom in the woods? While that remains to be seen, I believe the answer is no. I believe that whatever changes I am led to make will bring me joy. And I believe that because, both as a Pagan and as a Quaker, it is resisting the call of Spirit that has led to grief and regret on my part. Yielding has only ever brought me delight and freedom.

The pain comes in realizing the ways I have refused to hear, refused to consider, and refused to act.

Sometimes the pain comes in thinking I must somehow act on my own to solve the world's troubles. When I think I must act alone, and that it all depends on me, I find myself growing angrier and tireder, and risk becoming one of those angry activists we all know who have been part of movements to change society: those whose actions actually impede the causes they champion, because they have become so martyred and so unpleasant that they drive away those who might otherwise have become part of that movement for change.

Instead, I hope to stay low to the truths I have been shown, working in partnership with Spirit, solving the small problems around day-to-day faithfulness that I am called to solve.

Elias Hicks knew, as he was dying, that he was not going to end slavery by refusing to sleep under a cotton sheet. But he knew also that, if he were dying, he wanted to die as he wanted to live, faithful to the Voice that mattered to him, remembering and sensitive to the suffering of others.

He wasn't martyred in that. He was free.

That's what I'm striving for.

Will I succeed? I don't know. Am I faithful enough, strong enough, honest enough for that? I'm pretty ordinary, actually.

But I know that, to the extent that I follow the leadings I've been given, the Light I've been shown, more will be given me. And I already know what that feels like--

It feels like joy.
@ Hystery: I'm really glad I don't yet have a concern for unethically-grown tomatoes! At least for the moment, I think I'll be able to start from tomato sauce rather than tomatoes as I make my own ketchup.

Though there's a fairly bland house-brand salsa, locally, that tastes a lot like ketchup. Maybe I'll just substitute.

Pam--as a Quaker, I know that I am not alone in taking on the world's troubles. (Pagans have, in many cases, a less clear sense of this than I do; I'm grateful for my relationship with the Light of Friends, which gives me, in some ways, more comfort on this.)

I want for the seas not to rise, the wetlands not to die, the species diversity of the many rich and beloved biomes of my earth to stop dwindling.

I want a lot of stuff, and I have to acknowledge that I may not get them, no matter what I do.

I'm certainly not going to blow up a plastics plant--Spirit showed me a long time ago now where human violence leads, and in the end, that's no better a place for the planet than each other.

Nor am I likely to become pure in any meaningful sense. I am just going to try to be faithful to what is being shown me, one shopping bag/frozen-food bag/cookie wrapper at a time. I'm just going to try to get the taste of blood out of my mouth, and see what I can feel and hear and understand from Spirit when I've done that much.

I'm choosing to trust Spirit to lead, and the people to follow. I hope for change, but I will live faithful in the small ways I can find a way to be faithful in, regardless.

If my mother was dying, and I could not save her, I would sit with her and hold her and pray for her. And I would do everything in my power to keep poisons away from her, and to care for her tenderly, hoping that she might live, but faithful to the love I have for her.

That's kind of what I'm going to try to do. (But less pessimistic. I don't believe the planet will die, though we might. Peter points out to me that trees have already evolved twice, and the earth has geological time... though we do not.)
Hystery said…
Cat, your comments about your love of the Earth as a Pagan, of Elias Hicks, your relationship to Friends, your personal integrity and dedication to act as an individual with knowledge that you do not do so alone (though if you had to you would) remind me much of what I've been working on in my writing in the past several weeks. Some of the specific details are different (I talk about Sarah Hunt rather than Elias Hicks) but the general ideas are the same. Connections like that are really amazing. Gathered blogging.
Anonymous said…
Believe me, talk to enough reconstructionists and you'll hear them lament how so many pagans these days seem to believe that pagans of centuries past did not live in cities. They built cities, like Rome and Alexandria and whatnot. And yes, figuring out how to define what one even is, is all of a piece with the rest of it. There's no getting away from it. And the reconstructionists are just as pagan as any earth worshipper is, but they get really tired of being treated as if or spoken to as if they were not real pagans at all, just because they don't fall into lockstep with the whole "earth worship" thing.

They count too. No less than anyone else.
Anonymous said…
I applaud you, Cat.

Maybe cooperative markets will make a comeback. I mean, there are plenty of them in existence, but most have gotten away from the buy-in-bulk ethos. It would be great to buy ketchup and other condiments, as well as body products, the way one can now buy peanut butter: filling glass bottles and jars from the co-op vats.

(Remember when The Body Shop first started and they used to take back all their containers? THAT didn't last long, now did it?)

As for baked goods -- what about a neighborhood group of friend that does community baking ("I'll make the bread and you make the muffins") or ...a BAKING CSA?

Lastly: we have a box of one-gallon ziploc freezer bags. They are thick and can be washed and used over and over. I take mine to the grocery store in my canvas tote, and use them for the veggies. We've had the first 10 in circulation for awhile now, and haven't touched the rest of the boxful.
Erik said…
Just a quick note re: shampoo - I have been using the Burt's Bees rosemary-mint shampoo bar for several years, that is packaged in a cardboard box. (Of course, it doesn't work for everyone - my wife and daughter, for instance, can shampoo with it and two hours later look like they haven't bathed in days... but it might be worth looking into.)

I hope to be able to respond more fully later...
ef said…
R- I would like to see co-ops return to bulk buying and simplicity, too. Some of it is out of their hands, I think. The larger, "cleaner" looking co-ops around here no longer let you leave containers for others to use, and say that it's health code, and out of their hands. smaller co-ops seem to find ways to circumvent this (or just take the risk) but one of the two I'm talking about here actually closed a few years ago. So I know of one co-op where you can leave egg cartons, for example, many co-ops sell bulk eggs, but if you don't have your own carton with you you have to take a new one of theirs, which completely defeats the purpose (stupid organic legislation to thank for that one!)

Cat, I thought of you today as I was co-op shopping, and wondered more how you'd do. I didnt' buy any plastic containers at all (but I did ponder the fact that, had I wanted fresh strawberries or grapes, I would have had to) - and yet I got a lot of plastic. I bought powdered laundry detergent in a cardboard box (but with a plastic bag inside, at least one I can use for dog poop), and a number of glass bottles (oil and salad dressings) which have plastic "tamper evident" things around the tops. I didnt' buy fruit leather, which I tend to keep in my purse so I can have something to eat when I forget to plan (it is fine 6 months later) because of the plastic. Though even plain dried fruit, at many co-ops is prepackaged.

Interesting endeavor.

As for blowing things up, I suspected you wouldn't. I probably never will either. But I do find compelling the argument that the point is NOT to grow yourself, or be true to God, or any of that, it is actually to MAKE THINGS BETTER! I have long been confident that the earth will outlive us (and even that the earth doesn't necessarily care if it has living things on it) but will salmon? will polar bears? will any sort of life beyond cockroaches? that's much more dubious. What's wrong with cockroaches, after all? But I am sad to think that we will take most other life down with us, and so I want more than to "live up to my measure of light" or whatever palliative strikes me at the moment. I actually want to be part of changing things. It's a crappy, frustrating place to be!
ef said…
oops, I forgot another whole part. I found in interesting that you said, if your mother was dying. I'm not sure, but I assume your mom is old, and that dying wouldn't be radically unlikely or horrific in the same way that, say, your child dying would be. My mom, for example, has alzheimers. If she were dying I would be singing alleluias. She is miserable. My dad is 82 and has health problems. Yes, I would be much as you describe if they were dying.

If, however, my child was dying, and I knew theoretically a way I might save her, I would do it. If it was illegal, if it was violent, I don't think it would matter. I wouldnt' kill another child (or anything, really, except someone was who actively killing her) but I sure as heck would blow up a factory if I thought it would help.

That's the way I'm thinking about it now. that's all
Unknown said…
I have based my spiritual traditions on what we know of the Mysteries at Eleusis--that "the cycle of the blessed seed is the mystery of the soul revealed." And from this practice, one major thing I have learned is within this world there are worlds upon worlds--and within those worlds there are cycles upon cycles, mysteries upon mysteries never ending. Perhaps this opened vision, these labor pains, this longing to heal have been given to you not out of an expectation that you, single-handedly, will heal the world at large all at once, but that you might begin to heal the smaller worlds within and immediately around you so that the good you do there will positively affect all those endless worlds and cycles they touch. One small change, one tiny shift for the better can reach far beyond what our mortal minds could ever conceive, just as a single seed of grain, through cycle after cycle, can go on to feed nations.

I wish you all the best in the planting of those seeds of healing and will be reading to see how beautifully they grow.
Peter Bishop said…
Fifteen years ago, when my grandmother _was_ dying, much of my life revolved around caring for her. I was sometimes tempted to think of it as a sort of a "good deed," but thinking in those terms left me feeling utterly burned out after about fifteen minutes. Instead, I framed it simply as "one foot in front of the other," and was able to stay with it (and with her) for the almost five years it took for her to pass.

Earthfreak makes the point that "actually to MAKE THINGS BETTER" is the goal here. And ultimately, of course it is. But I know for myself that framing it in terms of faithfulness to the leadings of Spirit will let me do what I can do for the long term--to burn without being consumed.
Hystery said…
I actually have very little faith that anything I do will make a difference. I am almost (but not quite) resigned to the belief that my life will be decidedly worse than my parents', that my children's lives will be often hellish, and that my grandchildren will not survive. So why do I insist on a "sustainable" lifestyle if I think we've already reached the tipping point? I guess because if all hell breaks loose, all I'll have is my integrity and without compassion for others in their suffering, one has no integrity. It is wrong to knowingly engage in acts that cause suffering. Simple as that.
Pom said…
Cat, I wish you the very best in your most recent journey. I look forward to reading about the steps you're taking. I'd also like to thank you for posting the video. I'd watched it early and sobbed. Thinking I'd gotten it out of my system, I then showed it to my husband hours later but, alas, I cried again.

I don't know if any of my attempts make a difference in the grand scheme of things but at least my heart doesn't ache quite as much as it used to. Hopefully you find a similar sort of peace.

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