The Season of Choices

It occurred to me in a restless hour of insomnia that most sins boil down to greed. The many ills we see plaguing our world are borne out of want – a hunger for that which we do not have, but wish to possess, whether it be money, power, material items, reputation, or other humans. Before I step up on a soap box, mount my high horse, or puff up my chest to expound, I turn a critical lens on my own life.

I’ve written before about my own sense of hunger and want. But growing up poor cannot be an excuse for greed and as we go through another consumer season, I am at once chagrined and baffled by the amount of stuff in exchange. My husband is an IT engineer for a large retailer. I am often compulsive in my shopping. I do not look at this from high moral ground. Complicity is not just for politics.

There are times when we, as individuals, get mocked for our minuscule efforts to save the world. Recycling every scrap of paper and tin can, only to see large scale pollution and waste by corporate entities. Buying different light bulbs every five years, because supposedly, the latest ones take less energy and last longer, only to discover that the expensive damned things burn out just as quickly as the old ones. Being “green” becomes its own source of want and consumerism.


If something is small, it might be said, it may not be worth doing. It may just be a way to distract individuals from seeing the large-scale destruction and greed that so many of us benefit from in the short-term, but that consumes and kills everything in its path. Why should we spend our short time on this earth trying to be better, when the bigger picture says that ultimately, we will consume ourselves out of existence?

canstockphoto34294378It’s no coincidence that I write this post on the heels of visiting a mall. At least once a year, my daughter’s orchestra performs in the middle of a mall. Malls baffle and horrify me. Seeing an entire store devoted to pillows (and only one brand at that) or socks is a special kind of bizarre. Walking past store windows, it was hard to gauge what was even being sold, beyond contorted mannequins and maybe a purse.

We walked around the mall and I couldn’t make myself go into a store, knowing that I’d immediately become every old lady ever. Why would someone pay for THAT? Why are there holes in brand new jeans? I could get an entire wardrobe at Target for the price of that shirt. And that shirt is made in the same damn place – Cambodia or Thailand or Pakistan. I wonder what deft little fingers make our clothes and if the building might not collapse on them. Complicit.

canstockphoto33759.jpgI’ve read of people who attempt to be purists. They are inevitably wealthy and can afford to source all their clothing from sheep who live in their own personal spas. They buy $200 light bulbs made out of recycled feces and have 4,000 square feet of solar panels for their tiny house on wheels. Perhaps we mock them out of jealousy – they get to attain a little higher moral ground. But wait – where did their wealth come from? Did they sell more stuff, inherit hoarded monies, engage in unfair business practices, benefit from a system that rewards greed? Complicit.

If we are all guilty and if what we do as individuals in our own households has little effect, why do we torture ourselves trying to be better? Why not admit that we’re bipedal locusts and get on with things without guilt?

This brings me to a different type of greed. I want to be a better person than I am. I want to be respectful of the earth and thoughtful about what I choose to possess. I want to leave something of natural beauty to those who follow behind me. But mostly, I want to define my life not through constant desire and greed, but through kindness and respect and an ability to sit with what I have and be at peace.

canstockphoto16214070Greed inculcates violence. Whether it be taking something by force or getting something at the expense of others or the planet, it is an inherently violent trait. We see what kind of people use greed as their defining trait – from corrupt politicians who seek power and financial gain, to narcissistic fundamentalists of any ilk who seek to make the world in their image alone – greed for a mirror’s reflection. These people poison everything around them. Many of them have poor relationships with other humans, are detached from the true wonder and beauty of the natural world, and spend their considerable talent in pursuit of more for themselves, instead of bettering the world around them.

I don’t have the luxury or the grandiosity of those extremes, but I can see how greed and want and consumerism can be damaging to those around me, to the natural world, to my own character, to the way I spend my very short life. I’m over the halfway point at best. I’ve spent 50 years on this planet trying to earn more money, to have more freedom and choices through that money. I’ve been generous with friends and family and charities. But I’ve exchanged one sort of freedom for another. I’m more complicit than I want to be in the destruction of this planet.

So the question is, how hard do I want to try? This choice, this evaluation, is a luxury in itself. If you’re just getting by, you don’t spend a lot of time sourcing where your stuff comes from. You don’t weigh getting the $2 versus the $8 light bulb. But here I am, with the choices I’ve worked my whole life to have, in a system that rewards me for making greedy choices. It doesn’t let me off the hook to say it won’t make a difference. If I have the power and luxury of choices, I’m responsible for making better ones, even if they may not save the world.

Me Versus Nature

Spoiler Alert: Nature wins.

The Pale Murderer Cometh

Now that spring has arrived, I’m faced with an age-old question. What am I going to canstockphoto11157518murder this year? Thus far, six house spiders, two house centipedes, eight ants, an errant box elder bug, and just five minutes ago, a carpenter ant who decided startling the shit out of me by crawling on my keyboard was a good plan. It wasn’t.

I am a very conflicted person when it comes to creatures. I research the creatures I come across. I don’t know, I guess I try to understand them in the hopes I won’t shriek die, die, die while hitting them with the broom. House centipedes are fantastic hunters – they eat spiders. As much as I’d like to remember that, when I see one of them slither their way across the wall, my primal instinct takes over. Maybe at some point in human history that instinct was “Yum, snack”, but I tend to believe even cavemen pulverized those things with clubs while grunting orf, orf, orf (translation: die, die, die).

Furred and Feathered Jerks

canstockphoto20447169The rabbits have lopped off numerous tulips, leaving a trail of colorful petals across the yard. They don’t eat the flowers. They just nip them off, as if they’re a distraction from the real num-nums, the leaves. It makes me think that the rabbits in my yard are assholes.

As soon as I filled the planters with my desperate need for color canstockphoto16122084– geraniums, impatiens, and marigolds, the pots got dug out by the squirrels who a) forgot where the hell they buried their food stores last fall and b) just like a tasty nosh of fresh root.

canstockphoto20642408The house finches have taken over the old robin’s nest we forgot to remove in the fall and now they squabble outside my study window all day long. A young cardinal has taken over a feeder, choo-choo-chooing to let everyone else know it’s mine-mine-mine. A pair of Northern Harriers set up shop in the tree next door and for hours at a time, she shrieks at him to bring her food or get on with the mating, you lout.

It’s Self-Defense!

While I enjoy riding my high horse about a yard without pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer, the downside is that I am outnumbered by the sheer quantity of creatures who would like to eat our food, live in our walls, dangle in front of our faces, snake out from under the dryer, wait for us in the shower, and in general, make us feel very uncomfortable in our living quarters. And it’s not even mosquito season yet.

canstockphoto12050597This is the first house I’ve lived in for any amount of time. Before, it was all apartments. They spray for bugs in apartments, hence the infrequency of encounters. We’ve never had our house sprayed for bugs. We’re classic DIY people who think vinegar is magic (it is, it is!) and try to follow environmental recommendations for pest control. Generally, Minnesota gets a good, cold killing season. Many of the critters are forced into retreat, marshaling their forces for the longer days of freaking out humans.

I love nature. When it’s outside. Well, not right outside. Maybe a restraining order’s distance. And I try to be respectful of life in general. There are several house spiders who reside in the corners of the kitchen. That’s fine. They eat gnats that show up when produce does. And occasionally, I talk to them. It’s when they crawl over the lip of my coffee mug that I completely lose my shit and become a serial killer.

I remember once reading about monks who walked carefully, lest they step on a creature on the ground. And I get it. I get the whole respect life, creatures have value, humans are really an invasive species thing. But critters outnumber us and if they ever develop longer life cycles, elevated thinking, and inter-species communication, we are all dead.

Your Honor, I’d like to present the first (and possibly only) piece of evidence for the Defense:canstockphoto7083768

Our client could have only reacted the way she did, in self-defense.

Your honor? Your honor?

But that was evidence sir! Why are you shrieking?

Judge: Excuse my outburst. Bailiff, please get an evidence bag for my gavel.

The Defense rests its case.

Searching for Moral Imagination

canstockphoto9973547.jpgI spent part of Earth Day last Friday at a lecture given by Terry Tempest Williams. She was not a natural speaker and began by saying that she was nervous. At first, I felt a little impatient, trying to understand her flow and taking notes of various names she mentioned. She continued to speak haltingly, but something else happened. I was moved by her sincerity and her passion for our wild spaces.

I’ve always been environmentally aware, doing the simple things like not treating our yard with chemicals, growing produce organically, recycling. We gave up two cars and now drive a hybrid. We inconsistently try to be better humans. Her lecture really shook me up, though. What we miss in all this picayune environmentalism, is the bigger picture. We are distracted by the minutiae when all around us, companies (complicit with our consumerism and population growth) are polluting the air and water and destroying the land, acre by acre.

canstockphoto17612177.jpgMs. Williams talked about fueling moral imagination. I’ve been thinking about those words over the last few days. I’ve always believed in human ingenuity, growing up in a time of vaccines, exploding technology and a media that churns out daily new stories about this invention or that. It seems like we could really solve some of these problems.

Being change, rather than just wanting it, is overwhelming these days. I am not a mover and shaker. I am an unpublished writer, having crept my way from poverty into the middle class. The sense of not belonging, of always waiting for the other shoe to drop, has me holding my breath constantly. The problem with holding one’s breath, biding one’s time, expecting the worst, while hoping for the best, is that it becomes about place holding, feeling victory in the status quo.

canstockphoto20070383With news of the world and politics always at boiling temperature these days, one feels lucky just to have a job and health insurance and to not fall into a random sinkhole while walking down the street. You feel lucky if you get through the day not getting shot or being diagnosed with a fatal disease. Holding your breath and sighing as you sink into bed at night.

What I heard when Terry Tempest Williams spoke, was this: I am afraid, but there are bigger things than fear.

Some people seem like seers. They take the long view early on in their lives and they stick to the path. I have never found that path. I am a product of unrealized opportunities and ideas. I am a product of the information age – never sure that I have enough information to make informed commitments to causes. We watch heroes fall and causes become corrupt with self-importance. What is there to believe in, that won’t be wrong tomorrow?

canstockphoto5925912Whenever I go through checkout lines, I like to think about aliens perusing our magazines. Maybe they have. Maybe it was this that keeps them hidden. We are apparently a species intent on making money, high fat foods and having indiscriminate sex, but only for the six-packed and large-breasted among us. Our royalty is comprised of pimply 17-year-olds who sing falsetto and Amazon women with eyelashes which weigh slightly less than their entire body.

Yes, I’m the old broad out on her front lawn shaking her fist at popular culture and the dearth of ethics it espouses. We are saturated with inanities and Tweets and consumerism. I’m not immune, nor an innocent in all this. I am a privileged bystander, able to stand a little apart. Enough distance to mock and criticize and get up on my soapbox and my high horse, but close enough to enjoy the spectacle.

Ms. Williams did not entertain me with polished words and slick salesmanship. She cut through it all and gouged into my self-satisfaction. I lack courage of conviction and moral imagination and the right to feel smug about anything at all. I’ve felt the weight of that this week – the sense that my life is so small and that I’ve wasted much of it just trying to stay afloat.

Perhaps there’s a certain recklessness of youth that comes around again in middle age. A second chance to be passionate and outspoken. An opportunity to decide what matters to you and pursue it with abandon. Like novels, our lives have emerging themes – the things that we think are important, show up again and again.

canstockphoto9307772.jpgShe spoke of her friend and fellow conservationist, Doug Peacock. When the battle was being lost to have the wolverine listed as endangered by the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service, he said “You lose nothing by loving”. To me, this is such a simple, but profound statement. You lose nothing by loving.

I think about the shadow of perfectionism that follows me. I tend to embark on sure things. As a writer, this has been crippling. As a human, this has stunted my full potential. Any human who is successful, truly realized, is someone who has failed repeatedly. They believe that they have nothing to lose in loving, whether it be the land or animals or their art or other humans.

canstockphoto5614534.jpgThere should be a happy ending here, like I’ve decided to abandon my suburban life to live in the wilderness or camp on the steps of Congress; that I’ve somehow realized what it is that calls to me. Instead, I sit here uneasily, feeling a subtle shift in my perspective that will either help me find what fuels me, what fuels my imagination or it will leave me in the desolate land between watching and acting.

Environmental and Conservation Writing:

At the end of her lecture, Ms. Williams stood stock still at the podium while Max Richter’s re-composition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played over the speakers. If you’re a Vivaldi purist, this might not be your cup of tea, but I enjoyed it: