I’ve had environmentalism on my mind. For an MFA program I did not get into, I wrote a paper examining the clothing designed in 2005 for “the future” through a retrofuturism lens. Specifically, I got a bit of a chuckle at the GenX designers’ blindness on climate change action—all of their designs were about protecting the skin and lungs, as if climate change were out of their hands. As I read Thoreau’s Walking for a class, I tried to pay attention to his thoughts on environmental preservation and action. I am a believer in action, and I easily harbor resentments for inaction, a character defect I have not asked my higher power to remove. (Mostly resenting the lack of live blue jay cams now that the tweagle has flown off; just watching baby horned owls and sleeping flying foxes these days.)
One of the reasons I have always liked Thoreau’s world is that in it, we, humans, are not the custodians of nature. When you walk into Thoreau’s woods, you live in and among nature. I have never considered what Thoreau believed nature thinks of us, but if I could sit with him and Rilke for the conversation, I would contribute: “Nature gives us what we give it, and I am looking forward to giving it my body.” Then, “Henry,” I would say, “In the 21st century, separate but equal is over! We cannot partition off some sections of the land for preservation while neglecting and even exploiting others.”
In all I have read of Thoreau (I am no scholar on him), his world view—that Mother Nature is “vast, howling, savage” but also just “lying” around us until we are forced out of Her and into Human Society—is absent of the interconnectedness of man and nature. From nature we emerge, and to return is an act of transgression against society, and to preserve nature is an act of social progress, but there is no oneness with nature. My history of science is weak for Thoreau’s era, but I wonder if he ever felt the excitement I felt when I learned humans were animals, mammals even!
Despite all I have written this semester about being a work-hating, pot-smoking, grump-ass who just wants to sit on the beach all the time, I have very strong feelings about walking in nature. The highlight of my life is my evening walk around the condos with my wonderful husband and our little dog. While wonderful husband and little dog investigate the bushes, I follow them with a long arm trash picker I use to collect litter that I drop in a recycled cat litter bucket. The act of making nature better gives me that feeling that I never get from Thoreau’s work; I give to nature my work, and nature gives me a beautiful view.
To say picking up trash is a ritual seems to imbue it with magic and specialness I am not convinced it has. From Planet Diane, it is a compulsion. When my husband says he is not coming for the evening walk (thereby leaving me to watch little dog), and I do not get to pick up trash, the highlight of my life becomes work and I want nothing to do with it. As a matter of fact, I could stand never going on a walk without picking up trash again!
Second, to no one’s surprise, I have personal issues with rituals. Here I speak to you from beside my higher power, from above—be warned of using rituals to construct your life and be warned of becoming a slave to your rituals. Or if your rituals do define you or enslave you, know that you can be free.
My plan for my walk was to pick up trash and think about rituals. Coming out of a long period of physical illness preceded by a structured life, I am discovering that recovery is not a miracle that happens one day and then you return to who you were before. Accepting that I can no longer fulfill my former rituals has set me free of them (that’s step 1, by the way) and set me free of the abuse I have imposed on myself for my body’s inability to fulfill them (that’s step 3).
“I came to this course wondering if I had a spirit,” I grumbled as I trash picked. I am still unsure. “Does it matter if I call my life ‘a 24-hour ritual’ or ‘highly-structured’ even? These are other people’s boxes that I am trying to fit in.” My conditions force me to live with a routine and my conditions certainly enslave me, but “without a choice in my rituals, at least I can no longer abuse myself with them.”
“Am I living too much of my life on autopilot?” I wonder. “It doesn’t matter because living this routine brings me absolute sanity.” Sanity, I remember, is the opposite of what my rituals brought me before I got sick, and somehow a wave of cool pools inside me. Desperate for something to write, I made a mental list titled Things I Do by Routine to Make Life Easier. 1. Make the coffee at night so it is ready the moment I wake, 2. Put the Roomba on a preprogrammed schedule, 3. Take my psyllium fiber three times a day, and so on.
And then, out of nowhere, everyone, I felt satisfied, which is saying a lot for grouch me. I can see how a hopeful person would construct special meaning out of such satisfaction from such small acts! By liberating myself from the chores of life, especially the chores I disguised as goals, I am free, but by keeping my rituals/routines reasonable, Karol is right, your mind is liberated to do its thing. Wandering from the topic at hand, I wondered what the right analogy was for minding my Muses as the story of Diane minding anyone seems like something horrible I could write late in my life. I yelled at my wonderful husband, “Babe, just 27 more years until we can retire.” I am going to do so much trash picking someday.
Making our way back to Building 2, I hold up my bucket and announce, “I picked up an entire bucket tonight.” I am outwardly proud of myself and inwardly disgusted with my litterbug neighbors. I looked forward to the next walk and to picking up trash and listening while my mind wondered. The best part is when you pick up tiny squares of mowed cardboard and somehow, as your eyes tunnel forward, the mind lifts up into the space inside your head.