Eco-Diwali

Diwali is the festival of lights in the Hindu calendar, falling on 28 October this year. Homes are prepared to welcome Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Abundance, and enthusiastic celebrations are planned, including fireworks and lots of lights to brighten the home.

In recent years, however, concerns have been raised about the environmental impact of this traditionally very happy holiday. Firecrackers cause air and noise pollution, with the remnants of the pyrotechnics littering streets and waterways, and turning on — and leaving on — every light in the house is a big energy drain.

There are also worries that the tendency to spend during the holiday — after all, what better way to celebrate abundance than through consumer purchases? — encourages wasteful buying and counteracts efforts to reuse and repurpose.

Some groups are recommending the use of oil lamps instead of electric lights during the festival, and suggest donations of goods like clothing to those who are less fortunate as a means of celebrating prosperity. More information about observing an “environmentally safe” holiday is available on The Diwali Festival website.

As we slip into the darker months of the year, there are many religious traditions celebrating festivals of light, providing no small measure of psychological comfort as the harvest comes to a close and winter settles in. Historically, this is a time when people took stock of their stores and provisions and started rationing out supplies to ensure survival until the spring.

It’s actually a perfect time for celebrating abundance and for gratitude for what has been reaped. The seeds we’ve sown in the spring have come to full fruition, and we might even plant a winter garden at this time to enjoy root vegetables like carrots and hardy greens like collards and escarole through the colder months.

Abundance isn’t always just about what’s in our pocketbooks — a lesson I’m afraid more of us are having forced on us these days — and celebrations need not focus on material wealth. Why not celebrate the abundance of love and friendship in our lives? Diwali is a wonderful time to note the natural resources we still have available to us — here in the Northwest, that’s going to mean evergreen trees and a lot of rain.

It’s an opportunity to remember that responsible stewardship goes hand in hand with abundance. Just as there would be no harvest in the fall without planning and planting in the spring, we could easily lose our clean water and clean air tomorrow without careful attention to our habits today.

As Diwali rolls around each year, we can celebrate an increase in our natural resources by making eco-conscious choices from one year to the next. So let the oil lamps burn — in moderation — and let them light the way not only for the Goddess Lakshmi to bless our homes, but also for “green” inspiration to touch our minds and hearts so that every Diwali festival is an honest celebration of the Earth’s abundance resources, rather than becoming a sad reminder of how much we have lost.

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Sukkah shelters

We’ve just passed the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, when many Jews construct a sukkah — “hut” or “booth” — reminiscent of the shelters in which the ancient Hebrews dwelt during their 40 years of wandering in the desert following their flight from Egypt.

Some Jews will spend the entire week-long Sukkot observance living inside the sukkah, while others will only take meals or entertain guests within the hut’s walls.

I love the fact that it gets people outside.

In the twenty-first century, particularly in developed countries, we spend way too much time indoors. The elements beyond the four walls in which we live and work too often become something to be endured on the way to and from the car. We might garden, go hiking or barbecue outdoors on weekends, but how much time do we really spend outside on a daily basis?

I once asked a rabbi why anyone would want to celebrate 40 years of wandering in the desert. That didn’t sound like a good time to me. His response was along the lines of commemorating the exodus from Egypt and re-experiencing the journey that is often required between enslavement and real freedom and self-determination.

I’ve come to look at the holiday more as an opportunity to reconnect with ancient roots — Jewish or otherwise — hearkening back to a time when people truly lived with and on the land, whether in agricultural communities or as nomadic bands seeking a “promised land.”

There are special requirements to be met in constructing the sukkah, dictating shape, dimensions, materials and so forth, but I’ve always been fascinated by the roof, which must be made of organic material that is not attached to the ground — so no living tree branches — and which must be open enough that the stars are visible at night from inside the sukkah.

This means that even while taking refuge within the sukkah, we’re never truly cut off from the skies above. Many still refer to the night sky as “the Heavens” and will look upward when praying or rejoicing. It’s natural to gaze through the small window of our atmosphere to the vast universe beyond, and have that as our means of connecting with forces larger than ourselves. Plus, I imagine it’s rather romantic and even a bit mystical to muse and slumber in the sukkah, with starlight above filtered through palm fronds.

Admittedly, I’ve not yet built my own sukkah. I doubt my HOA would appreciate a plywood hut sitting on the lawn for seven days. I’m reminded of A.J. Jacobs, who in his book, “The Year of Living Biblically,” had difficulty finding a location where he’d be allowed to construct his sukkah, and so instead set it up in the living room of his New York City apartment. So instead of stars, I imagine he got a great view of ceiling plaster.

But the sukkah’s permeable roof also means exposure to the elements, even though limited. Again, this would be a hard sell here in Oregon, where the weather turns chilly and wet around this time of year. But isn’t that the point? Exposure to the elements is a good reminder that human beings are a part of a larger natural world over which we have no real control.

Sukkot — as well as extended camping trips and other outdoor activities — brings us face to face with the fact that living at odds with the environment simply doesn’t work. We can’t stop the rain. We can’t stop the cold, or the heat. Thinking and living otherwise puts us in real danger. Survival is dependent upon living in harmony with the natural world — understanding and respecting our environment, rather than behaving as though we are its master.

Loving More With Less

Several years ago, I was involved in a book study of Glenda Green’s “Love Without End.” Somehow the topic came around to clearing out household clutter and re-homing items we no longer wanted or needed.

That’s when our reading group leader, Deborah, passed along some wisdom that had helped her:

Never own more than you can love.

That really struck me. I’d never thought before about loving all of my possessions. Sure, there were clothing items I adored, a warm blanket my grandmother had made, an old saucepan that reminded me of my father, things like that. But I can’t say that I loved my salt shaker or my bathroom towels.

I’m in a constant battle with owning more than I can love. I suppose I am a bit of a pack rat, and I’m also the recipient of some less-than-ideal gift choices, which then I can’t get rid of because I’d just feel too guilty. So I have a silver pasta server that my step-mother’s mother gave me — even though I never use any silver service — and a lovely collection of antique doilies and handkerchiefs sitting unused, and growing in number, in a drawer.

I’m also apparently a magnet for books. Before I relocated cross-country, I got rid of nearly 2/3 of my large book collection, and it hasn’t taken me long to grow it back again. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I’ve had every intention of reading every one of those titles, at one point or another, though it’s more likely I’ll never get around to all of them.

At least I’m not paying for storage space somewhere. I no longer have an attic or basement to fill up with excess items, and my garage is pretty much clutter free, so I must be getting better about this.

Yet I’m reading here today — in “365 Ways to Live Green” — about reducing the need for facilities and other new construction.

In this endless pursuit of “Bigger! Better! Faster!” we’re often crowding ourselves right out of our homes. We think we need a bigger TV to watch bigger, more exciting programming. But then the room is too small, so we get a new room, in a new home. But then the TV is too small. To keep up with the demand, new factories have to be built to make the TVs — or these days, with most electronics being manufactured overseas, it’s more about building bigger warehouses and stores — and more (and bigger) new homes keep going up.

It’s a spiral of increasing consumption that only stops when we say, “Enough!” and choose to do something about it.

(By the way, there’s no chance we’re experiencing such a population boom so as to justify the rate of new housing and commercial construction. Older buildings are instead being abandoned in this pursuit of bigger and new construction, with fields being cleared, trees felled and wildlife chased away. The environment is paying for our insatiable expansion, but that’s another discussion.)

I’m looking around my space here, realizing it’s time for some more de-cluttering. It’s pretty much always time for de-cluttering, to be honest. How much do I really need to live comfortably, and to get my work done efficiently? I don’t know that I’ll ever get down to the point of deciding whether or not I truly love each and every one of my pillowcases or highlighter pens, but that idea of honestly gauging whether or not something is going to be cherished and utilized in my home has helped me to release at least some of what I don’t really want or need.

If we stopped amassing so many possessions, we might become more satisfied with what we already have. We would no longer be slaves to our own materialistic hungers, and we might be able to begin to slow down the damaging expansion, perhaps looking to retool the facilities and infrastructure that already exist rather than continuing our constant craving for more.

We’d have less to keep track of, less to repair and maintain — but more attention to give, and more love to share.

Green Atonement

The Days of Awe — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days in between — give us an annual opportunity to examine our words, actions and intentions of the previous year, and to make amends for any wrongs we have committed — to ensure that our names are written and sealed into the Book of Life on Yom Kippur, to begin the new year with a clean slate.

Green geek that I am, I decided instead to spend these ten days looking at some of the ways I’ve failed my planet in the past 12 months.

* I’ve gotten lax about taking canvas bags with me to the store. Sure, those plastic grocery bags come in handy when walking the dog, but many of them are torn after carrying food and so cannot be repurposed.

* Several times when I’ve found a jar of ancient pickles or old spaghetti sauce at the back of the refrigerator, I threw it out instead of emptying the jar into the trash (no garbage disposal) and then recycling the glass.

* I didn’t bring my worm composting bin inside soon enough when the summer weather turned hot. Most of the worms died. Same goes for my potted herb garden, which got burnt up in the sun.

* I’ve thrown away several used printer cartridges instead of saving them for recycling. My dog likes to eat them, and I don’t want her ingesting plastic or ink. But instead of finding a safe place for storage, I’ve chucked some of them instead.

* Putting out food for two stray cats is attracting raccoons and possums into my courtyard and is messing with the wetland ecosystem my neighborhood occupies.

Yes, I only buy compact fluorescent light bulbs, recycle my newspapers and magazines, and use both sides of the paper when printing. I often choose to walk or take mass transit instead of driving, and I don’t let the water run when washing my hands. But some mornings I cringe to discover I’ve left a fan or external hard drive running overnight in my office. I know I can do better.

My boyfriend laughs at my assortment of decorative ribbons, which had adorned gifts but now collect dust on a bookcase. The ribbons are still good, so I won’t throw them away, but the pieces are too short to be useful. I’m trying to be a good steward, and find myself in nearly constant conflict.

Maybe “green guilt” will soon become a speciality of psychotherapists. I have collections of damaged-but-repairable items I no longer want — like a leather belt with a worn-through notch — but which I can’t seem to rehome. No one on Freecycle or Craigslist wants this stuff. If I give it to Goodwill, it will just end up in the trash. So it continues to clutter my space instead.

Part of my green atonement needs to be about balance, so that I can enjoy my life and my home while still being part of the environmental solution.

Thinking globally and acting locally isn’t always easy. It’s a lot less painful, say, to buy a handful of carbon offsets for an upcoming trip or to munch on an organic bean burger at an Earth Day festival, than it is to pay closer attention to our mundane habits — even when it’s precisely those little every day decisions that make the biggest difference. Or so the green advocates keep saying.

As Yom Kippur approaches, I’m wondering how to make amends to the Earth, with more consistent actions that are small, uneventful and immediate. On the Day of Atonement itself, I can fast in recognition of dwindling global resources and wear white in hopeful honor of a cleaner planet. Moving forward, I can shop more often at local farmers markets. I can be more vigilant about making my own green cleaning products. I can set up a secure container for recycling printer cartridges.

And I can take a breath and forgive myself when I stumble. I am an eco-conscious yet imperfect human, and I’m afraid the Earth and I are both going to have to live with that. To me, that’s one of the most reassuring and inspiring messages of the High Holy Days: that we can make mistakes and make amends, and then we can try again.

I just hope global warming is as forgiving.