Taking a cue from a good friend, I decided to start the day by drawing a Tarot card — something I’ve not done in ages, but that’s another discussion.

I was hoping for something light and airy, inspirational. A card that would stimulate my creativity and help me launch into a particularly productive and joyful week. But that’s not the card I drew. Instead, the card that came into my hands was Judgement (20).

Yeah, I never have been one to start with the easy stuff.

The Judgment card is about a day of reckoning. It speaks to self-judgment, and how our own real freedom comes from the choice we make to forgive ourselves. This is a card about making difficult choices, about how we meet the challenges and opportunities that come our way, and about the Final Judgment of our lives as a whole — how we have chosen to use our time here on Earth.

So what does a Tarot card have to do with living a sustainable life?

There are times that I don’t know how to start a project and so I end up wasting a lot of time considering each possible approach from every angle — not actually trying any of these, but just examining them. I’ve spent too much of my life being afraid of “doing it wrong” or making a mistake or unintentionally offending someone, and I’ve often missed out on real living. This includes my efforts to bring myself into greater harmony and better symbiosis with the planet I’m living on.

I get overwhelmed with choices. If I sign up for renewable energy through Portland General Electric, what does that really mean? Aren’t they still burning coal to generate most of their electricity? Is it a scam, or does it make a positive difference? Or should I build a small electric generator with an exercise bike, and then run my laptop computer and printer off a car battery that I can charge up? Am I really using the best power strips to help conserve electrical usage? Mine are kind of old, but should I replace something that still works, even if a better model exists?

And so on. I spend way too much time worrying about making the wrong choice, both in environmental terms and in life in general. With so many questions and concerns competing for attention, it’s easy to get exhausted just considering the possibilities, and then not have any energy left over to actually do anything about them. The result is that I don’t make as many changes or as much progress as I can, and then I judge myself — often rather harshly — for not doing better.

The Jewish High Holidays are fast approaching. Last year, I wrote about making Yom Kippur a day of “green atonement,” of recognizing where I’d failed the environment during the previous year, and deciding how I could do better over the next twelve months. I’ve not completely failed in my efforts to be a better “eco citizen,” but I don’t know that I’m a shining example of hope and inspiration either.

The good news is that each new year — and every new day — brings another opportunity to try again, not only to try to do better in my relationship with and my impact on the environment, but also to lighten up on the self-judgment so I don’t end up paralyzing myself into inaction and futility.

And if I decide to take another shot at drawing a morning Tarot card tomorrow, maybe I’ll get one that’s a bit gentler and more cheerful.


Conservation wisdom of my grandmothers

I was at dinner last night with Mike. When our waiter brought us two styrofoam boxes to pack up our leftovers, I could have kicked myself.

“If I’d just remembered to bring some tupperware in my purse….” I groaned.

Mike, of course, spent the rest of the evening telling me that the polar ice caps were going to melt away to nothing because of my neglect.

“We’re all going to die,” he teased me with his sullen expression as he loaded black beans and rice into the styrofoam container. “If only you’d brought tupperware. Global warming is all your fault.”

So instead of kicking myself, I kicked him.

I honestly don’t remember if either of my grandmothers carried plastic bags or empty food containers in their purses, but it wouldn’t have surprised me. I’ve been thinking lately — especially in the midst of this global recession — about how much more we could have learned from our Depression-era grandparents about real day-to-day conservation, if we’d only been paying attention.

My grandmothers were thrifty not just with money, but with resources. Yes, this made for old bank boxes full of pieces of string that were too short to be immediately useful but too long to simply throw away, and for cabinets dedicated to the collection of paper bags.

But it also meant that newspapers were for more than just reading in the morning — old newsprint could be used to wrap gifts, make children’s craft projects, line the kitchen table when carving pumpkins or watermelons, serve as kindling when lighting a fire, and more.

Much to my mother’s chagrin, I followed in my grandmothers’ footsteps when I was a child — and became a hopeless pack-rat. I had such difficulty throwing anything away — sun-bleached construction paper, empty glue bottles, random pieces of yarn and ribbon, the last bit of an eraser — because I was convinced that I could find a use for everything, somewhere down the road, even if I had no idea what that might look like.

Modern America worships youth culture, coveting what’s hip and new to the point that tried-and-true wisdom is stodgy and wrinkles are embarrassing and ugly. But Native American, Japanese, and other traditions place a strong emphasis on honoring ancestors, and on asking guidance from those who have come before us.

New is not always better. Hip is not always wise. What is considered must-have and cutting-edge today may make use of state-of-the-art technology and design, but a lot of it is still made of cheap plastic — destined for landfills where growing mounds of garbage compete with increasing human populations just for livable space.

So many of my grandparents’ material possessions, from appliances to pieces of clothing, were considerably more expensive — or more “dear,” as my mother’s mother would say — than today’s equivalents are for us. Sweaters and mixing bowls were treated with more care, because they were not as easily replaced. Of course, these items were also made a lot better — hardier — than goods are today, but I’m wondering what our world might look like if we didn’t treat our possessions as so temporary, replaceable, disposable.

The world might look something like what we’ve been experiencing this last year or two — where we have to hold onto our possessions longer and get more use out of them, because we don’t have as much (or sometimes any) disposable income to buy replacements. We’re being forced to learn — often painfully — that we really can be quite happy, possibly even happier, with less.

Even though I’d already learned to save used gift wrap and have at least one drawer full of reusable plastic shopping bags (they’re great as trash bags or for picking up after the dog on walks), I’m finding more ways to be even more of a conservationist, both financially and environmentally. Like using baking soda instead of commercial cleansers when scrubbing the sink and replacing other cleaning products with home-made white vinegar mixes. Watering the plants with grey-water from the sink or tub. Repurposing an old, leaky garden hose as a soaker hose that conserves water and prolongs the useful life of the rubber.

And trying to get into the habit of carrying tupperware in my purse, instead of using styrofoam.

Yes, most of what I hoarded as a child was junk — leftover bits of cheap stuff that I never did find a use for. I’m still learning how to not amass so much disposable crap to begin with, to purchase only what I truly need, to re-use and repurpose what I can, to share what I no longer have a use for and to accept others’ still usable cast-offs as well.

I can’t ask my grandmothers how they would weather the current financial and resource crisis. My mother’s mother died in 1997, and my father’s mother died this past January, just a few months shy of her 103rd birthday. But the best advice they could give is already found in the lives they lived and the lessons of conservation they taught in their every day actions.

I wish I’d been paying more attention. And so I am more mindful of my own attitudes and behaviors, knowing that young eyes of the next generation are watching me and learning from the example of my own life. I just hope I can do justice to the wisdom of my grandmothers as it passes to those who follow.