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.


What anchors you?

I got to thinking this morning about spiritual anchors — the rituals, practices, icons, symbols and more that help to bring us back to ourselves and our beliefs. These anchors are particularly important in times of crisis and confusion, as they offer reassurance and stability in the midst of chaos. In times of celebration, they are reminders of the paths we have chosen and can even help magnify and focus our joy.

Many people find such anchors in nature, though they may not think of them in spiritual terms. For some, the dry air and harsh beauty of the desert hearken back to the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the patriarch Abraham — common father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — as he left behind what was familiar and safe in his native Ur and headed out into the desert wilderness, following the voice of this new God who called him.

For others, the vistas found on mountaintops offer a more detached perspective on life and the world, allowing us to view our problems and concerns from a more removed place and underscoring the impermanence of life stressed in Hinduism and Buddhism.

For me, it’s trees. Plain and simple. It can be a single tree or a whole forest. The deep roots speak to me of my interest in genealogy and my need for real grounding in life. Part of my attraction to Judaism is the long history of thousands of years of tradition and of grappling with complex questions of living and faith. But trees also reach far away from their roots — in the entirely opposite direction, stretching up to great heights in the sky. But you couldn’t have one without the other: The roots stabilize and nurture the tree as it reaches ever upward, and it is this growth that balances the extensive root network stretching deep and wide within the earth.

Trees also clean the air, converting carbon dioxide to oxygen — taking a waste product and turning it into one of life’s necessities, and creating what I find to be a very tranquil environment in the process. I feel easily at peace in the presence of trees, and I imagine at least part of this comes from the increased oxygen in their immediate vicinity.

I also love the way trees stand tall and strong. They’re not running around trying to deal with the dramatic crises of every day living. But they’re always there, standing vigil and even serving as witnesses to history (as evidenced in their growth rings).

So when I’m feeling unmoored or scattered, all I have to do is go hang out with some trees for a while. I soon find myself feeling grounded, more relaxed and ready to face life from a more centered place.

What anchors you? Do you head out into nature when you’re feeling stressed or uncertain? What element or place — an herb garden, running stream, rock quarry or field of wildflowers — draws you in?

Dust to dust: green burials

An interfaith gathering in the United Kingdom on May 15 helped dedicate the country’s largest woodland burial park.

Green burials — ranging from simply foregoing embalming to home funerals, woodland burials and sea reef memorials — are becoming increasingly popular, with good reason. To start with, embalming uses chemicals that pose health risks to morticians and which can seep into ground water, and the casket industry uses a tremendous amount of lumber, copper and other metals every year.

Much as many of us struggle against it, death is a natural part of life. No amount of body preservation, concrete grave liners or casket grandeur can change that. So why not release the remains to the natural process of decay?

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as the text of the Book of Common Prayer goes.

I’m heartened to read about the Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Humanists and Pagans who gathered together to dedicate Chilterns Woodland Burial Park, and to honor death as a very natural — and necessary — part of life. We have similar properties here in the U.S. in California, Texas, South Carolina, Washington, New York and Florida, with additional sites planned in other states. It will likely be several generations yet before green burials are more mainstream, but at least we’re headed in the right direction.

spirit and movement

We are a part of the world around us. Our physical bodies ground us and ensure our place in our own ecosystem. But with so many distractions, conveniences and demands on our time and attention, it’s too easy to fall into ignoring our bodies — one of my bad habits has been vegging out on the couch with the television on when I’m feeling tired, instead of reaching for a book or just going to bed.

Moving my body — through play and exercise — is the best way for me to reconnect with my physical self. After that, paying attention to nutritional needs and rest comes naturally.

Spirituality and physical movement have long gone hand-in-hand: Yoga, sufi dancing, moving through postures during prayer, mudras, zaars and guedras.

A few rounds of sun salutations or a run through the neighborhood can be a great way to greet the sun first thing in the morning. For me, going for a hike in the late afternoon or early evening or doing some belly dancing helps me to disengage from the heavily mental work of the day and get back in touch with my body.

Whenever I’m feeling spiritually disconnected or ungrounded, I can usually get back into gear by engaging my body in my practice — like the meditation rocks I blogged about earlier. Sitting outside for meditation, with the grass beneath me, the sun on my face and a gentle breeze on my skin is an excellent remedy for feeling out of sorts. Even a short walk around the neighborhood or sitting on a bench watching the ducks and geese on the water can go a long way toward restoring serenity and balance.

Yesterday, I reconnected by hiking through Forest Park with my husky. Breathing in the clean air and enjoying the tall pines, sequoias and other greenery while pushing my body — and getting pulled up and down hills by my sled dog — had a big smile on my face within minutes.

What are the activities that help you reconnect and tune in?

Eco-kosher and ethical eating

There’s more to keeping kosher than simply avoiding bacon or not mixing meat with dairy products. There are laws about what kinds of animals can be consumed, and strict requirements on their slaughter. There are rules about the baking, freezing and other preparation of foods.

Some Jews — and non-Jews — keep kosher, others don’t. Some pick and choose the kosher laws that they will follow — based on convenience, practicality or simply what makes sense to them — and other people follow kashrut to the letter.

But now there’s a new twist on kosher that brings sustainability into the picture.

I’ve recently found this article in the Los Angeles Times about going “eco-kosher” and walking the talk when it comes to Judaism’s obligation to protect the earth.

Ethical eating isn’t restricted to Judaism. Buddhism and Hinduism espouse vegetarianism as an act of compassion. But this goes further than that. It’s about knowing where our food comes from. Do you know who grew that apple your kids had for a snack this afternoon? Have you met the dairy farmer who milked the cow to make the cheese on top of the pizza you had for dinner?

Meditation rocks

In 1992, a Native American shaman recommended that I gather several pounds of stones and put them into a bag — and then hold this bag in my lap when I meditated. This was to ground me — literally — and to help get me out of my head and into my body, to more consciously and deeply feel my connection to the Earth.

It was a great suggestion, and not just because I went overboard with it. The shaman had suggested I collect about five or six pounds of stones. Instead, I gathered close to twenty pounds of river rocks into a pillow case, and meditated with them in my lap for several years.

I’m not quite sure when I fell out of that habit, but I gradually started meditating without my bag of rocks — and after a while just stopped meditating. I’ve made numerous attempts since then to get back into regular practice. Looking back, I see that the only times I really got back into a routine meditation practice for any length of time was when stones were involved.

For example, I made myself a string of prayer beads in 2000. I went to Bangles and Beads in Carytown (Richmond, Virginia) for fifty-four labradorite beads and one carved jade bead to act as the guru bead. I spent several hours stringing the beads, knotting the silk cord between each one. After the guru bead went on, I attached a silver charm — an ankh — instead of a tassel.

(To learn more about stringing prayer beads, read Bead Here Now, which I wrote for Spirituality & Health.)

Meditating with that mala in my hands — whether counting the beads in mantra repetition or just feeling the cool, smooth weight of the beads against my skin — always sets me straight. But I sometimes get out of the habit of reaching for them.

In recent weeks, I’ve noticed that I’ve wanted turquoise or other polished stone in my hands when I sit in meditation. But that wasn’t enough. I knew what I needed.

I took an old purse over to my boyfriend’s house, and I collected about ten pounds of river rocks.

If you want to meditate on the planet and on the environment, I don’t know any better way to get in touch with the Earth than to literally have a piece of it with you. Rocks are older than we are, and these same stones that aid my meditation now will be around long after I’m gone. But for the time being, they are my partners in prayer, my companions of contemplation — and probably some other keen turns of alliterative phrase, too.

To be really hokey…. Meditation rocks with my meditation rocks. 😉

Clean air and the breath of creation

As part of my Jewish conversion process — and also out of my own curiosity — I recently read Arthur Green’s “Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow.” There’s a great deal of food for thought in these pages — including an entire chapter on “Kabbalah for an Environmental Age.” One passage in particular that struck me was:

The main Hebrew term for “soul” is neshamah, actually meaning “breath.” When the Torah depicts God blowing the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils (Gen. 2:7), Adam becomes a “living being,” a bearer of soul. Our soul comes into being in the moment when God breathes life into us. That moment, we come to understand, is every moment. God is constantly blowing the breath of life into us. We are being created anew, reborn, in each moment.

Naturally, this got me to thinking about air quality. It’s just the way my mind works sometimes.

When reading Green’s text, I started to consider each breath we take in as an individual renewed act of creation. Even Eastern meditative practices focus keenly on the breath, postulating that the space between breaths is where God lives.

But living in a world of dirty and unclean air necessarily cuts us off from the Universe or the Divine — or whatever word you choose to use — and this is a separation entirely of our own making. We have polluted our skies with smoke stacks, coal burning, aerosols, vehicle emissions, and even with our efforts to reduce this assault on our environment, we’re still causing more problems than we’re solving.

Concerns and controversies about global warming and climate change aside, the continued pollution of air and waters is one byproduct of modern living that I simply can’t get my mind around. More specifically, I don’t understand how we tolerate practices — both personal and industrial — that poison the very air we breathe and the oceans, rivers, lakes and rain on which all life depends.

It reminds me of a conversation I had about 15 or 20 years ago with a friend about the AIDS virus. My friend called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) an “immature” virus, because it kills its host, and ultimately itself (within the confines of that particular host). Looking at our continued pollution levels, I’m beginning to wonder if human beings aren’t an immature species — destroying the very environment we need in order to survive, and therefore destroying ourselves.

There are some immediate, personal remedies for this. A simple one is walking to the coffee shop (where I now sit) instead of driving, and stopping on my way back in the grove of trees that stand at the entrance to my community. These small actions won’t correct the massively higher levels of industrial pollution, but any reduction — any constructive change — is a step in the right direction.

For me, standing among old-growth trees — particularly towering evergreens — and breathing in crisp, clean air is a highly spiritual experience. There’s no major epiphany, no life-altering religious conversion like Saul on the road to Damascus. But spending some time in the midst of these natural air filters is a great reminder of what clean air can and should feel like in my lungs.

And perhaps with every inhalation of clean air, I am in the present moment renewing creation itself, one breath at a time.