In November, we chaperoned a beach cleanup and took our kids along. We wore latex gloves and picked up trash littering our favorite walk. Claire and Grant found treasure. The sun got hot. I said to the students, Maybe just get the plastic. It was nearly all plastic. But I quit picking up cigarette butts. Justin had a different approach with his group of students. They combed the rocks like forensic detectives. They took as long to cover a hundred meters as we did four hundred. They snaked arms into crevices I avoided. We cleaned the beach. And at the end I thought, Maybe this stays nice for a couple of days before enough people have tossed bottles and left take away containers on the rocks to make it seem we hadn’t filled a dozen black trash bags. At the end, I decided I didn’t want to do that again. But since I was alone on that count and Claire and Grant had a great time finding junk to take home and turn into art, and Justin feeds on tangible outcomes (look at how many trash bags we filled!), I know I’ll be on another beach clean up within the year. Because nothing says I Hate Nature (I don’t) like sitting in a cafe waiting for your seven- and five-year-old to finish a beach cleanup. Unless you’re also drinking from a plastic capped paper cup.
So today when a friend told me her experience on beach cleanups – her kids loved it too – and commented that it was empowering to see the difference you can make, I wondered what I keep missing. My beach cleanup experience left me angry at all the stupid, horrible people who throw their rubbish wherever they want. And it left me mad at myself for my own wastefulness (oh, the buckets of junk I fill). And it left me limp against the rising swell of trash everyone and their cousin will keep dumping on the planet in general and that beach in particular. I spent two or three days writing about this in my notebook. I wanted to justify my never ever doing another beach cleanup. The main argument was that I don’t need one more (on purpose) thing to do that yields such small reward when the majority of the (on purpose and just because this is my current life) things I do also yield small rewards. Or, more often, very distant and hoped for payouts.
What I realized is that I enjoy serving at my emotional convenience. This does not go well with marriage, parenting or teaching. By grace I serve. Only by grace and a begging for love.
In the days after that beach cleanup when I was writing about garbage, I found a poetry exercise that prompted a surprise metaphor, a gift to me. I was writing about carelessness and trash and who picks it all up? And then I was writing about my dad. His mother was unkind to him when he was boy, said terrible things to him. I saw Dad as this kid that got all this trash chucked at him. And who picks it all up, years later when it’s still wedged in a crevice? This poem came from a morning that felt small and useless.
Waves Turn Over
Waves turn over all this junk we throw at faces:
plastic bottles, caps, lined food cartons, ketchup packets,
fruit and vegetable crates, bags like ghosts, tangled fishing line,
and things that aren’t plastic like a rusted carafe,
rotting food, the sole of a shoe which might be part plastic
because plastic touches everything, even our mouths.
But here waves turn and toss all this junk
for me to see a day or decade later, for me to
turn from to go back to a week or decade later.
The junk gets stuck. Cigarette butts, tobacco wrappers,
a dead cat. The junk gets stuck between rocks,
in an eddy. The junk stays for a week or decade until
someone (you or me or God) comes along, straddles the gap
between two slick boulders, bends down and fishes out
a length of rope or aluminum can. Hands get dirty. Hands
get cut. Hands get full of all this shit the Gulf throws up
A morning on the rocks, seeing ugly up close, all the junk
I don’t know until I look down. I see worms on rice and pick up
the flimsy plate and drop it in my black trash bag, pick up
and drop until my bag is full. Then I have another bag.
At the end of my morning on the rocks I hate
people for all the junk they toss out. I hate all the junk
my hands (or yours or God’s) must pick up a week or
decade later. At the end of my morning on the rocks,
I am wasted for reason to spend one more minute
looking down. Yet how else. Unless you or me or God
looks a week or decade later, how else does
this beach wash clean