Halfway Through Lent

Carton of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, a greeting card, and a package of gum

What do a carton of Ben & Jerry’s, a greeting card, and a pack of chewing gum have in common? I wish I had a funny punch line in response, but I don’t. These three objects are simply the sacrifices I didn’t anticipate when I decided to give up single-use plastic for Lent.  Today is Laetare Sunday, taken from the Latin word for “rejoice” in the entrance antiphon at today’s Mass, and we are halfway through Lent, a good time for me to take stock of my plastic challenge.

Because I’d considered this for a year, I really thought I was prepared. I had braced myself for forty days of no online shopping, knew I would have to give up flower bouquets and salads from Trader Joe’s, but the first week of Lent I bought ice cream to go with the brownies I was baking for company and didn’t notice until I opened the carton that the lid was covered with a plastic seal. A package of gum was likewise wrapped in cellophane. Later in the week when I reached into my desk drawer for one of the birthday cards I keep there, I was horrified to realize that most of them are covered in protective plastic! How had I not noticed it before?

My response to these surprises offer two options for reducing plastic use. One is to look for workarounds. For example, in Santa Cruz I can buy hand-packed pints at Marianne’s or Penny Ice Creamery, and it’s possible to find plastic-free greeting cards; I just have to be mindful about selecting them. The second option is less appealing, to do without, and that’s what I’m trying with gum. The third option is to admit defeat, and now it’s time for a confession.

When I planned for this challenge, I was relieved that my most cherished food group would not be a problem. Alter Eco chocolate bars are wrapped in foil and packaged in cardboard with the motto “enlightened indulgence,” and Dagoba cocoa, the key ingredient in my morning mocha, comes in a can. Phew. Except that like Ben & Jerry’s, that can has a tamper-proof seal. Sigh. I can and do rationalize that the piece of plastic is small and that a single can of cocoa makes about twenty servings, but it is, in fact, only one in a category of items I can’t find a hack for and am not willing to give up. Sometimes, even when I’m trying to do the right thing, I can get in trouble. Last week I contributed compostable plates, cups, and utensils for a party at work, but guess what the plates and cups were packaged in?

To compensate I have imposed my own penance. In the Lenten spirit of almsgiving, I plan to donate 50¢ to charity for every piece of plastic I put in a trashcan and 25¢ for every piece that goes in the recycling. This also helps me account for plastic I acquired before Lent and am using now.

To be fair, I also want to congratulate myself and the friends who have joined me for what we are attempting. The plastic we’re not using is invisible, but it makes a difference.

What I’ve Learned About Giving Up Plastic

It’s hard! I confess, dear reader, that right off the bat, on just the second day of Lent, I blew it. A friend and I went out for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Monterey, and neither of us finished our meal. Not wanting to waste food (that’s virtuous, right?) we accepted the waiter’s offer to box our leftovers. But before I knew it, two large plastic bags appeared on the table. 

At least the bags were “made with Post Industrial Recycled (PIR) materials and contain environmentally friendly EPI Bio-Film additives.” As encouragement, they have the words “Reusable Bag” printed in large letters across the center. If my goal is to reduce single-use plastics, I could meet it by using this as a garbage bag, but realistically, what else would I do with it? So should I have taken the food boxes out and returned the bags to the waiter? But once they’d been used, could the restaurant give them to another customer? And what about those boxes? They were cardboard, not plastic or Styrofoam, but they have a waxy coating to prevent moisture seeping through, and guess what it’s made of? More on this later, but hint: it’s not wax. (Note: I did save my bag for reuse!)

Over the last year, ever since I read about the Church of England’s Lenten challenge to give up single-use plastics, I’ve become more diligent about taking my reusable mugs, bottles, and bags with me wherever I go. I even gave my sweetheart a Soda Stream for his birthday, so we could enjoy sparkling water without having to buy and recycle bottles. As this Lent approached, though, the hard reality of life without plastic began to set in.

Text from my sister

I didn’t roll around in bubble wrap on Fat Tuesday, but in the last few weeks before Ash Wednesday, I savored fresh grapes and started to practice by giving up pre-packaged salads from Trader Joe’s and instant oatmeal cups while I contemplated the other conveniences soon to disappear from my kitchen: pre-made pie dough, microwave popcorn, Amy’s frozen pot pies … With suggestions from my sisters, I bought re-usable mesh bags for produce and learned how to make my own yogurt. Yogurt making presented a dilemma, though. The recipe calls for a half gallon of milk, but remember that waxy coating I mentioned earlier? Like the takeout boxes at the restaurant, milk cartons are coated with polyethylene. So I found milk in a glass bottle that I could return to the store, but guess what it’s sealed with? A plastic cap!

Plastic is pervasive, but the good news is that positive changes are already entering our culture. Witness the ubiquitous Kleen Kanteen, Hydro Flask, and Contigo coffee mug. At Foothill College, where I’m a librarian, drinking fountains are equipped with bottle filling stations, and the coffee kiosks and cafeteria stopped selling bottled water two years ago. (Students, by the way drove this change!) Many California cities, including Santa Cruz, have banned Styrofoam from food service and require that all food takeout containers be compostable or recyclable. In response to a Greenpeace petition, Trader Joe’s is phasing out single-use plastics. Will Field Fresh Chopped Salad with Grilled Chicken return to my lunch bag one day?

water fountain with bottle filling station on cliffs overlooking ocean
Water fountain on West Cliff Drive

Wondering how you can join this bandwagon? Reduce, reuse, recyle is the mantra here. With appreciation to the Church of England, here are some specific tips:

  • Treat yourself to a travel mug and a water bottle. (Then remember to take them with you!) Bonus points if you also get a metal or bamboo straw.
  • Bring your own shopping bags, and consider buying reusable mesh bags for produce.
  • Shop at the farmer’s market.
  • Get acquainted with the bulk bins at your health food store.
  • Avoid processed foods.
  • Join a local food co-op or CSA (community supported agriculture). In Santa Cruz, the Live Earth Farm CSA uses no plastic in their weekly boxes of fresh organic produce. 
  • Rinse and re-use ziplock bags.
  • Planning a picnic, party, or potluck? Consider compostable plates and utensils. Bonus points, though, if you can figure out a way to use real dishes!

Of course, only consider practices that you can afford and have time for. Dwelling in the Kingdom of Enough means caring for our common home, but also living your life in a way that’s sustainable for you.

To circle back to the story at the beginning, picture me at an elegant restaurant on Cannery Row. Would it be embarrassing to pull a reusable plastic container out of my purse when the waiter asks if he can box my leftovers? What do you think? When it comes to food and drink in general, how do you avoid single-use plastics? Please comment!

Plastic Challenge

Would you ever knowingly swallow plastic? Yet the North Pacific Gyre is swirling with plastic from all over the globe, a garbage patch three times the size of France. Fish and birds ingest it, and so, eventually, do we. Off the Carmel coast the sea floor is white, thick with thousands of golf balls.

These plastic pieces were found in the stomach of a Laysan albatross chick on Midway Island. From an exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

When I was a girl, Aunt Ellen’s blueberry muffins were a special treat. Now blueberries are a year-round staple in my diet, piled on top of yogurt or nibbled mindlessly as a midmorning snack. So healthy, so delicious! But whether organic or conventional, sold in plastic.

My neighbor Dick jokes that if you walk down the street in Santa Cruz, you must be accompanied by a dog on leash, talking on the phone, and/or carrying a cup of coffee; otherwise you risk getting a ticket. Usually the cup in hand is paper with a plastic lid. Of course, you’re probably like me and bring your own cup with you to the coffee shop, but here’s a confession: at work my breakfast is Bob’s Red Mill organic oatmeal in a “convenient on-the-go cup” with plastic film over the top, and lunch is often a prepackaged salad from Trader Joe’s. For years I virtuously recycled those clamshell containers, but a few months ago I learned that, in Santa Cruz anyway, they are not recyclable.

Living in the Netherlands back in the 90s, I got in the habit of taking my own shopping bag to the grocery store, but too often when I order takeout, I forget to say that I don’t need utensils. Serving dinner at the winter homeless shelter last week, we supplemented the VFW’s plates, cups, and forks with paper napkins and plastic knives for forty men. I only volunteered there one night, but it must be the same every night all winter long.

We all know the slogan Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, which probably goes back to the beginning of the environmental movement in the 70s. It’s catchy, practical, good for the planet — and for the soul. In his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis deplores our throwaway culture, and he has proposed adding care for our common home as an eighth work of mercy to the traditional list of seven.

Last year the Church of England encouraged Christians to reduce their plastic use during Lent. Over the years I’ve given up candy, alcohol, Facebook, even chocolate, but plastic? It seemed way too hard. How could I go forty days without acquiring or discarding plastic?

Ash Wednesday is March 6th. Let’s see.

What Shape Waits in the Seed

When humans begin to play

in the workshop of the Mother,

we cheer at the fireworks

and admire our reflection

in the miracles we have wrought.

She welcomes her co-creators,

but how proud we are

to loosen the strings

and toddle away.

It’s easy then

to mistake a warning shot

for the starting gun

and take off in a carbon-fueled race to the stars.

Few notice when winter snows come late

and monarchs lose their way.

Hungry engines keep boring,

while tinkering fingers slide up the double helix.

 

monarch butterfly

What shape waits then in the milkweed seed,

and who will hear the cries

when caterpillars stop turning into butterflies?

 

 

Title from “What to Remember When Waking” by David Whyte

Written upon learning that monarch butterflies will likely be extinct in twenty years.

Image courtesy of Kenneth Dwain Harrelson

 

Epiphany

He could be Walt Whitman,

sitting here with a saw outside Bookshop Santa Cruz.

To the bashful but curious toddler in his father’s arms

he might look like a grandfather

the boy hasn’t met yet.

“How ‘bout I play you a song you know?”

Saw handle between his knees,

the old man bends the blade and guides a bow

across its flat edge.

Haunting tones float over us,

and the little boy recognizes the tune

at the same time I do.

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star …”

Played on a musical saw,

the humble notes are ethereal as starlight.

Does the old man know that 

today is the Feast of Epiphany?

Or is he, like father and child,

an unwitting king,

the three magi

offering their gifts here on Pacific Avenue?

Statue of a musical saw player
Photo courtesy of Ali Eminov

Prayer in a Time of Fire

I hear your voice in my sweetheart’s lullaby.

Let’s share the moonlight, he sings

in the waltz time melody he wrote for me.

I hear your voice in the notes of his ukulele

and the whir of hummingbird wings,

bamboo fluttering in the breeze

and the silence of the butterfly’s flight.

 

But in these days of smoke and ashes

my ears yearn to hear you in the rain,

falling on leaves and roof,

sliding in rivulets down the windows.

Oh, won’t you pour into the eave-guarding gutters

And gurgle through the downspouts?

 

With chapped lips and a dry throat

I praise you

and raise my rough and calloused hands.

You soothe us now with our own tears,

but I implore you,

sweeten my song with freshwater,

let us fall asleep to your voice in the rainfall.

raindrops in a pool

River Journey

I’m thrilled to introduce the Kingdom of Enough’s first guest blogger: my friend Sarojani, a wise poet and member of the local Celtic band Innisfree.

empty canoes in a river

There is a bend in the river.

Boat’s gotten too heavy.

Gotta keep what’s worth keeping.

Gotta let some things go.

 

I remember floating

weightless

only water and sky.

It was simple then.

I did not know

grief or climate change,

the ravages of war

or a young black man’s daily danger.

 

I believed in presidents being

good and smart leaders

with dignity and integrity:

true public servants who helped

make things better.

Never doubted there was enough

food or water for everyone.

 

But now I believe in the more immediate politics

of loving kindness,

the cast of burnished sunlight

in the late autumn afternoons

through the old growth redwoods,

the gift of longing for ongoing communion

with The Beloved.

 

I remember a day in the Irish landscape

at Croagh Patrick

the Holy Mountain

in the town of Murrisk, County Mayo

where for centuries

pilgrims have been making their way

up the rocky path

to leave their failings,

make their promises,

cry their fervent prayers.

 

I set out that day with the only plan

that I would go as far as I could.

I was older now, heavier, not very agile or confidant

in my uphill climbing abilities.

But I knew my heart was true.

Before very long and way after many

had passed me, I sat on a large rock overlooking the beauties of Clew Bay

and the surrounding landscape.

I had already reached my limit.

 

There I meditated for awhile

with the light of the swiftly moving clouds

and the full presence of the Irish wind.

I settled in to a deep stillness

and felt to be in a place of solace and guidance.

When I finally opened my eyes

I saw pilgrim after pilgrim passing me,

making their way up the steep slope

and I began to greet them and then

silently bless their journey.

 

It felt right.

I had been rightly placed.

I knew that I had my own special place on this mountain

and was doing what I had been prepared for

in this very moment;

that we all have a particular path,

places we are planted, people who seem to come randomly into our lives.

The medicine we all have for each other.

 

I thought of our dear fragile earth,

the fabric of our government that appears to be coming apart at the seams,

the potential for mass despair and feelings of hopelessness;

that somehow we are helpless in the face of our
daunting circumstances.

But then I remember the Holy Mountain;

the one we each are climbing every day
in the best and only way we know how,

climbing In the way we were made to climb.

 

I see step by step

each of us

being given pieces to hold to fight for

to help heal.

 

The Water Protectors.

The interpreters of whale songs.

The research scientists relentless in making their pleas with hard evidence

in giving voice to the earth’s cries.

Those striving for peace in thought, word and deed

choosing diets and lifestyles

that protect animals and ecosystems.

The poets, artists and musicians who stay true

to keeping beauty alive and well in the world.

There is a bend in the river

and I see boats

of every shape, size and color

making their way safely

through the tumultuous channels

and abiding the ever-changing currents.

“But where will we all land?” do you ask.

 

I guess that part is up to us.

 

By Sarojani Rohan