Imperfect Serenity

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

EcoParenting Continued

Last week’s EcoMoms post got a lot of response (including from a few people who apparently had trouble posting comments), so I’m going to stick with the topic for another week. After all, dissecting the New York Times article allowed me to avoid examining my own practices, which had been my original intention. My basic questions are: how much is each of us is called to do in the face of climate change? And how can we support/challenge each other without spreading the “ecoanxiety” that many of us find unhelpful?

I suppose a starting place is to remember what things in the past have motivated me to reduce my environmental impact. The most dramatic was living in a village in Botswana where I had no electricity, no running water, and no car, yet lived quite happily. I read great novels by kerosene lamp, fetched my water in a bucket on my head (to the great amusement of the village children), and rode my bike to the school where I taught. When I needed to go further, I hitchhiked, like everyone else. Doing laundry by hand was the only hardship, and I confess I hired a local woman to do that for me. After two and a half years, returning to the United States was a difficult transition, especially my summer job working for a caterer where pounds of food were thrown away after every party. I got nicknamed “Mother Teresa” for driving leftovers to a soup kitchen and turning off the water whenever someone left the sink running. I felt very alone during that period. As Martin commented last time, it is easier to do this work in community.

Over the twenty years since that Peace Corps experience, my life has gotten much less simple. I no longer ride my bike to the school where I teach, partly because I’m terrified of Philadelphia traffic, partly because there is a really big hill on the way home, and I’m not that ambitious any more, and partly because I wouldn’t have time after dropping the kids at their school. (The school bus leaves ridiculously early to follow a circuitous route, and my school and the kid’s are several miles away, so I take the train.) I no longer read by kerosene, but I do pay a little extra for renewable energy. I’m sure I use a lot more water now that I don’t bathe out of a basin, but the memory of carrying those buckets of water has stayed with me, so I take shorter showers than most Americans. I hardly ever bathe my kids, so that helps, too. We do compost scraps and recycle what we can, which I don’t find that onerous once you get it organized, but which would still be much easier if our city adopted single stream recycling. (On the plus side, the city gave us our compost bin.) Our house is relatively small and well insulated, but it is still about seven times as large as my unheated hut in Botswana. In short, I can see several ways that we are doing what we can to reduce our environmental impact, but when I think about what else we could do I come up against the tension between what is in my control and what is due to bigger societal forces than I can control alone.

The part of our lives I feel most wasteful is in the realm of transportation. While I take the train to school twice a week, on the days I’m not teaching I mostly drive. I could take the bus to the coffee shop (where I get much more writing done than at home), but the bus schedule is less predictable than the train, and time to write feels like my biggest scarcity. Also, I often shop or do errands on the way back from the coffee shop, and doing that for a family of four by bus doesn't feel very "simple." So what is the best thing to do: take the bus, walk the thirty-five minutes to the coffee shop, or drive and spend the saved time lobbying for increased fuel standards on cars or better public transportation? What is the balance between doing all I can in this area and following what I feel God is leading me to do, finish writing the book I’m working on?

As usual, I come back to the question of discernment. From a purely environmental point of view, the best thing I could have done would be to not have children. But I felt led to have children, and I’m clear that was the right choice. Our carbon footprint is not the only measure of our lives. On the other hand, it is easy to overlook our carbon footprint and toss off our consumption as something we just shouldn’t worry about, as many people I know still do. I wonder what of my driving habits I should be changing and where I just need to let go of the guilt, which I don’t find to be very productive. Unless the guilt is a call to change, which it could be. One of the signs we look for in discernment is peace. I feel peace about having two kids. I feel peace about the size of my house and the length of my showers. Perhaps my discomfort at the amount I drive my car is a nudge I should be paying attention to.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


For some time I’ve been meaning to blog about trying to be an environmentally-conscious family, so I was pleased when The New York Times published “For EcoMoms, Saving Earth Begins at Home.” In many ways, the article itself points to the contradictions and challenges of trying to live simply in the United States.

First, the good news: an increasing number of mothers (as well as fathers and non-parents, in my observation) are talking with each other about how to reduce their impact on the environment. I was heartened to read that in California, mothers are doing this in groups—and not just Quaker committees. The article describes the EcoMom party as the new Tupperware party, a chance for women to gather and talk over a glass of wine. The fact that they are encouraging and challenging each other to make more environmentally friendly choices is great. Any difficult change is easier with peer support, and countering the consumer orientation of our culture is certainly difficult.

The difficulty is reflected in what seems to me a slightly snide tone on the part of the article’s author, Patricia Leigh Brown. Maybe I’m over sensitive, but I hear a hint of mockery in this and other sentences:

Perhaps not since the days of “dishpan hands” has the household been so all-consuming. But instead of gleaming floors and sparkling dishes, the obsession is on installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, buying in bulk and using “smart” power strips that shut off electricity to the espresso machine, microwave, X-Box, VCR, coffee grinder, television and laptop when not in use.
Perhaps Brown is simply worried that changing all the light bulbs is going to fall on the mothers, and she doesn’t want women burdened with any more to feel guilty about. But even more than the reference to “dishpan hands” it is the use of the word “obsession” that feels dismissive. Surely we have moved past the time when environmental activists were seen as hysterics, obsessed with irrational fears. Or maybe this is a stereotype about women. My friend Laura Levitt, a well-respected feminist scholar, just arrived in the coffee shop where I am writing and affirmed my suspicions. “The Times is always dismissive of groups of women,” says Laura. “If a bunch of men were doing it, they would think it was great.”

Of course, it’s possible that the author’s tone isn’t directed at the women at all, but at the lavish consumerism they are attempting to moderate. In the sentence quoted above, there are seven gadgets hooked up to the smart power strip, which is a subtle way of pointing to the contradiction posed by the affluent EcoMoms profiled in the article. The picture of the gathering makes the point as well. These are rich White women in big luxurious houses. Brown explains, “One of the country’s wealthiest places, Marin County, is hardly a hub of voluntary simplicity; its global footprint, according to county statistics, is 27 acres per person, a measure of the estimated amount of land it takes to support each person’s lifestyle (24 is the American average).”

What Brown leaves out are the global statistics that show that most of us are more like the Marin County mothers than we’d like to admit. To put this in a little perspective, here is a graph that shows ecological footprints around the world, in hectares, rather than acres:

The average American footprint is nearly nine times as large as the average African. Given the earth’s limited resources, limiting our consumption can be seen as a matter of justice, as well as survival.

Although this bigger global perspective is missing from the Times piece, and by implication from the Marin County EcoMom meetings, I still think mothers talking about how to reduce their carbon emissions is a good thing, even if it does cause a little "ecoanxiety." (I hadn’t even thought about the dry-erase markers emitting toxins before reading this article, but I don’t feel up to convincing our school to replace the dry-erase markers that every child uses for math.) Instead of the "ecotherapists" referred to in the piece, we need communities where we can challenge and support each other, not in the bitchy way Brown hints at in her article, but in the way John Woolman encouraged his fellow Quakers to give up their slaves, with love. By working together, we can also challenge our politicians to make the policy decisions that will have an even greater impact than any of us can acting alone.

It's the prospect of supportive community that I took out of this article. It's been pretty lonely being the only family on the block that composts, yet in my Quaker meeting I compare myself to some of the single people who live much less wasteful lives than mine, and I am hit with that "ecoanxiety" syndrom. Talking with other parents about what we can reasonably do seems like a good next step. Maybe we can start in the blogosphere so none of us has to drive to another meeting.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Nature often gives us spiritual lessons. Last Sunday in meeting someone spoke about the hope she sensed from seeing the sprouting crocuses and blooming witch hazel on her way through the garden. Certainly spring is the season of hope and new life. Falling leaves always remind me of the cyclical nature of things, the need for times of retraction as well as expansion. So today it is slippery out—the sidewalks coated with sleet, snow, and rain—and it seems a fitting reminder of how precarious our walk on this earth is.

I have a good friend whose mother is dying. Four times now the doctors have told her the end was near, only to have her mother rebound. Talking to her reminds me of those unpredictable days near my mother’s end when I couldn’t plan more than an hour at a time. Intellectually I know that life is always unpredictable, that anyone I love could die at any time, but most days I don’t walk around thinking about it. I believe the occasional reminder is healthy; it puts the inconvenience of a slushy day into perspective, as well as the inconvenience of the 24 hour flu.

None of us has caught the flu this year, though I am starting to brace myself. Half of my son’s class has been out in the past few days, as well as a few of my daughter’s friends and one of her teachers. In my college class, the students are taking turns sending fever-induced e-mails that explain their absences. All this sickness has got me writing on the calendar a little less boldly, just in case one of us wakes up with a fever, and I have to scratch whatever I had planned to tend to myself or my children. Last Saturday a mother called to cancel her son’s birthday party due to a 102 fever. Again, such things can happen any time, but February seems to be a month where we get frequent reminders.

It’s nice to hear the political pundits for once admitting that they have no idea what is going to happen. A year ago they seemed so sure they could script this presidential race. I love that the voters aren’t sticking to the script. (Even seemingly unbeatable candidates can slip in the polls.) Like the sprouting crocus, the growing electorate gives me hope. Still, there’s no guarantee things will go the way I want. That’s the reminder of this weather—no guarantees. No guarantee you’ll be able to do something simple, like crossing the street, without landing on your back, which happened yesterday to a friend from the coffee shop. Instead of making me anxious or overly cautious, I want this weather to remind me to be more alert and open to whatever happens next.

Monday, February 04, 2008


I’ve been dreaming about my mother lately, or sometimes about being in her old apartment. In the most dramatic dream I was sitting on her old couch (the one which my grandfather died on) when my mother walked into her living room. I jumped up to greet her, but she evaporated under the white robe she was wearing, sort of like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. In the dream I thought, “At least I still have her couch,” though in waking life I do not. As longtime readers will remember, my mother died just over two years ago. Her couch was one of her many possessions that I gave away because I didn’t have room to keep it, and it wasn’t valuable to anyone but her.

When my mother was dying, I wrote about her regularly on this blog, but since her passing, I haven’t mentioned her much. Life moved on, and the children and my work regained my attention. I was efficient in settling her estate and I thought in settling my grief. I figured I’d had a year to grieve while I was watching her slowly waste away from lung disease. I figured that made it easier when the end finally came. Her prayers were finally answered. She was at peace.

So I’m not sure what it means that I’ve been dreaming about my mother. In many of the dreams I’m just in her apartment. (In one of them I was checking to see if there was enough toilet paper.) All I know is that they are a reminder that she is still part of my life, though usually out of sight, like in the apartment dreams. The dreams also bring a taste of grief, a reminder that I can’t dispose of my feelings as efficiently as I disposed of her furniture. I have to be open to whatever these dreams and feelings are trying to teach me, though I’m still not quite sure what that is.

Yesterday I learned that a good friend’s mother may be dying. It was a reminder of how universal this experience is, the loss of parents. It made me think of all my friends who have lost parents or loved ones in the past few years and how infrequently those losses come up after the initial mourning period where people say things like, “How are you doing?” without needing to explain why they are asking. It makes me want to check in with these friends long after the loss to see how it has changed them, to see if they are haunted, as I sometimes feel, by a loved one’s spirit.

There’s no neat conclusion here, but I guess that is part of the message. I like clear endings, concluding sentences that sum everything up (which is why I labor with such frustration of concluding sentences). But there is no neat end to one’s relationship to a parent. The past is woven into the present and future, albeit in sometimes invisible threads.

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