Friday, March 20, 2009

A million tiny things

If you're curious about the title of the blog, check out the genesis of my "milllion tiny things" mantra here (one installment from my "home eco-nomics" column in the now-defunct mamazine):

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Eternal questions

Maybe my imagination is held captive by an entire childhood of Sunday mornings spent in linoleum-floored fluorescent-lit rooms, construction paper cutout arks plastering eggshell-painted drywall, well-meaning matrons reading from an illustrated book of Bible stories. But I like to think that it probably has more to do with the recurring template of editorial page cartoons: loopy black lines across the bottom of the frame, a cloudbank floor upon which perches a podium. Behind the podium, the parabolic downcurve of a barred gate swoops from misty towers of yet more clouds. Just two characters comprise the scene--a bushily white-bearded, berobed gentleman consults a ledger, while a supplicant beseeches him with tensely raised shoulders and desperate eyes. The punchline changes from politician to politician, but the basic set-up remains stable: judgment day.

Technically, I don’t believe in judgment day. I certainly don’t believe that some man standing in the sky will tally me up into black and red columns and come up with a final number that determines my eternity. I don’t even really believe in ‘karma’ the way it is generally understood by the people I hear using the word, that what-goes-around-comes-around. The way I see it, if bad people were always punished for bad acts, we wouldn’t need a criminal justice system. If good people were always rewarded for good acts, we’d all be out there dumping our wallets into the outstretched palms of the homeless man on the shoulder of the offramp, instead of averting our eyes and pulling our cars forward, craning our necks into oncoming traffic to move quickly past the question he asks us: are you kind, or stingy, or pretending to yourself that you gave at the office? His question lingers, despite my agnostic approach to the justice of fate, as if underneath what I think I believe there lurks Saint Peter, or perhaps just Santa, ticking off the columns, and asking each time: good or bad, which are you?

I know I’m asking myself this question a lot these days. Am I good because I don’t hit my kids when I’m at the end of my rope or bad because I growl viciously at them from between clenched teeth? Good for buying produce from a local farm or bad for succumbing to the temptation of shipped-from-Mexico bananas? Good for carpooling or bad for driving a 19-mpg minivan in the first place? Good for being aware of the environmental impacts of my decisions, or bad for continuing to live within the template of an unsustainable culture?

In the ledger of my self-esteem, the ‘bad’ column gets the most ink. I try to give myself credit for what I’m doing right, but the value of my stumbling stepwise efforts breaks down when I look at my daughter, just crossing the border between babyhood and girlhood. I think about her adulthood, and then I think about her children and the world they will inherit from me. I can see their questioning eyes settling onto myself, by then white-haired and obstinate, distilled into my purest form by time. They are wondering why we didn’t do more. In this scenario, the difficulty I have now in avoiding plastics, overly processed foods, and made-in-China non-essentials seems an indulgence, pure luxury, almost a bad joke--the irrationality of human behavior seen through the telescopic lens of hindsight, 40 years of climate change from now.

So I guess I do believe in judgment day, that day in the unseen future when I will have to look at my grandchildren and justify the choices I’m making today. I can already hear my excuses, my rationalizations, my attempts to explain to them how it all seemed kind of unreal, how we all thought that someone else was responsible, that some government scientist would fix it, that recycling and biofuels would be enough. They will not understand, they will point to the history books which tell them that all the information was available to us for so long, and so widely broadcast. They will tilt their curious heads and with heartbreaking innocence hang the word heavily on my guilty conscience: why? Why couldn’t you see? Why didn’t you act?

There are many answers to their questions. Denial, laziness, denial, inertia, and denial being a few. But there’s also the fact that in the now, without the clarity of hindsight, the proper course of action doesn’t always seem clear. Within a changing world, how do we know what is good and what is bad? Case in point: what should I do with my tax refund, put it aside in the solar panels fund or add it to the kids’ college savings? Will my kids need more education to prosper in a rapidly mutating culture (college fund), or does book-learning matter less on a frying planet (solar panels)? And shouldn’t I place the needs of everyone (solar panels) ahead of the needs of a few (college fund)? But won’t everyone need well-educated leaders to help through the transition (college fund)? Do we triage the immediate crisis of carbon emissions (solar panels) as more urgent than the potentially drug/alcohol/sex-wasted four years of the undergraduate experience? Where is the compass pointing toward “right?”

I have a great desire to be able to look into my grandchild’s face and say: we tried. We did what we could. We did our best. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to. This very morning I took a hot shower, quickly washed my hair and body, and then stood under the steaming stream of water--water pumped out of the ground by electricity and heated by burning natural gas. I stood there, the hot cascade pouring into my stiff shoulders, waiting for the ratio of pleasure to guilt to reach a tipping point which would make me crank the valves closed. I turned them off sooner than I wanted to, later than I should have.

My friends say to me, “You do a lot. Cut yourself some slack,” but I’m not so sure that I really do “a lot.” More than many, less than some; either way, probably not enough from my grandchildren’s perspective. How much is enough, and how do we know? I am haunted by one of the closing scenes in Schindler’s List, where Oscar Schindler looks at his car, his ring, all the things he kept, and regrets aloud how many more lives he could have saved had he given those things up. I ask myself: in what ways could I do more, sacrifice more; in what ways could I probably do more without even really sacrificing anything of importance to me? How much more would I have to do to get on the “good” list?

If I had a conclusion, I wouldn’t be writing this. I am living in this swamp of questions, searching for solid ground where my feet can rest, exhausted from kicking to keep my mouth above the murky surface. But when I reach my toes down, they simply encounter more slimy mud, sucking me down, down to where I’m afraid I won’t be able to breathe. I stay up by wriggling a constant compromise: put half the money into a socially and environmentally screened mutual fund for the future, half into savings for the solar upgrade. And in this way I keep swimming, my head just out of the muck, as I search for dry land, or at least water clear enough for me to know whether I am good, or bad, or pretending that what I’m doing is enough. I keep treading water in hopes that a bright sun will come out and shine on a newly posted sign, marking “this way” toward righteousness.