HELP! HELP ME! Iam drowning in a quicksand of plastic. I’m being sucked under into a shiny morass of polymers, asphyxiated inside a plastic bag. Here is my lunch, a healthy serving of tofu and kale, sitting in a plastic take-out container, paid for on that all-important card colloquially referred to as…plastic.Here is my phone, vying with my Visa card for pride of place in my purse, in my heart. My eyesight is weakening, so I will need my glasses to read messages on my phone. The frames and lenses are so delicate, so light, I hardly notice them. I hardly think about their origin or where they will go when they, like me, get old and outlive their usefulness.
The demon, the enemy, has wedged us into a corner and it’s a clever chameleon. It can be hard and unyielding or soft and caressing. There’s no escaping it. If you commit the sin of dry cleaning, mea culpa on occasion, you are cozying up to toxic chemicals andvast envelopes of plastic to protect the clothes that will never make you look like Kim Novak or any other glamorous person on celluloid.
Anything you squeeze that’s not a baby comes out of a plastic tube: toothpaste, shampoo, sun block. Glass bottles, so quaint, so retro…olive oil, seltzer, ketchup, aspirin…have been marched out of our awareness like saddle shoes and patent leather Mary Janes. Nothing breaks any more except our hearts. Everything lives forever except our contaminated loved ones.
This then is the theological question that arises. How can we understand our relationship to the Eternal when it looks for all the world like a water bottle? Everything in nature—anemones, Airedales, your mother, you in the fullness of time—arises from seed, blossoms, withers and dies. Not plastic. No ma’am. It is quintessentially outside of nature, a science fiction monster that we cannot embrace. It is alien. All we can do is use it and discard it, use it and discard it, creating mountains of rubbish, oceans of trash. On the mountaintops are toothbrushes and Barbie dolls and auto parts. In the ocean are plastic bags. Where once marine life flourished, fishes swimming in and out of coral reefs, the arteries of the sea are now congested with the afterlife of grocery shopping.
Even before we casually throw it away into a place where it will languish forever, as if there were such a thing as away,plastic confronts us with its inanimate stare. It doesn’t breathe. It doesn’t weep. It doesn’t love. Still, it does seem to perform mathematical functions. It adds to the poisoning of our earth body. It subtracts from the space we have remaining to live in healthy companionship with nature. It multiplies our experience of degradation and it divides us from one another. It could be that we have to up our game from basic arithmetic to some kind of algebra. Solve for X, find the unknown. Because isn’t it true that we mortals have the edge when it comes to creativity, discovery? Aren’t we women the ones who give birth to children, the ones who nap innocently in their little footed suits, dreaming of the not-yet-dreamt-of, a great transformation to come?
They know, the way swallows know to fly south and squirrels know to store food for the winter, that the flower of life cannot blossom if it continues to be starved out by non-life, if the authentic continues to be suffocated by the artificial. They know that their generation and the generations to come will need to focus their formidable wisdom and love on a new paradigm that privileges the cycle of birth and death, the in-breath and out-breath of the universe. And this focus, this deep state of understanding, will overwhelm the current bewilderment and unveil new territories of thinking about how to package and contain things, how to make the jar continuous with the jam and the box with the berries.
Plants will yield more of their secrets to the initiated and crawling children will grow into adulthood with a greater awareness of their kinship with the creeping animals and majestic trees of the forest. All I can do is envision this future and believe in it. All I can do is plant a meadow of hope swarming with life in all its precious forms and visit it often to picnic and to pray.
Susie Kaufman is a retired hospice chaplain. You can read her blog seventysomething at Susie has been previously published in the anthology Writing Fire: An Anthology Celebrating the Power of Women’s Words, as well as Lilith and America magazines and the journal Presence. She is a regular presenter at the open mic IWOW (In Words Out Words) in Housatonic MA.