Monday, June 14, 2010


A few months ago I read Ceremony, by Leslie Silko, for my book group. It centers on a Native American boy who fights the Japanese front in WWII and comes back home to his Laguna tribe with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor's guilt. When all other avenues fail, he turns to the ancient ceremonies of his people to heal his mind, and finds that his journey is one that he doesn't take alone: his actions link him both with his people and those he fought during the war.

One of the themes deals with the interconnectedness of everything in the world. This is, of course, a well-documented philosophy among many Native American tribes, but the book took things even a step beyond man's relationship with the land to man's relationship with man. What we do affects our families, our communities, the Earth itself, and by extension, people in every corner of the Earth. I am an environmentalist for precisely this reason, and am happy to be supported by the teachings of the Church.

Our lives as wealthy Westerners are FULL of consumption and waste. How many garbage bags do we throw away each week? Think of how it increases at Christmastime, or whenever we throw a party. The very act of consumption requires waste: 1. we are replacing something that is used/broken which must be discarded, 2. the packaging around our new acquisition must be discarded, and most importantly, 3. production of anything produces massive amounts of waste, and this is a part of the cycle over which we have very, very little control.

Here's a question, and a challenge: We often donate used clothing items to Goodwill, right? Are we also shopping there? My two favorite household items came from a thrift store, as did my coffee maker, bedroom furniture and many of my picture frames. Of course, there are many things you simply can't buy at the Salvation Army store. Underwear, obviously. And sometimes you need an item that isn't available there, like a dress for a wedding or a pair of kahkis or, in my case, Ugg boots to protect my Raynauds-afflicted toes from wintry weather. What matters is that we make the effort to search thrift stores regularly for those things we need, rather than relying on Target, Walmart, Kohls or ToysRUs. Even those discount stores contribute to the overconsumption that is the root of so much waste and materialism.

This is a struggle in our culture. I do not make light of the pressures that assail us from every direction to consume, consume, consume. Our children beg for new toys, while the hundreds that they already own lie strewn about the house. Our parents criticize our wardrobes or hint that we "need" another appliance. Our friends re-do their kitchen and suddenly we notice how cramped our own is. A new season begins, and we are embarrassed to see our growing kids running around in pants that end above their ankles.

I've been struggling for a long time with a call to give up makeup. *gulp* I just don't know if I can do it. I am very sensitive about my looks. I thought maybe I'd give it up for Lent one year and see if that frees me, but then every Lent I decide I should do something else instead, because I am a coward. A vain, insecure, coward. It is a lot easier for me to limit my shower length, shop at thrift stores and re-use plastic bags than to leave the house without doing my face. I am praying about this, and working towards it. If it's truly what God desires for me, I pray He will give me the strength to embrace the challenge...someday. Was it St. Augustine? "Lord make me chaste, but not yet!"

In the meantime, I repeat to myself: Do what you can. When I'm tempted by the King Arthur's Flour catalog and all their beautiful pans, mixes and gadgets, I say, "This I can do." I can resist purchasing a scone pan. Hooray! When I'm tempted to go out for dinner because I'm just tired and don't want to cook, I say, "This I can do." I can cook a meal for my family. Yippee!

It works with kid stuff, too. When I'm confronted for the eightieth time one day by a string looped across the hallway as part of an Indiana Jones game, I say, "This I can do." I can duck under or untie the string to walk past without getting mad at the kids. Huzzah!

Some of you are perhaps farther along on your walk towards simplicity, humility and counter-culturalism. What are your tips for reducing waste, consumption and vanity in this crazy, materialistic society we inhabit?