Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Most Beautiful Story: The Extraordinary in the Ordinary (Plus a Rant about Plastic Straws)

Just yesterday I experienced one of the most touching and beautiful moments thus far in my nearly 2.5 decades of living, and it was from a gesture so small.

To preface and give context, I have been absolutely burnt out the last few weeks. I usually make a pact with myself to post five social media posts a week, keep all of my projects in-check, and be timely with my email responses to people regarding work. But I haven't had energy or motivation for any of it. Part of it could be because I completed the Spring 2018 Body Mind Spirit Expo--which is equally as exhausting as it is wonderful--but the other part is exhaustion regarding the nature of my work.

I have so much I want to write blogposts about, which I hope to get to soon, but one of which is how I feel about climate change and the ever-increasingly dire situation the earth is. There is so much suffering, and knowing that either motivates me in my life goal to find ways to teach children empathy and how to care for all life, or it brings me to my knees from strong feelings of despair and helplessness. And friends, the second one is where I have been as of late.

Since I started a new waitressing job a few weeks ago to help pay my bills, various things I have witnessed of the general nature of restaurant function have certainly added to my sadness. Let me first say that I am incredibly grateful for this job, and I work with and for some of the nicest, most humble people I have ever met. I get treated and paid well by my employers, which is something I have not experienced in the workforce, and I could not be more grateful for that. I am also grateful to be on the front lines with the people and have the experiences I do, as they help reflect to me new perspectives and where the people generally are mentally, emotionally, morally, etc. Keep in mind that the issues I talk about do not really reflect this specific restaurant and especially not the wonderful people who work it alongside me, but rather the larger issues that are currently a part of American restaurant culture.

One of the biggest things that makes me cringe is watching the daily waste grow and grow, whether it be food, drinks, napkins, plastic bags, plastic ware, and styrofoam to-go containers. I do what I can to mitigate the waste to the best of my ability, such as not put napkins/plastic silverware in to-go orders unless customers ask, take home whatever plastic film and single-stream recycling I can (although recycling is not an end-all answer, and the issues are wonderfully laid out in this blog), only give plastic straws to those who request it, etc. In the short time since I have started working at this place, I have already created a name for the people who irritatedly ask for plastic straws in a way that gives me the impression that I am denying them a most obvious and necessary convenience. Not-so-creatively, the name I give those people is the, "straw people." And man, do they get on my nerves like no other. 

A wonderful video that displays the reality of saying no to straws. It's such a small thing, but when we actively and collectively say "no" to indulging in something like this, it does have an affect; it is said that it those who continuously make eco-conscious choices make the biggest difference. 

Before you think I might be too harsh, I want to mention that I understand that we have a culture that pushes single-use plastic on us as if our lives depend on it. Even as someone who refuses to involve it in my daily life, I still am given food/drinks/materials/etc that include it, and this nature of our culture saddens me to the core. While some of it is recycleable, a lot of it isn't, and straws are one of the items on that list. I also understand that a lot of people don't have the knowledge about the devastating impact that plastic products has on life all around the globe, most notably being ocean life facing microplastics. If that's the case, then I would like to educate those people. Unfortunately, I don't have time to do that in the busy nature of the job, not to mention that it probably isn't the time or place considering people come to a restaurant to pay for food, not to be lectured to. But similarly to the recently-charged and serious topic of gun violence, when is the "right" time or place to talk about these issues when they are of such momentous importance and timeliness?

Regardless, I am much more understanding when people say, "Can I please have a straw?" (especially for elderly or for children who have a harder time with the glass) versus, "Umm, excuse me, but where are our straws??" The ones who are rude about it are what I call the "straw people." Because again, it's not just that they are asking for such a non-necessary object that harms the environment, it's that they are having such a reaction over something so small. I would also expect that Boulder would be better with generally more respectful and eco-conscious people, and maybe it is, but I still see this behavior every day I'm at the restaurant. 

Are we Americans so especially fragile and privileged that we cannot handle having one less tiny commodity in our materialistic lives? It's as if we are all balancing on top of an incredibly precariously stacked pile of physical things representing our culture, and if you simply take out one item, such as the plastic straw (or a Twinkie--remember how people flipped out when they stopped making them in 2012?), we all come crashing down. 

But, no. That is not how our survival works. In fact, it's the opposite. If we want to continue to thrive on this planet, we need to make some serious cultural, societal, political, and economic changes. We need to eliminate the consumeristic and privileged nature of our way of living that is killing the life on our planet.

ANNNNyways, back to the story--I went to work yesterday and was feeling so low regarding the state of the world. I even woke up and was thinking about a most harrowing video I saw months ago of a horribly terrified and confused baby elephant standing next to its not-so-recently dead mother who was poached. If that's not a bad mental space to start your day, with I'm not sure what is. So I thought, "You better not give me any "straw people" today, Universe. Not now." Sure enough, I am helping a boisterous table of five business workers joining us for the lunch rush that I had a feeling would be challenging--my intuition was correct. 

One male from the group waved me over after they looked at their menus, so I come over with my notepad ready. The same guy who waved me over begins to loudly tell a story to his co-workers as he wants me to somehow talk over them and take their order. Since I had multiple tables that very much needed tending to (and I was working a total of eight tables simultaneously on my own since my co-worker was on his break), I almost said, "Call me over when you all are ready to order" but figured it would be quicker to verbally force my way in there and get their orders, so I did. While some of the five people at the table were more-or-less respectful, I was extra miffed by that same guy who, after I served everyone's drinks, sassily said, "Do we get straws?"

Oh, man. That tone was starting to lump him into the "straw people" group. I replied, "Sure, how many would you like?" And he said, "Umm, don't we all get one?" That's it. He's a "straw person". I responded with something like, "Oh, we give straws by request-only because of the plastic epidemic that's destroying the environment. But that's fine." And I gave the table five straws. Once they had left, I found that two of the five people didn't touch the paper-wrapped straws, so I was able to put them back in our stock. "Maybe it is worth saying something," I thought.


Soon after that, it was time for my 1.5 hour break (they're 11-hour shifts which is why the breaks are so long), and I had planned to pick up trash in the very nearby creek area that I often visit and feel saddened by all of the waste that's desecrating the limited nature area near the heart of Boulder. Because why get upset about it when I can do something about it? And how rewarding is it to be able to fully enjoy the nature space on my work breaks after keeping it clean myself? 

While I was picking up trash with my gardening glove and putting it into my large, recycled plastic bag (which is to be once again recycled as plastic film at a nearby grocery store after being emptied), my mind was racing with thoughts that made my heart sink further. A small fraction was from the straw incident prior, but the rest was feeling such heavy despair over our many natural world's problems. "How are we going to wake up and realize our impact if we cannot even see it and do something about it here?" Even deeper, I thought about my own work, wondering if it would ever make a difference or be enough. If I want to make coloring books (with recycled paper, of course!) and find ways to lecture/teach/do workshops/educational hikes and whatever else I can think of to help educate and encourage people to care, will it be effective? Will my impact truly make any difference?

My garbage bag was already half-full with trash by the time I was nearing the end of my break. I had already found all sorts of odds and ends, including plastic water bottles, alcohol bottles, a spoon, a soap bar with glitter in it, a bike light, socks, toothpaste, batteries, TONS of cigarette butts, a kiddie pool (which was too big to carry--I plan to go back and carry on my next work break) and a whole bike seat. I could've taken a picture of it all, the trash being nicely arranged and such to be easily seen, but I wanted to spend as much time as I could cleaning up on my break, you know? During the process, I walked past many people on the path who saw me and didn't say anything, and I didn't expect them to. And then comes along a very sweet, precious young boy.

Two kids maybe around age 8-10 were walking on the path from behind me, and the boy right away said, "That's a really good thing that you're doing." And I said, "Aww, thank you so much! It's kind of fun actually, and a great workout!" (Which it was--my lower back is now stronger for it ;) ) As I was speaking, the boy immediately said, "Here," and picked a little grape hyacinth flower from the ground and held it out to me. My initial thought was, "Oh, no need to desecrate the plant-life for me!" but I instead replied with, "Oh my goodness, what a sweetheart you are!! Thank you for your kindness!" As he walked away, I continued to pick up trash, and tears began to well in my eyes as the impact of his gesture hit me. 

I believe everything happens for a reason, and this was most certainly a simple and humble yet deeply meaningful and loving gesture from that young boy as well as the universe that has become a huge source of encouragement for me. Here, I'm feeling so disappointed by society and various people in it that are so aggresively inbiting such immensely needed change, and I'm feeling powerless to stop it. We're supposed to be leaders for our younger generations, yet I'm questioning my own work regarding teaching empathy to children and losing motivation because I'm not sure it's enough.

Yet my small act of trash collecting yielded such a stunning repsonse from a child. Whether he has wonderful parents, educators, etc. that teach him how to be a wonderfully caring human or not, he was a symbol to me that there is hope. In that moment, he showed me that I don't need to teach empathy, I can simply be present to foster it because it is already present within our beautiful children. All we need to do is show them the way, share the truth of our natural world, and they will continue to lead with their hearts. 

While I have little doubt that I am likely to continue my inner emotional battle from feeling the pain and cries of the natural world, I will do my best to remember moments like these and hold the faith; thank you from the bottom of my heart, sweet boy, for being such a bright light among the darkness.

I hope both this story and this amazing child serve as reminders to us all as to how small acts of kindness--whether they are for one another or for our natural world--can truly be a water droplet that turns to ripples and yield waves worth of impact. With that, I say Happy Spring and wish you all beautiful days filled with hope, joy, and motivation to fulfill our gifts/special roles and serve the planet in whatever ways we can. As always, I thank you deeply for taking the time to read my blog.

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