On waste and a life of simplicity

My parents taught me not to waste what was useful. When we accidentally left the lights on in the basement and my father found out, he marched upstairs, greeted us in our bedrooms, and told us to go to the basement to turn the lights off. We did, begrudgingly. Even though by local standards we were rather wealthy, my parents kept the same couches–brown, black, carpety and scratchy–for some 15 odd years. They thought, I gather, that anything that still worked had some value: the lawnmower with the cracked grill, the hideous orange- and cream-colored afghans, the plastic cups with the fading logos purchased years ago at college sporting events.

My parents were thrifty but rarely cheap. (Joan said her mother was frugal and it was from her that she inherited her own frugality. Joan and I laugh at the fact that we are not hoarders. We do not collect and save, and we do not think of “keeping this or that just in case.”)

My love of holding onto what is useful extends to the backpack given to me by a former lover 8 years ago; to the pillow I have had, if memory serves, since I was 5 years old; to the clementine orange umbrella, whose arms are becoming flimsy and weak, lent me 3 years ago and still in operation.

The everyday objects I adore the most are meant to last, not to be disposed of immediately. So you can imagine that I would be greatly vexed by the waste accumulating slowly in my treehouse. Recycling alone is a confusing taxonomic adventure in New York City, with certain plastics acceptable but not others and without a good standard applied to sorting. Likewise trash removal, for a whole host of reasons I beg off exploring below. This weekend in particular I was keenly irked by plastic bags into which I had put other plastic bags that were then put into other plastic bags. Recycled tote bags do not double as garbage bags.

I am moaning about waste yet I am groaning about city life, I see, and waste is only one sign of my overall simmering discontent. The composting I do seems insufficient. I am hungering instead for a simpler way of life in which death would be a part of life and returned to it. I am yearning for slowness and for no planes flying overhead in the evening as night falls.

A friend of mine related recently that the contemporary philosopher Arnold Davidson, the scholar perhaps most responsible for introducing Pierre Hadot to the US, does not own a computer and does not check his email. She says he says that he “gets paid to think seriously.” All right, I think, I praise the virtues exhibited in a life devoted to contemplation. Thinking contemplatively, talking while strolling, growing vegetables slowly, delighting in gardens: these features of a simple life are calling to me. My friend David E. Cooper retired to northern England, Michel de Montaigne to southern France.

How long I ultimately remain in New York City I do not know but leaving a life of bustle behind seems first an aspiration and second an inevitability. In my imaginative ramblings, my lover and I are riding our bikes along a country road toward our country home. She has a bunch of carrots lazing out of her front basket and I am speaking an adopted native tongue warmly into the wind.

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