Monday, October 12, 2009

The Long Arm of the Moment

On the second Saturday each month, I go out for an hour in our Hillsdale commercial center to pick up litter. I carry a trash bag and a “grabber,” one of those arm extender devices that allow me to pick up cigarette butts, candy wrappers and beer cans without ever having to stoop over.

The physical labor is easy, thanks largely to the grabber, a magnificent invention (whose inventor is worthy, perhaps, of a Nobel Peace Prize).

The problem with litter collecting is the mental part — the thoughts that crowd my brain as I confront the debris of bus stops, gullies and road shoulders. It’s pretty easy to get bummed out by the slobs who throw trash in the right-of-way. Equally depressing is thinking about just how much trash there is.

Picking it up is a task similar to that of Sisyphus trying to roll his proverbial boulder to the summit, only to lose it at the top and to have to start over.

In short, my trash pick-up experience isn’t helped by my fixating on the causes of littering and the unending consequences of human neglect. In the extreme, such thoughts become downright misanthropic.

So I’ve taken to turning trash grabbing into a kind of Zen meditation.

Detachment is the order of the hour. I absorb myself in the moment’s object of collection.


This cigarette butt has no past for me. I give no thought to who smoked it and dropped it. I give no thought to others who have smoked the innumerable butts I will encounter on my rounds.

I am utterly focused on aiming my grabber’s tongs so that when I squeeze the handle they will grasp this butt. Still in the now, I lift it and deposit it in my bag.

Now. Now. Now. Fritos bag, Starbuck’s cup, McDonald’s wrapper.

One at a time; moment by moment.

Soon the moments add up to an hour. My bag is full. I dump it in a dumpster that the local food co-op has given me permission to use. The manager rewards me with a free toasted, buttered, poppy-seed bagel and a steaming cup of coffee.

That’s it.

As I sip the coffee and sink my teeth into the soft, buttery bagel, I stay with the moment. I am simply eating to sustain two arms and hands of humanity’s billions. Some drop trash; others pick it up. Some build houses and roads, some drive buses and trains, some tie sutures, some flip burgers, some fire rifles, some cradle infants.

All of this is what the human organism does. I think of the arms and hands I call “mine” as helping define this small moment of existence in this small place.

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