|MARK AND GAZA|
Mark: This man leaves his cup here every morning…the Armenian cab drivers with their Capri cigarettes; the American junkies who throw their Heineken bottles up in the tree…before I’m at the end of my street, I’ve filled one grocery bag and deposited in the dumpster on the corner.
So in 2005, I was just out of prison (after 9 months) and trying to be fully present to my experience for the first time in what seemed like forever. I suppose “fully present” overshoots the mark; I was fairly riven with anxiety. So many feelings--I hadn’t a clue, all those years, that I’d been medicating so much discomfort (I thought I just liked to get high.) Anyway, one of the tools it was suggested I use was prayer, and the only one I could manage to remember I repeated feverishly, the one that starts: “God grant me the serenity...”At first it was a catch-all attempt to align my thoughts in a way that would produce the calm I found so elusive. But then I started to apply the prayer to specific situations--one in particular--and something life-changing occurred.
I had moved to a small studio just near Sunset and Western in L.A., an eclectic enclave of hipsters and immigrants. After I got my dog back from the brother (who had so graciously taken him in during my stay with the state) I discovered while walking him that I lived in one of the most litter-strewn neighborhoods of the city. And it drove me nuts.
Litter is ugly. Litter is unnecessary. Litter is lazy. But what could I be more powerless over? So I prayed. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change...”
People litter. I must accept that... “to change the things that I can”....what am I going to do, pick it up? “...and the wisdom to know the difference...” yeah, yeah, yeah, go back to that last part.
There it was. Like a pebble in my shoe, the thought I couldn’t get rid of. Why, in fact, couldn’t I pick it up?
Oh the internal huffiness that ensued. Why should I? What kind of message does that send? Did you ever hear about something called “accountability?” Blah,blah, blah. Can you imagine if mothers had that attitude about changing their baby’s diapers? No, the real roadblock was much simpler. What would people think?
The non-litterers, I assumed, would be delighted. The litterers, perhaps shamed, perhaps contemptuous. More importantly, what did it matter? What if people thought I was--horrors--eccentric? What if they thought it was humiliating myself? What if …? Realizing I didn’t have to care at all proved as valuable as a decade of psychotherapy. I had wasted enough of my life trying to manage how others perceived me. What if I stopped giving my power away like that, and just went about being the best Mark I could be?
So I went down to OSH, got an E-Z Reacher, and stuffed my cargo pants pockets with Ralph’s plastic grocery bags. I identified strategically-located dumpsters, and begin to pick up trash. And I never looked back.
Almost very day for seven years I have cleaned the four blocks along my dog walking route. The effect on the environment is minimal--in essence, I move refuse from the street to the landfill. But the effect on me has been incalculable.
Every morning I when I start on my walk I am angry that new litter has replaced what I just picked up yesterday. And every morning I get to choose to stay in the problem or to step into the solution. Anger or joy. My choice.
I get to watch my dog live in the present and imitate him. He never gets impatient with all of our stops, and I get to be patient with all of his sniffs. He doesn’t understand what I’m doing and he doesn’t even understand that he doesn’t understand. He just accepts, and never once for any reason withholds his all-encompassing unconditional love from me. And so I imitate him in my relationship with God. I accept that I can no more understand God with a human brain than my dog can understand me with a dog brain. I don’t need to understand. I need only to love.
So what do people say? At first they are suspicious. I don’t have an orange vest on, and I look “normal.” And people who work for the city don’t walk their dog at the same time. In fact, when a neighborhood denizen finally talks to me, it usually goes like this:
“Excuse me, can I ask you something?”
“What kind of dog is that?’
A few of them are genuinely curious, (he’s a gorgeous Pointer/mix) but most of them don’t know how to talk about what I’m doing. It’s almost as if they wonder if I realize that I’m picking up trash, and don’t want to embarrass me by pointing it out.
And then there are those who smile, who wave, who say really wonderful things. This delights me, for sure. But it is not why I do it.
Picking up trash has allowed me to understand that you don’t start with serenity, you end with it. You have to really examine your life, and ask yourself what you are accepting that you can change; and what you are trying to change that you need to accept. You would be surprised at how much misfiling is going on -- with all of us.
I realized that if I can be kind to an inanimate object--the street--I can certainly to be kinder to real live people. There’s Louise, from the Congo, to whom I give all of the cans and bottles I collect. She practically supports a household back in Brazzaville. There was Chris Z., a heroin addict who lived on a mattress on the corner. I helped him get a license and find his long-lost half-brother. I make an effort to say hello to all the homeless, and often ask their names, because its’ a terribly thing to be invisible. Everyone needs to be seen.
It would be nice to go back to Europe, to travel the world. But it’s amazing how far you can go within a mile of your house, just by paying attention.
I love picking up trash because it’s taught me that living along spiritual lines doesn’t have to happen in a church or a synagogue or a monastery. I don’t have to be in the lotus position or on my knees. There needn’t be any daylight between having a relationship with God and all the day-to-day practical choices we make.
God isn’t over there, God is right here. God is now."
Mark blogs at The Trash Whisperer.
MARK OLMSTED REVEALS HIS SPIRITUAL JOURNEY PICKING UP TRASH