(About trash, volunteering, assumptions, expectations, awareness, paying attention, surprise, and gratefulness)
After volunteering in Goodale Park for Comfest recycling and trash pickup, I peeled my wet latex gloves off and felt as though I could squeeze water out of my spongy, sweaty hands. Those gloves had effectively protected me from potential “ick” while I picked up cans, bottles, cups, wrappers, and cigarette butts, while I tied off bags of trash, and moved the bags to “trash central”.
A few years ago, before I started volunteering at Comfest, I took it for granted that trash would be hauled away. I never gave it a thought. By this year I thought I had become pretty evolved, but in the days after Comfest, I realized that I’m apparently still struggling. I still tend to take this for granted every day.
Evidence of this is that day after day as I walk my dog in Goodale Park, the trash containers are always emptied, and I never really notice it. I only pay attention if they’re ever overflowing. Similarly, in my alley, it never seems amazing that the 300-gallon trash containers are emptied week after week, but I sure notice if they’re bulging.
A friend once told me that we notoriously take for granted the cleanliness of bathrooms in schools and workplaces. We expect and assume that they will be clean, and we’re only surprised when they’re not. I take their cleanliness for granted, so I tend not to be grateful for that cleanliness, unless I consciously remain awake to the gift of the attentive custodian and/or conscientious bathroom patrons.
This reminds me of a time when our daughter was five years old and we lost electrical power during a storm. After the excitement of the sudden darkness had waned, she asked if she could watch an episode of “Arthur” on television. I told her that the television also didn’t work without electricity. So she asked if she could use the computer, and I told her that it needed electrical power as well. Finally, she asked if she could get something to eat from the fridge, and I said that we should keep the door closed to keep the food cold, since it wasn’t running during the power outage, either. She looked up at me and asked, “What doesn’t use electricity?!” I had fallen into the trap of taking it for granted, and the storm had created a power outage that surprised me, opening me to gratefulness. But surprise isn’t the only path to gratefulness.
The solution for me, the key to opening myself to gratefulness, has been to remain more aware, to wake up, to pay attention. I like the term “paying” attention, because it reveals a truth — that the path to gratefulness involves a very real cost. It takes effort to move out of the mindlessness of my normal autopilot existence and into attention.
And there is a clear benefit to paying attention, especially for a dumpster diver. I imagine that our neighborhood divers, those people who regularly rummage, are by nature awake and aware, and they pay attention, which leads to daily trash discoveries that unexpectedly emerge.
Far from “taking for granted” the clothing, cans, food and philosophical literature that they stumble upon, gratefulness is embedded in the fabric of their everyday lives. I think I can learn something from them.