Simpler Times

This Thursday morning, I’m supposed to get on a plane to Portland, to see my daughter. I haven’t seen Lily, who’s now 20, since early March, right before everything shut down.

Oregon is on fire literally and, like the rest of the nation and the world, if you look at the spread if autocratic regimes, politically. It is, to repeat the great euphemism of 2020, a time of “transition.”

Being a mother teaches you a lot about transitions. Just when you’ve adjusted to one stage of your child’s life, they’re well into a new stage. I remember that feeling when Lily was growing up — of just catching up with her, moments before she made another giant leap.

In the past months, she has participated in some of the Portland protests, and like a lot of people in her generation, she is leaning to the more “radical” end of the spectrum. During this time, I’ve watched the news in terror, and listened to her, and offered a more moderate view on abolition of the police vs. reform. I’ve also begged her not to go downtown.

At the same time, I’ve admired her clear-thinking and impassioned intolerance for the status quo. She is the product of a Waldorf-inspired education and it shows. She can look the world in the eye and recognize when it’s lying and when it’s telling the truth. Compromise is a gift, or perhaps a curse, of age.

I was digging around in some old pieces of writing and found the post below, about one of my rare awkward attempts to instill a sense of public service in Lily. I’ve been hopelessly lax in that regard. She was eight-and-a-half years old. In 2009, the world felt like a much simpler place, but that may only be in hindsight…

Down at the Creek

Just outside two bone-dry culverts, amid the creek grasses and cattails, are water bottles, candy wrappers, tennis balls, softballs, a flip-flop and a Strawberry Shortcake sandal, and enough plastic bags to choke an industrial-size trash compactor.

“Hey, Mom!” Lily calls from across the creek bed. “Let’s fill the bag to the brim and then we’ll be done.” 

She has a new book at home to read — her first long chapter book.

“Sounds good, sweetie,”  I said, dropping an Almond Joy wrapper into the Hefty bag. 

It’s Martin Luther King’s Birthday and the first national day of community service. With a fair degree of grumbling, Lily agreed to join me in putting in our rattiest clothes.

We grabbed a large Hefty garbage bag and two pair of gloves, and headed for the nearest creek; a three-minute drive from our home. We definitely could’ve walked and spared the ozone layer, but in parenting, as in life, you pick your battles.

“Just imagine,” she says, pointing to a mound of algae-speckled water bottles. “There’s an island of those floating in the ocean.” 

People who buy single-use water bottles and Cheetos are the real litterbugs. The occasional ball is forgivable, lost shoes, probably the result of a distracted kid, walking home from swimming lessons.

While we’re working, a man in an official looking truck drives across the bridge over the culverts. We saw him again, coming the other way and looking at us.

Suspecting he worked for the city, I imagined him calling the local paper to tell a reporter about the mom and daughter doing a good deed for the planet. In my mind, I see picture our in the Novato paper, with the caption “Do-gooders clean up the creek.” I smile to myself, at the hidden desire to be praised for a basic act of service.

Lily has a different, age-appropriate reaction:  “Are we going to get in trouble?” We’re doing something out of the ordinary, standing in a dry creek and (actually) having fun. She’s probably thinking we must have been breaking some law.

By the time we filled the bag, most of that part of the creek bed is cleaned up. I wish we had another bag. Leaving even a little bit of trash feels wrong, now.

And because nothing is simple these days, we face another dilemma: What to do with all those recyclable plastic bottles? Do we sift through the dirty diapers, styrofoam toys, and grimy shreds of plastic? There’s no candy bar on the planet that I can use as a bribe, and I’m not so keen on it myself.

We take the lazy way out and dump the Hefty bag in an empty dumpster behind a grocery store.

Lily opens her book, snuggling up next to me on the sofa at home. “That was fun at the creek, Mom.”

“Yeah, honey, it was.”

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