I’ve been away from blogging and social media for a few months, needing time to recuperate from the onslaught of attention-grabbing, anxiety-inducing posts that had hijacked my “news” feeds. Taking a break to be in silence for a while helps. So do walks along the red dirt trails or the rocky coastline of Moloka’i, Hawaii.
In the end of March, I went on my annual silent meditation retreat to the center of the center of the center. (The retreat center is in the middle of Moloka’i, which is the middle of the Hawaiian Island chain, which is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.) It just so happened that the week of my retreat was the same week as Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii’s first statewide beach cleanup event. And the cleanup event planned for the island of Moloka’i happened to be scheduled on our only day “off” from silent meditation. There’s more serendipity in how I even found out about the event, but I won’t bore you with those details that are probably only interesting to me.
What I want to tell you about is a remote, rocky coastline only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicle on an island with a population of under 7,500 people who live very simply, without chain stores or fast food restaurants or even a single movie theater. This “beach” is on the Easternmost end of the island, at the bottom of the steep bluffs of the Pu’u O Hoku Ranch. I put the word “beach” in quotes because it’s not the kind of beach for sunbathing or body surfing or strolling hand in hand. Composed of jagged volcanic rocks, it at first seems quite unwelcoming. Yet every day, this beach receives the ocean’s gifts, catches the styrofoam and fishing nets and laundry baskets and plastic straws, and holds them there so that they can’t do any further damage. It doesn’t care whose “fault” it is.
And then people come. They drive down the precarious cliffs with ginormous trash bags in tow. They clamber along the treacherous rocks, searching for treasure, balancing their desire to help with their desire to make it back out in one piece. They didn’t put the trash there. Yet they work in the sun for hours without pay just to be of service. And they don’t care whose “fault” it is either.
My friend Mark came with me to clean up the “beach.” Mostly, he sat above the rocks and gathered microplastic particles from the sand. He was mesmerized by the seemingly unending amount of it, having heard about it from me but not having yet witnessed it for himself. It’s overwhelming, this problem that we’ve created. Plastic pollution, like all of the other social and environmental problems we’ve managed to unleash on the planet, is not one person’s fault and can’t be solved by blaming and shaming. It’s up to each of us to do what we can, no matter whose “fault” it is.
The Hui Ho’olana retreat center (the center of the center of the center) is situated on land that was once an enormous pineapple plantation. When the pineapple companies realized that they could find cheaper labor and land in other parts of the world, they moved on, leaving the island’s red soil contaminated with pesticides and black plastic, plastic that will creep up out of the earth like brittle fingers for generations. The owners of the Hui have worked for years to restore the native plants and help the land heal itself. And in so doing, they heal themselves. No one asks whose “fault” it is.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t hold people and companies accountable for their actions. But there has to be a way to do it from a place of peace and deep love, understanding that in reality, we are not separate from each other. We can’t wait for someone else to fix the problems we face, but we also must not get caught up in knee-jerk reactivity to the latest outrages and provocations, a roller coaster ride of upheavals whose underlying purpose is to gain mouse clicks and likes and retweets in the pursuit of advertising dollars or political power. Who gains from pushing our collective buttons? Who wins by sapping our collective energy? Ultimately, no one.
I’m going to turn off the computer now and take a breath. Would you like to join me?