Maintenance as self-care

– by Linda McIntyre

Hello again! It’s hard to believe that my fellowship with The Maintainers is winding down already. What an unanticipated pleasure it has been to collaborate with this community and learn so much from them, and from my fellow fellows

As I described in my previous post, I have had the good fortune to spend most of the pandemic in a beautiful small town on the Lake Michigan shore, where I can indulge my amateur interest in coastal ecology. My family and I have been safe, healthy, and secure, for which we are extremely grateful. But I temporarily left my “real life” in New York City behind in 2020, and I miss my friends and colleagues. I also miss the hum of a big city, even when it’s under extreme stress. Living in such a place, it’s easy to have the sense that you’re part of something, even if it’s only your apartment building. In a dense urban environment, cooperation is baked into day-to-day life. I’m getting ready to go back, and I’m looking forward to it, even though, in some ways, I’ve adapted to the rhythms of a small and seasonal community. 

 

Skyline of New York City in the evening
The Before Times…

 

Like many others, I have found the past few years to be challenging. I’ve worked in the public sector for most of my life, and I believe that civic institutions are extremely important. They have been under stress for quite a while, from forces that go beyond any single official or movement. If I let myself think about this too much, I’m overwhelmed by anxiety. And living in a quiet place makes it easy to think too much. 

My antidote has been picking up trash. The idea was probably inspired by essayist David Sedaris, who has written about, and been honored for, doing so around his home in West Sussex, England. Like Sedaris (and a lot of writers throughout recent history), I already spent a lot of time walking. I think better that way, and having lived in cities for most of my adult life, it’s my preferred mode of transportation. And also like Sedaris, I was initially appalled by the amount of litter I saw while walking around. Who just tosses waste on the side of the road, or the beach, or the park? 

Image of trash, a dirty piece of paper on a leafy ground
“Green” garbage. All trash photos taken by the author on the morning this post was written.

 

The answer appears to be “everyone.” Even though I detest political discourse as it currently exists, I can fall into the lazy binary thinking that characterizes it. So yes, there is a lot of garbage that might seem attributable to a cartoon version of the “red team:” cigarette packs and butts, fast food wrappers, beer cans, and so on. But there is plenty of cartoon “blue team” trash as well: masks, organic energy bar wrappers, sanitizing wipes, wine bottles, and more. There’s also a tremendous amount of what might be thought of as trash that unites us: Pizza boxes. Those red plastic Solo cups. Toys. Flip-flops. 

And, perhaps my least-favorite trash item, dog poo. Left (we don’t have many sidewalks) on the side of the road. In bags. This is a very dog-friendly area, so it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of waste. What is surprising is that people take the trouble to bag it, but then leave it for someone else to pick up. Why would they do this? It’s true that there aren’t a lot of public trash bins here, but there are some, especially in places where people like to walk with their dogs, such as the beach (dogs aren’t allowed on the beach, but many people ignore these rules, which is a topic for another blog post). One day, I saw a guy pick up his dog’s waste, bag it, and fling it up a hill into someone else’s yard.   

 

Bag of dog waste on the John Wollam Dune Trail, Saugatuck, Michigan.
Bag of dog waste on the John Wollam Dune Trail, Saugatuck, Michigan. There are multiple public trash bins at the trailheads.

 

This kind of thing used to upset me. Why do people come to a place valued for its natural beauty and then strew garbage all over it? Actually, a lot of things upset me, but I can’t do anything about the vast majority of them. I can, however, pick up trash. 

When people see me doing this, they often thank me. This makes me a little bit uncomfortable. I’m not doing this as a service to other people; my thoughts about people after I finish a trash hike are…not positive. I do care a lot about the local ecosystem–I’m in the midst of the world’s biggest freshwater dune system. I’m an enthusiastic amateur birder, and I’m fascinated by the creatures that surround me–even the deer who ravage my garden. I started picking up garbage for them. But to be truly honest, I pick it up for myself.  

 

Picnic table at Oval Beach, Saugatuck.
Picnic table at Oval Beach, Saugatuck. Nobody who might be drinking this is around. There’s a trash bin with unused capacity a couple of yards away.

 

When I think about the garbage at times when I’m not picking it up, it often makes me angry. But when I’m doing it, I’m not angry. I feel serene. This feeling extends even to the people who put it there. If you’re caring for a place, you can’t do it for some facets of the place and not others. I like to think that collecting plastic and styrofoam makes the ecosystem a tiny bit healthier. But it also benefits, a little bit, the people who live and visit here, including the people who throw their Kind Bar wrappers and Burger King cups on the trail or roadside. And at least in the moment, I’m glad. This act of care feels almost like meditation (which I also try to do, usually with little success). 

 

Bag full of trash next to a picker-upper.
This morning’s trash haul (minus what I offloaded into public bins with unused capacity): beer cans, water bottles, cigarette packs, plastic straws, styrofoam hunks, and more.

 

Filling my small bags (which are themselves part of my trash haul) accomplishes little in the grand scheme of things, even in this community. Tomorrow, there will be a lot more. But while picking up garbage, I’m not (just!) a brooding, melancholy weirdo in a fun beach town, missing urban life and despairing about climate change, democracy, and the world in general. 

I’m a Maintainer.   

 

NOTE: All images that are not explicitly cited from an external source were created by the author.

Preferred citation: Linda, McIntyre. (2021, August 25). Maintaining Communities Built on Sand. The Maintainers. https://themaintainers.org/maintenance-self-care/