Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Life Before Plastic

When the first factory-made men’s shirts arrived from America to Quito, Ecuador in the late 1950s, they came in clear plastic bags. I don’t know which of my classmates first realized the potential of the bags as ultra-modern, super-cool book carriers, but when she showed up in school with her books neatly encased in one of those bags, we all longed for the day when we too could discard our hand-tooled leather satchels and replace them with plastic bags.

When my mother finally bought one of those shirts, she let me have the bag. I remember carefully sliding my books and notebooks into it, and admiring the effect of my school things neatly contained by a material that, like Cinderella’s glass slipper, simultaneously protected and revealed them.

But my plastic bag was as fragile as the glass slipper, and after a while the corners of my books made holes in it. I didn’t much care, however, because by then my parents and I were packing our suitcases for our new home in the land of plastic, America.

Before those bags, for the first thirteen years of my life, in Spain and later in Ecuador, I had lived a plastic-free existence. The objects that surrounded me were made of wood, metal, glass, stone, wool, cotton, clay, paper, straw, rubber, or celluloid.

Other than paper, very little was ever thrown away, and objects like the red clay pan in which the maid washed the dishes, or the long bag of unbleached cotton in which she brought the bread home from the bakery, had been around since before my birth, and I thought of them as sort of second-class members of the family.

Other than as containers for dried flower arrangements, who uses baskets anymore? But all through my childhood the eggs, almonds, cherries and sausages that my grandmother shipped to Barcelona weekly from her farm came by train in a deep two-handled wicker basket covered with burlap, and both basket and burlap were piously preserved and returned to her by that same train.

When my mother went to the fish market she carried a flatter basket, its handle looped over her arm. I had a basket of my own, a smaller version of my mother’s.
I loved the fishwives, goddesses who sat enthroned above their displays, wearing blood-spattered white aprons decorated with broad bands of lace.

Fish of all sizes and colors, squid, octopuses, mussels and clams were arranged mandala-like on round wicker trays, and gleamed as brightly as the rose window of a gothic cathedral. After my mother had made her choice, the peixatera would wrap up for me a single iridescent blue sardine, to carry home in my own little basket.

The Mediterranean of my childhood was crammed with fish, one of the few reliable bounties in those hardscrabble, post-civil war years. Now it, like the rest of the waters on the planet, is having the life choked out of it by millions of tons of plastic—fish-ensnaring, habitat-poisoning, indestructible plastic, most of it in the form of plastic bags.

The plastic bags that had seemed so rare and precious to my schoolmates and me in 1958 have become the banner of environmental destruction. Things must change, and soon. In the words of Joanna Macy, “While the agricultural revolution took centuries, and the industrial revolution took generations, this ecological revolution has to happen within a matter of a few years.”  (quoted by Richard Rohr)

The scope of the disaster is so enormous that I often want to just give up. But if optimism is the only moral choice, then I must act as if my efforts count. So in my own small battle for the survival of the planet, I keep my flag—a well-worn New Yorker canvas bag—in the back of the car, and proudly fly it when I walk into a store.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Passionate Cursive

Life of my heart, the only woman I have ever kissed, I want to kneel at your feet forever… my 28-year-old father writes.

A stack of letters between my parents has lately come into my hands. The first letter dates from 1941, at the very start of their courtship, when he is her violin teacher, and the last is probably from 1953, the year before we leave Spain for Ecuador.

Between those two dates there are dozens of letters, most of them written by my father in Barcelona during the times my mother is at her parents’ farm in the country. But during their courtship he writes even while they are both in the city and he sees her every day. He walks her home from the university and then goes to his parents’ apartment, finds a quiet corner and pours out his adoration on paper (goddess of my dreams, star of my firmament, joy of my life…).

The next day he meets her at the usual place. “When I would see him coming,” my mother once told me, “I always looked at his breast pocket, to see if there was a letter peeking out.”

There usually was, and these and the letters that he wrote during their times apart make for overwhelming reading. The first time I plowed through them, I had to take breaks, because their intensity made me gasp.

Does anybody still write love letters like these (adorable angel, without you the city is a desert, gray and dead, and I wander the streets like a soul in torment…)? Her beautiful hair, the soft skin of her cheeks, her hands, her eyes, her sublime spirit have kindled in him a flame that will never be extinguished…With his music and her love, he tells her over and over, he needs neither wealth nor fame to be the happiest man on earth.

In letter after letter, my father’s elegant handwriting unfolds across the page like a visual melody. How can these harmonious loops and strokes, these impeccably parallel lines, hold so much ardor?

My mother’s letters—there are several in the collection—match his in intensity, but the writing is often illegible. Sometimes the handwriting leans forward, others backward, and the words stretch out or bunch irregularly on the page, propelled by the changing rhythms of her feelings. 

But my musician father was accustomed to containing his emotions within the boundaries of a certain form, and even in the transports of amorous passion, his pen-holding fingers kept a steady beat. Which is why, reading his letters almost a century later, I can feel his young heart, beating in my hands.