Essay / Wise Woman Wednesday

How Far is Far Enough?

by Angela

Mom knew I leaned hippie, but imagine her surprise when, quite blush with embarrassment, she told me our toilet was broken and I told her it was intentional.  We had cut water off to the toilet and jerry-rigged a gray water system. There was a cat litter bucket under the sink to catch rinse water, which was then to be poured into the tank to flush solids. And for the liquids? “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. …”

It was 2006 and Matt and I, along with our little ragamuffin intentional community, had new convictions for creation care and to be honest, we were quite proud of our new practices. We recycled anything we could, and repurposed the rest, doing things like making welcome mats from plastic grocery bags. We made bread and gluten roasts, brewed beer and kombucha, grew sprouts (and their BFF mold), and made almond milk and whey from scratch. (Food was a huge part of community life. All PETA-made vegetarians, we hosted a vegan Thanksgiving feast for 40 of our closest friends where the piece de resistance was a homemade Tofurky.)

And then there was the dumpster diving. I drew the line at dairy products and unwrapped fruits and vegetables. There was just something unholy about eating a cucumber out of a dumpster, I rationalized. But all the rest was fair game. Some nights the finds were paltry and we’d come home with a couple of boxes of cereal. Other nights we couldn’t have asked for more – and not just food. Candles, notebooks, pens, things that just didn’t make sense to find in a dumpster. And on one awesome night when Cat happened to remark, “Dude, I could SO use some hand sanitizer,” we found a case of it in the very next dumpster. God was with us.

I decided I was going to make my own clothes to avoid purchasing clothing made in questionable factories. I started off slowly, first repurposing jeans into skirts or purses. Then came the embroidery and stenciling – taking old tee-shirts that were in our rag pile, turning them inside out and making them new with a purple paisley here, a clever quote about the myth of redemptive violence there.

Then came the sewing. I bought a new sewing machine (the guys – yes, the guys – had broken my other one sewing pouches for their iPods) and set out to find some suitable fabric for this endeavor.

And that’s when it all fell apart.

I did some research on fabric and learned polyester is made from coal, air, water, and petroleum. Spandex is a polyester offshoot. Nylon’s another petroleum derivative. All right, so plant-based fabric it is… I thought. A little more research and I learned that most plant-based fabric, including cotton, is treated with toxic chemicals to dye the fabric and print the fabric.  So, I decided that I’d just weave my own fabric out of naturally dyed yarn.  Then I learned that plant based fabrics, including cotton, are customarily treated with pesticides. Fine! Organic. Cotton. Yarn.  And then came the news that laborers who pick cotton, many of them children, are subject to horrendous working conditions. I drew the line at growing my own cotton.

This is just one example. I stopped buying bottled water only to find my reusable bottle was made with BPA. I bought Tom’s antiperspirant only to notice it still has aluminum in it. It seemed like the further down the sustainable rabbit hole I went, the more overwhelmed I became by the fact that I could never ensure my actions and purposes weren’t hurting someone somewhere along the line. Alongside all of that “conscious” consuming that was supposed to be life giving, I felt crushed underneath a burden of never being able to do enough. I needed to know how far was far enough, and no one could tell me.

I came to a point when I realized I’d either need to quit my job and make every single thing I’d eat, drink, apply, wear, ride, flush, or bring into my home with my own two hands, or I’d need to begin prioritizing and compromising. Never one to compromise well, I began seeing it all as futile.

Seven years later, I must admit I’ve swung too far the other way. I’m back to drinking aspartame. Today I bought clothes at Kohl’s and shoes at Target – not made in the USA and certainly not organic. I’m a meat-eater and though most of the times we do try to eat organic meat, eggs, and dairy, with two small kids we also eat a lot of convenience meals and I don’t ask many questions. I flush when I pee. I run the water when I brush my teeth. I take long showers. I don’t compost. Sometimes I’m too lazy to wash out plastic containers so I just throw them in the trash.

The little community at Renew and Sustain has given me a gift – courage to commit to sustainability again. Courage to ask questions. Courage to make my own decisions about the practices that will fit in the rhythms of my life and bring joy and the practices that will just weigh me down. Courage to define how far is far enough.

It’s still a working definition, but what’s swirling in my mind is something like this:

“If, to preserve my own convenience or comfort, this choice will put someone else’s health or life at risk, I will make another choice. If I do not have the skills or capacity to pick the best choice, I will look for an alternative. If there are no good alternatives, I will pause and I will make a choice – knowing full well it may not be the best possible choice there is – aware of the impact my choice has on another of God’s creatures.”

I still wish I could make my own clothes. But it is simply not within my current capacity to add picking cotton, spinning cotton into yarn, weaving yarn into fabric, and turning fabric into clothing to my routine. So I will continue to buy clothing. But I can commit not to buy so much, so often – just because I need a change. And I can commit not to buy from stores with known connections to child labor and sweatshops. It might not be far enough, but it’s also not too far to go.

angela-1Angela, our Wednesday Wise Woman is partner to Matt, foster mom to O and J, Truth-chaser, and education addict. She loves to play with words, workflow rules, herbs, and dirt. Angela lives in rural Illinois, where her family is part of an intentional Christian community. When she gets up the gumption, Angela blogs over at Leaping Greenly and hatch*.


11 thoughts on “How Far is Far Enough?

  1. Angela, I love this post. I really struggle with this too. Once you become aware of how to look at the source for your clothes/food/household items, it is a slippery slope. I’ve talked to Christiana and my sister quite a bit about the different choices we each make. We’ve started a non-profit that works with refugees (which is good!) but we barely ever buy organic food (which is not good!) and I certainly don’t spend time thrifting or making my kids’ clothes or composting or growing my own vegetables or baking bread from scratch. These are all things I want to do, but I have to make choices in order to actually live. I’m enjoying this blog, too, to hear in reasonable, measured language about my friends’ choices. I love that your post calls us back from a perfectionistic edge and gives room to be supportive to each other no matter what choices we make. Thanks.

  2. Oh, I am so grateful for your story, and I love where you have ended up. I often tumble down the spiral you describe, but I will remember your wisdom for next time.

  3. Thanks for the comments! It is certainly a slippery slope, and like you say, J.R., we must all “make choices in order to actually live.” What I’m still learning personally is how to give myself grace, instead of guilt, when the choice I need to make is less than perfect. I’m hoping that sharing our stories can help us all to make those choices without shame.

  4. I remember those days. It was a tough time for me. I was exposed to a lot of new things. My conclusions thus far:

    In my experience, extreme lifestyles (freeganism, veganism, attachment parenting) often cause people to start to be prideful about the way they are living and it pushes people that love them out of their lives. How can you be in relationship with someone you look down on, that you don’t respect? Hypothetical people and animals in other places, in other countries, become more important than the ones in front of them – in their lives.

    I remember my vegan roommate in Oregon who would kick and scream at my dog (an old girl-a rescue who later died of cancer) and preach how my kitchen smelled of death when I would make a turkey and cheese sandwich. How she would only ride her bike everywhere and tell me my car was killing the earth – but if she needed a ride somewhere far away she would ask me to take her in my car.

    I remember my first husband, raised in attachment parenting – the oldest and only one of his siblings raised that way – and he was the most selfish, entitled and arrogant person it has been my misfortune to know thus far.

    My point is that extreme is often unloving and unkind to the people in front of you who have made a different choice.

    I remember the thanksgiving you mentioned. I wanted to bring a non-vegan couple of plates for me and my then-husband (he was fighting with me and didn’t want to go because of the vegan thing) and was told we were not welcome unless we went completely vegan for the holiday. We persevered and went – and we very much enjoyed the company – if not the food 🙂

    I am thankful that during that time – in spite of the conflict and hurt that sometimes occurred – that you and Matt kept trying and communicating and that our relationship endured. Angela, it was your extreme effort to communicate with me during that time that made you unique in the lifestyle. Most extreme lifestyles do not make the effort like you guys do.

    Now – all of us older and wiser – it is easier for me to understand why people make these choices. I can overlook someone who attacks me because I plan to raise my children in the mainstream and buy my food at Kroger or occasionally at the Dallas farmers market. Because I am aware – I have seen the documentaries – I have read the research and I have made my choice. It is most important to me to have the time to teach my children to be kind and loving humans to the suffering people here in front of them – to change our broken city, then state, then nation – than it is to give them the burden of thinking they must save the world. If they then conclude that they must save the world – I can understand and support them.

    Thank you, Angela, for starting me on that journey.

  5. Thank you so much for this. I love your honesty in this post. You have voiced many of my own fears and failings. My husband and I talk a lot about this problem. There are choices that we have made about what we eat, how we clean our home, what things we can make from scratch and where we need to compromise. We try to be diligent in making sustainable choices while also recognizing that we have responsibilities and commitments that don’t always allow us to avoid chemicals or corruption or exploitation of workers. We try our best and when we learn of a new way we could try better, we try that. (Lots of trying, not always as much succeeding!) And we always leave room for receiving hospitality from others, which means sometimes we consume or receive things that we not choose on our own. And it is a gift. We cannot be perfect, but we can try better and do so with love, which is really at the root of our desire for sustainability anyway.

    Your blog post resonated with some lines from the litany of penitence we prayed on this Ash Wednesday. These lines in particular: “Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people, we confess to you Lord…Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work, we confess to you Lord…Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty…For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us, accept our repentance, Lord.” It seems that even in the midst of trying our best, we will always fail to be perfect because we cannot be. But today I am reminded that I am not called to be perfect, I am called to be obedient. And so we try a little better, we admit our failings, and we pray for forgiveness. And then we take a deep breath in gratitude for the gifts we have, particularly in this case, the gift to make these kinds of choices.

  6. I love these replies and Angela’s frankness with her struggles, which seems to resonate with all of us. I think most of us have felt shame or guilt when it comes to living sustainably. Whether it’s a neighbor who thinks it’s a sin to use the clothes drier or our own sense of failure when we haven’t done what we think we can or should do. I think Angela is on to something with this working definition. None of us will fix the pain, violence and destruction in our world. But I think we’re all called to live and love as best as we are able and to ask God bring us to those unexpected places, giving us more energy and different desires. I hope we can let go of the guilt and learn from each other. We’re in this together!

  7. This is a good Lenten conversation, isn’t it? Thanks for pointing that out, Jocelyn, and to Christiana for reminding us that it is a community effort – even if we are a geographically scattered community, we are still a community of support.

  8. I really resonate with the sentiments of extremism pushing away those we love. I have an addictive personality and a heavy leaning to the hippie ways. I walk the same extreme ‘back to the land’ road repeatedly, like many of you. I have found myself thinking less of those that don’t make X or grow their own Y (like i do, or i want to do) and my wife tells me i accidentally come off as judgmental. I hate that. I realize how judgmental i might be when one of my extreme vegan or paleo friends tries to indoctrinate me. then it all becomes clear.

    if we lean these sustainable ways, good for us. i hope i can promote the benefits and still love and respect those that choose differently. I hope i can take the good from the extremists around me, and leave out what doesn’t work for me RIGHT NOW. maybe i’ll be different tomorrow.

    I love homemade everything, sustainability, all-things-back-to-the-land. i think i even like being an extremist in name. but i hope that all of that NEVER turns me into an EXCLUSIONIST….


  9. I am beginning to find out that the feeling of shame is not apart of what God intended.
    And that one little thing is going to cause Him to stop loving me. Your words, dear Angela, reminded me of His grace and omnipotence. No matter our contribution, good or unhelpful, he is at work. Thank you Angela!!!
    And yes, I have also done the ‘throw the nasty used to be food in a plastic container into the trash’ bit…on more than one occasion

  10. Pingback: A Renew Review | Renew and Sustain

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