Cultivating Empathy

Last week during a walk, the sight of so many dead Christmas trees waiting to be taken away got to wearing on me.

I thought about a single one of these trees: the water that went into growing it, the fuel that went into chopping and transporting it, the money that Citizen Jane spent to have it in her home for just a few weeks. Resources well spent?

Not caring that my timing is all wrong (this is a topic for next November, really) I planned to do a tad bit of research for a post about all the ways we misallocate energy and funds in the name of Christmas. Surely entire websites are devoted to revamping unwise traditions. Visions of charitable donations and cloth wrapping paper filled my head.

But first I wanted a specific photo for the post: a dead tree stuffed into a garbage barrel. The one in my alley appeared almost perfect; if only that tea bag wrapper weren’t propped on the mouth of the can. Now, I don’t normally go around touching the neighbors’ trash. It’s not so much that I’m a pure documentarian (I’m far from it), it’s more the “ick” factor. I don’t know why I didn’t look around for a stick. I guess perhaps because the offending litter appeared to be dry. So I reached out and, with my left hand, lifted it away.

My fingers came back wet. Probably dew, I told myself. It was 2:30pm; that wasn’t dew. I looked at the droplets on my skin. Inhaled. Exhaled. Used my right hand to get the shot so the whole episode wouldn’t be in vain.

Wiping the mystery fluid off on to my pants didn’t occur to me. Then I’d just have to change and launder them immediately anyway.

I decided to use this as an exercise — to try and clean up without returning home. Yeah. I’ve got that much time on my hands.

First, I rubbed my two wet fingers on the closest clean looking thing I saw, a wooden fence. Turns out fences really can disguise their filth.

Now I was wet and muddy. I needed water. Didn’t have a bottle on me, so I walked to the curb where a little stream had collected in the gutter. Clean? Of course not, but it had to be better than whatever was originally on that tea wrapper. So I lowered my hand and let my fingers skim the liquid. The result: more mud.

I tried the grass; it works to clean shoes, right? Muddier still. The leaves of a bush; now I was just making a mess.

I gave up. Back in my apartment, running the water at the kitchen sink, grabbing a paper towel from the spool, I thought of the people in Haiti, the people I pass here in town with smudges on their faces, the Douglas Fir farmers, Citizen Jane. I let go of the idea to write a post about my disgust over the opulence of Christmas. I hadn’t lasted five minutes without my shelter. I have no business pointing fingers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *