You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train

I used to use my car so rarely that I considered on several occasions getting rid of it entirely (I had, after all, gone years without one shortly after I started teaching). I could go an entire summer without getting in my car even once. During the school year, the car was nice for days I had to carry a lot of books or I had a long meeting after work, but most days I preferred the bus because I could read and relax. Of all my earth-friendly choices, not driving was probably the best.

Then, just over six months ago, I got injured. I went from walking everywhere within three miles and taking the bus everywhere else to sometimes having to drive to the corner store (I can walk there with little or no pain, but walking back is another story). I did everything I was supposed to: anti-inflammatories, physical therapy, insane amounts of rest. I got a mobility scooter because I can’t make it across my large campus, and I have a handicapped placard because I can walk such short distances that I can’t walk to a place and in a place. Even with the placard, though, grocery shopping often involves the in-store scooter.

The week before school let out, I actually felt a little better. I was on my feet at least twenty minutes and possibly thirty in a row without pain. It was the first significant progress I’d made. I was so excited, I immediately bought an interagency bus pass. I thought, as long as I didn’t take the bus anywhere that required too much walking, I’d be fine.

Then I had the worst relapse yet. After a short stroll through a bookstore, my ankle, foot, and calf began to ache worse than they had in a while. And that’s where I am right now; I have a bus pass, but I can’t use it unless I actually cross the line, admit to myself that I’m disabled, and take the bus in my scooter.

And that terrifies me.

I want to walk and hike and dance again, and since this week yet another treatment has proven useless (my stomach can’t handle the super strong drug I was given), there’s only one treatment option left and very little hope.

So, I’ve been thinking about why I’m so scared of taking my scooter on the bus. I know it fits. I know that on a full charge I can go 10 miles. I know that I’m not self-conscious about going about in my scooter. I know it’ll be a bit awkward going onto buses where I know the drivers and they’re used to me walking, but I also know I’ll get over that. So, then, what is stopping me?

And I think I found it: fear of change.

The bus has always represented freedom to me. With a pass and my two feet, I can go anywhere. A major consideration when we bought our house was that it’s located near three major bus lines. Now, a major source of freedom has been taken from me, and I have to adapt to that change. Some stops for the bus and train aren’t handicapped accessible, and some areas in my city don’t even have sidewalks. It’s going to take research and trial and error to have the bus mean freedom to me again.

The truth is, I think many people considering a more eco-friendly lifestyle go through the same thing I’m going through coming to terms with my (hopefully temporary) disability. There are two things I’ve identified so far as the reasons most people do nothing about the tons of waste they produce each year:

Lack of awareness
Disposable items are so ubiquitous as to be invisible in our society. Every author I’ve read on the subject of limiting waste has referenced an awakening moment. A moment when they realized how our day to day actions negatively affect the planet, other animals, our physical bodies, and our mental well-being. Until that moment happens, we can do some pretty horrible things out of convenience. One of my goals in the anti-spork campaign is to make waste and disposability seem unnatural to children and teenagers.

I’m going to argue that many people have had that awakening and then done very little (switched to reusable bags, say) and nothing else because it’s too hard. It’s for those people that I decided to track what I’m learning on this topic; I’m hoping to someday have one master post on steps to zero-waste living, starting with the very easy and inexpensive and going all the way to something as daunting as a greywater system. Each small description would include a link to more detailed posts including reviews of products, recipes, etc.

Now I’m going to add a third:

Human beings have a strong desire to belong, and making a bunch of drastic changes can feel isolating. Friends and family might think we’re judging them because they aren’t making the same changes we are, we might actually judge them (I don’t recommend this) out of bitterness over the many conveniences we’ve given up but they are still enjoying. We might be afraid of missing out on a favorite food or form of entertainment. We might be afraid of the time it takes to make things from scratch or find products not made of plastic or not encased in unnecessary blister packs.

Most of all, we might be afraid that nothing we do matters. But let me assuage that fear, at least: as a teacher, I know that what people do matters much, much more than what people say. If you act in harmony with your morals and beliefs, then people will take notice and be inspired.

The title of Howard Zinn’s autobiography, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train, has long been how I measure my decisions. I now ask myself as I stare down the Lays Stax or other super-packaged convenience item, “Does buying this make things worse? Does it add more to a landfill or the Pacific Garbage Patch than another decision I could make?” If the answer is yes, then I can’t just go with it because everyone else is — the status quo is not neutral. Doing nothing is not neutral. It is a vote in favor of the direction the world is headed ecologically, politically, and socially.

I’ve let my disability take me backwards in my goal of sustainable living. I’ve bought more gas in the past six months than I usually buy in a year and a half. It’s time for me to face my fear of riding the bus without the option of walking. What fear can you face today?

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