I remember reading the news article about people dying from E. coli occurring in pre-washed, pre-cut, plastic-bagged spinach. At that time, I also read an interview Susie Bright conducted with a farmer who explained that spinach in and of itself is not dangerous. It is our passion for convenience—to open a bag of vegetables that someone has already cleaned and chopped for us—that requires a type of processing that makes our vegetables far more susceptible to disease.
I believed then, as I believe now, that E. coli poisoning born of a desire for consumer ease is a metaphor for the endless ways we pollute our imaginations and our lives with the speed and comfort of our high-performance machinery and culture. When it comes to creativity, in many cases, convenience kills.
A few years ago, I was photographed by the city of Portland, Oregon ––repeatedly––driving under the influence of poetry. Rather than appreciate the alternative interpretations my daydreaming mind might bring to the concept of “speed limit,” Big Brother said, “Enough is enough.” Driving 36-38 MPH in a 25 MPH zone four times in two years is grounds for a 30-day license suspension. I was grounded.
I am as goodie-two-shoes as they come. I didn’t want to break the law; I didn’t want to be punished. It is, of course, much more convenient to drive. But I have too much experience stumbling upon feast in the paradox of famine to get myself tangled up in upset about my temporary license suspension. Instead, I was eager to experience 30 days without a car. What would life be like below the radar? Who would I be without the privileged convenience and speed of driving I had enjoyed my entire adult life?
What I learned is that inconvenience trains tentative tendrils of receptivity to its lattice of laborious climb. In other words: the less convenient things are, the more awake you become. On a particularly aggravating summer day of needing to be somewhere I didn’t want to go, the sky was gray, the air thick and sticky. It seemed appropriate to have to physically trudge uphill and as I set my mind and my pace to it, I stepped over a torn piece of paper on the sidewalk on 41st Avenue, probably ¼ mile or so north of my house. It looked like someone’s homework.
After an hour’s wait in an overflowing waiting room, I spent another hour walking home. This time, I found myself slowing down over the torn page resting peacefully on the sidewalk. It was yellow, 8 ½” x 11”, wide-ruled in blue, torn from the top out of someone’s notebook. I think it caught my attention because there was only a single sentence written at the top of an otherwise blank page. In blue pen, carefully printed in fat, bubble letters, it read: Can’t take back the things that I did before.
I stood over this paper as if it were a baby bird that had fallen from a nest I could not find. I leapt back from it as if singed. I read it. I read it again. I looked in a wide sweep in all directions of the street: nothing. Into the heavens: no one. Who put this here? I stood over the paper for maybe another 20 seconds before some impulse came over me to grab it and fold it into my pocket stealthily, as if someone might try to tear it out of my hands.
Can’t take back the things that I did before. I clutched this tattered totem of sidewalk truth in this moment of absolute, clarifying, unfathomable grace and continued walking slowly home. It lived on my bulletin board for more than a year, and in that time grew into a poem, an essay and a philosophy about learning how to listen to what the world around us is offering us. How might you keep yourself just uncomfortable and awake enough to notice the gifts that are literally falling at your feet?