by Susan Fisher
“Merely looking at the world around us is immensely different from seeing it.” — Frederick Franck
Late in February, I compress, squeeze and fold my body into a Sunwing all-inclusive flight to Cuba for two weeks with my friends, Maureen and Dave. Such travel has never become me. Vast, all-you-can-gobble buffets and bingo by the pool with herds of baa-ing tourists are too ghastly to contemplate for someone as adventurous, and, let’s face it, discerning as I. Besides, I love winter.
On the other hand, I am now 74 with a cranky back and unpredictable energy levels. The grim truth is that my backpacking hostelling days are long past. Come midwinter, now my bones crave warmth. And ocean. The three of us agreed. Just get us to sun and sand where meals appear regularly, and leave us in peace.
Yes, I have sold my soul to the devil, and am glad. Quietly, so as not to alarm my seat mates, I practice baa-ing.
We arrive at our resort before midnight, rumpled and stunned as accident victims. Less than a minutes’ walk from our rooms, the ocean sighs.
“Come. Come and be healed,” it breathes. We totter to its shore and stand there in the moonlight, silent. Luminous clouds. The lap of waves. How did we get here? By what sorcery? Never again will I sneer at warm winter vacations.
For a couple of days we wander like clouds from ocean to dining room (which we affectionately dub The Trough) and back to ocean. I can’t get enough of staring at, or floating in, those charismatic waters. I send prayers of gratitude to the sea. I feel healed. Healed from grey thoughts of my dwindling days on earth. Healed from physical static I didn’t know I was harbouring until it vanished — washed away by the living, breathing ocean.
I begin daily to pay my respects to this watery marvel each morning before breakfast. But wait a minute. What is this? Three or four men are raking up mound after mound of garbage — mostly plastic — and dead blue jellyfish. The two foot high mounds line the beach like small, grubby pyramids. Next comes a rusty Russian tractor pulling a wagon. The ocean vomit is pitchforked in and hauled away.
I know about human garbage in our waters. I have written about this as a freelance journalist focussing on endangered species and ecosystems. Written self-righteous articles; intellectual understandings that I could hold at an arms length, then file away, out of sight. But this morning as I stand on the shore, a wave tumbles in and dumps a child’s shoe, a green toothbrush and a Gatorade bottle at my feet. I gingerly poke one of the jellyfish, inflated like a triangular balloon, it’s tentacles clotted beneath it.
This is something I can no longer file away.
At the resort’s Internet Cafe I Google ‘oceans and plastic’ and am swamped with website after website. My eyes roll like marbles.
The world’s biggest landfill is in the Pacific Ocean . . . it is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Eight million metric tons of plastic trash enter the seas every year.
I scroll down, my eyes watering.
A remote beach in Hawaii is now known as Plastic Beach for the tons of debris that accumulate there.
Fish and wildlife become tangled, poisoned, smothered, strangled…
I wobble to the lunch buffet and stuff myself with rich cheeses, roast chicken, guavas, fresh figs. I can see the ocean as I sip my tea — teal and sky blue with streaks of navy. I feel queasy and not because of lunch.
Then it’s back to the computer. I Google ‘oceans and jellyfish’. Another stampede of websites gallops down the screen.
Jellyfish are taking over our oceans . . . the result of over fishing, pollution and climate change.
In 2000, a jellyfish bloom off the coast of Australia could be seen from space.
Billions of small Mauve Stinger jellyfish wipe out Northern Ireland’s only salmon farm, killing more than 100,000 fish.
Japan’s now annual bloom of Nomura jellyfish, each the size of a large refrigerator, capsized and sank a 10-ton trawler when the fishermen tried to haul up a net full of them.
I can’t continue reading this. Instead I go snorkelling. I see a few fish and many plastic bags. Also a man walking on the reef in spite of signs forbidding this. He is too far out for me to yell at him.
The beach is now littered with lounge chairs and blissed-out tourists. It’s an all-inclusive perfect day. Except that the ocean and its creatures are being murdered. I desperately want someone to blame. But who? Cubans? Tourists? Resorts? Plastic manufacturers? Governments? Capitalists? Communists? The me generation?
I stomp up the beach. I meet a string bean Cuban squatting grasshopper-like by his wares — tiny bits of shell and rock spread out neatly on a rag. His smile is huge. My heart melts and I grin back. I can’t blame him. The fact is, we’re all guilty. And that means me.
Every morning until we leave, I stand with my feet in the lapping water and apologize. While the clean-up crew is raking, I pray that we all learn to respect the oceans. As I mutter prayers, my resident critic, Cruella DeVille, sneers. (She’s the voice in my head whose life-long mission is to make me doubt and even despise myself.) “Well Little Miss Perfect, you think a few pious platitudes are going to fix this god-awful mess? You are pathetic.”
“Buzz off Cruella. I know what I’m doing.” (I must admit that I have grown strangely fond of Cruella thanks to years of meditation and astute Buddhist teachers. It’s my choice to believe her or not. And on the good side, she makes me think hard about things, whether I want to or not.) She’s right. Prayers won’t fix this. But they strengthen my wish to see all beings be well. They prod me to take responsibility for that wish. So now what?
That night I am hypnotized by the Presidential Primaries on CNN. Senator Rubio says Trump’s hands are small. Mr. Trump is insulted. Small hands it seems are a metaphor for small genitals. Two CNN reporters obsess over this nuttiness as though it were deeply meaningful. I click off the TV and stare at the ceiling. Outside, the ocean rolls and rolls, heaves and sighs.
Cruella sees her chance and rises up. “What about starving orphans and puppy mills? Or racism and Frankenfoods?” This sort of remark used to paralyze me. But that was when I actually believed Cruella; let her bully me. She’s been pretty hard core for many decades, but I’m finally on to her. Now I mostly feel sorry for her. Besides, she looks ridiculous in her pointy hat and black polyester dress, especially at a Caribbean resort.
My doppleganger pulls out her trump card. “Let’s face it, you are very old. Your days as an activist are long gone. Next stop, a smelly nursing home for you.” I fluff my pillow and turn out the light.
“Don’t forget to lock the door when you leave” I tell her.
The next morning I tilt up the beach into a buffeting wind. Only two other people are walking and no-one is swimming. The red flag is up. Nonetheless, the lanky Cuban man is hunkered alone by his windswept offerings of wee stones and shells. As added incentive, he has drawn the words Viva Fidel y Raul in the sand. Apparently noone has told him that he’s too poor, too uneducated, too pathetic or too old to make a living this way. Either that or he’s desperate.
Either way, I have a lot to learn from him.
I give him some pesos and pick out two shells. We smile back and forth. He tries to give me more pieces and I say gracias and choose two more from his palm. He hugs me with wide arms and not in a creepy way. Then the wind and clipper ship clouds sail me up to breakfast.
That does it! No more plastic bags for me. If I forget to bring my cloth bag to the store, I will go to my car and fetch them, no matter what sort of hurry I’m in. No more drinking straws either, not even for my grandkids. Plus I’ll buy compostable kitchen bags made of GMO-free potato starch. It’s not much, but it’s something. Maybe I will think of other things. Perhaps you will too. Of course Cruella is still telling me I’m old, pathetic and can’t make a difference, so why bother? I notice the far too red lipstick smeared on her false teeth and tell her, kindly, that she lacks credibility.