Cleaning, Weeding, Weaving (or: Is Cleanliness Really Next to Godliness?)

Spiders are taking over my house and garden. Well, not really . . . but there are a lot more of them around lately. It’s not because there’s been an explosion in the spider population as far as I know. I just haven’t been cleaning or working in the garden as much.

Reading this statement, you may think that I’ve grown lazy. Well, maybe I have. But more to the point are these two reasons: a realization that being overly fastidious about removing dust bunnies (and spider webs) in the home or a proliferation of weeds in the garden is a waste of time, and a growing need to put my beliefs about the natural world into practice.

When you get to a certain point in your life, you realize that you are running out of time. A clean and well-dusted house may have meant a great deal to me when I was younger (my mother had something to do with this attitude of mine; she was always cleaning, and I would often come home from school to find the rugs rolled up and her down on her hands and knees and scrubbing the floors or find her with her head inside emptied kitchen cabinets), but now it occurs to me that having a clean house is a waste of precious time. I have a button on my bulletin board that declares, “A clean house is a sign of a wasted life,” and I pretty much agree. It’s not that I let the house get totally out of hand; it’s just that I’ve developed a certain tolerance for letting things get messier and dustier than I used to. Cleaning a house may make you feel good, and there may even be a sense of accomplishment, but this is short lived, as one’s domicile quickly returns to its pre-dusted and scoured state. The same can be said for weeding: If I weed my garden from start to finish (from one bed through to the last), by the time I finish (this over several days, as my garden is rather large), weeds have staged a comeback in the first bed I worked on. Any sense of satisfaction I may get from my tidy garden fades as soon as I see those weeds have returned, and my satisfaction turns to annoyance. So, while I do weed, I allow myself to tolerate a greater amount of weediness than I would have tolerated previously, before I set to the task again.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s important to feel a sense of accomplishment, and some people get this from a house well cleaned or a garden well weeded. It’s just that I’ve decided to put my energies into things that deliver a sense of accomplishment more long lasting. Writing, for instance. While it took me years, I did finally finish and have published a 350-page memoir. That’s given me a sense of accomplishment that won’t fade so fast. And if my house wasn’t dusted as often or my garden weeded as often as the previous me would have wished, so what? Another thing that has given me much enjoyment has been music. Two years ago, I joined a choir. As singing with others has been something I’ve wanted to do for years, I have found it immensely satisfying and inspiring to do so. And I’ve been playing guitar much more regularly and have actually gotten to the point where I’m not afraid to play in front of others. The sense of satisfaction I’ve gotten from my musical endeavors isn’t likely to fade quickly, either.

The increasing number of spiders in my house and garden also has to do with putting my beliefs about the natural world into practice. Spiders have a right to live, just as we do. What harm is there if a few spider webs (and even a bit more than a few) appear in the upper corners of rooms for awhile, or if webs proliferate in the shrubs and flowerbeds? Spiders are amazing creatures, spinning their webs almost overnight, and they catch mosquitoes and other insects I’m not overly fond of. It’s not that I don’t sometimes remove spider webs (one large spider built a huge one overnight last summer right outside and across our front door!), but I ask myself this question before acting: Do I really need to remove this web at this time? I remind myself that I’m about to destroy the spider’s home, akin to a Hurricane Sandy event for this creature (albeit not involving water). Granted, it’s easier for a spider to rebuild its home than it is for us humans when flooded out, but from the spider’s point of view, maybe not. After all, they have a much shorter life span than we do. In one of the shrubs next to our front door, we had a veritable spider condo going on for quite a few weeks, until it got so out of hand, I (very gently), removed the webs, taking care not to injure the occupants. They’ve already started reweaving.

Bangladesh Building Collapse: Who’s to Blame?

The death toll in the Bangladesh building collapse that occurred on April 24 is 433 dead, a figure that is likely to rise. This is a tragedy linked to those of us living in the developed world because the building that collapsed housed five garment factories employing workers making clothing for European and American consumers. It’s little wonder that the garment industry is booming in Bangladesh, as its low wages, as low as $38.50 a month, have made the country a magnet for numerous global brands.

Well, you might say, it’s not our fault that the top three floors of the eight-story structure were illegally constructed. Nor is it our fault that despite large cracks being discovered in the building the day before the collapse and an evacuation order being ordered, the owner of the building told tenants that the building was safe, and workers were ordered back to work. But we have to recognize that it is our insatiable appetite for low-cost clothing that fuels the industry. The companies that respond to our ever-increasing desire for low-cost jeans and dresses allow such tragedies to happen by placing their lust for profits above the safety and well-being of workers. Anxious to please their stockholders with fat dividends, they do their best to keep their production costs down by skimping on safety and wages.

We need to let these companies know that we won’t tolerate substandard conditions at any of the factories that supply them. We can do this by boycotting retailers who refuse to accept responsibility for what happens in these factories or refuse to improve conditions and raise wages. If conditions and wages improve, clothes and other goods will end up costing more, but this is a price we must be willing to bear. It just isn’t right to expect such low prices when they are linked to terrible working conditions abroad (and at home, I might add, Wal-Mart being a prime example). Though we should be willing to pay a bit more for our clothing, companies should not pass on all the higher costs to the consumer. Instead, they should absorb some of the costs themselves by lowering dividend payments and the salaries of their CEOs and top management.

However, the clothing companies are not the only problem. Our consumer culture, and a deeply ingrained view that we have a right to low-cost goods, leads us to buy more and more things, thus fueling the industry. We demand low-cost goods without thinking of how it came to be that the pants or shirt that we are buying at such a great price came to cost so little. Rarely do we think about the garment worker laboring in poor conditions for little pay to produce the clothes we buy. Imagine buying a pair of jeans and finding out that the person who sewed them died in the Bangladesh building collapse! We need to see those Bangladeshi workers who perished in the building collapse as individuals, each with a story, each a brother, a father, a sister, a mother. (Though I have little doubt that most victims are female, as the majority of garment workers are women.)

Here’s a question to contemplate: Do we really need to buy so much clothing? Despite the large amounts hanging in our closets and filling our drawers, we consistently go out and buy more. We could refuse to play along with the fashion designers who get some of us to buy a new wardrobe every year by proclaiming what we wore last year to be out of fashion. Who says it’s out of fashion, we could say, and go on wearing the still perfectly good clothing we already have. And instead of buying more low-cost clothing, we could buy at least some of it at secondhand stores and consignment shops. If more of us bought some secondhand items (many of which are in quite good condition, and I speak from experience!), there would be less demand for new clothing, which would help out the environment. (For yet another aspect to the garment industry story is the number of negative impacts the industry has on the environment. One of these is the sheer amount of waste that is ultimately produced. According to the EPA Office of Solid Waste, Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year.)

Even so, the demand for low-cost clothing is not likely to abate anytime soon, and these goods will continue to be made in countries far from our shores. Bangladesh, being one of the poorest of them, needs jobs. But the working conditions for its garment workers must improve, and if that means we end up paying a bit more for our clothing–and for companies to make a bit less profit– so be it. Until then, perhaps we can look for clothing made right here at home.