Four Bags: My Mother’s Gift of Living Simply

Four Bags: My Mother’s Gift of Living Simply

by Sarah Flint Erdreich

March 22, 2011

The best Hanukkah gift I ever gave my mother was four canvas bags. My sister and I ordered them from the Seventh Generation catalog, and when the box arrived we took out the plain, off-white totes, ironed them, and then carefully wrapped the bags. My mother was delighted; over twenty years later, those bags have hauled countless books to the library, groceries home from the store, and gym clothes to and from the locker room.

Yet it never occurred to me that my mother was concerned with environmental health or any kind of eco-friendly living. She recycled, sure, but she also ate meat and used household cleaners chock-full of toxic chemicals. To my adolescent mind in 1990, caring about the environment meant joining World Wildlife Fund or becoming an environmental lawyer or organizing boycotts of Exxon: taking action in the larger world. The only useful actions, I thought, were the ones performed on a large scale.

It’s true that to enact any meaningful improvement in the health of our environment we need top-down work from organizations and people seriously committed to improving our environment. But what my mother instinctively understood and I am just beginning to learn, is that there’s also power in individual action.

My mother’s thrift was not driven by financial concerns. Instead, it was a mix of basic practicality, a natural aversion to waste, and the lessons she learned from her mother, a down-to-earth Southerner.

Every August until I was in high school, my sister and I would gather in our parents’ bedroom and watch as my mother set out all of our fall and winter clothes on her bed. For the next hour or so, we would try on all of our clothes as she scrutinized each item to determine if it was too worn or outgrown to last another season. I started this pseudo-fashion show with great enthusiasm, but about the halfway mark I would become pouty, tired not just of my clothes, but the growing pile of items that my older sister had outgrown and were therefore my new wardrobe — the eternal injustice of the youngest child.

A plain canvas bag; several carefully selected items of clothing; a soft mountain of paper in the recycling bin. Whether my mother’s and grandmother’s actions were driven by an appreciation for quality over quantity, or simple frugality, the lesson they taught me was the same: live simply.

That’s a message that resonates on many levels, but particularly when I consider my impact on the environment around me. It’s more substantial than the butterfly effect, this web of connections between how we treat our environment and how our environment treats us. Taking short showers doesn’t just mean a lower water bill; it means using less of a finite resource. Buying clothes only when necessary doesn’t just mean less clutter in my closet; it means keeping that much more cotton from being treated with dyes and chemicals. Like my mother, I’m not a paragon of eco-health; I eat processed food and use shampoo that contains unpronounceable chemicals. Mindful living, embracing simplicity, watching one’s environmental health – whatever you want to call it, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to living gently on the earth. But the more simple changes I incorporate into my life, the more confidence I have to undertake the larger changes.

It’s still not second nature. I spend far too much time at the grocery store trying to decipher the list of ingredients in laundry detergent and weighing which one is better: the large jug filled with potentially toxic chemicals, or the small bottle of earth-friendly liquid? Should I get the fresh mango flown in from Chile or the frozen mango trucked in from California? Sometimes I feel like I need a calculator and conversion guide, not to mention an EPA handbook, to get through a shopping trip. And it’s all too easy to revert back to my adolescent, self-righteous eco-warrior, mocking myself for thinking my puny actions will make any difference.

But then I think of my mother, and how her choices have impacted not just me, but my father, my husband, my sister and her boyfriend … and I think of a stone dropped in a lake, its ripples small but strong, gradually widening until they reach so far beyond the point of impact, it seems like magic.

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Sarah Flint Erdreich is a writer who recently completed her first book, “Generation Roe,” about young pro-choice physicians, attorneys and activists. Her thoughts can be found at blog and Feminists for Choice.

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