Tuesday, August 4, 2009

All those half-empty shampoo bottles

[image: a junk sculpture in Flagstaff, AZ]

There is no disaster greater than not being content.
Tao Te Ching

We have small awakenings throughout our lives, and the number of people who have large ones would surprise you, I think. Maybe it's coming back from a great vacation to the burdens of dull work and housekeeping and tired recreations. Maybe for no reason you see some corner of your life. That may lead to a sense of blessing, or it may be what we call "a rude awakening."

I was once in a Buddhist study group with a sad young woman I'll call Ann who had contracted hepatitis in the course of "doing what everyone else does," and now felt the misery of sobriety and the awareness it brings acutely. That night the group was talking about living with care for your impact on the world, and people began complaining about how difficult that is. How do you figure out "paper or plastic," and what is the most efficient way to recycle, and who has time? Suddenly this woman said, "What to do with all those half-empty shampoo bottles in the basement!"

I remembered this recently when I noticed in my overcrowded linen closet two nearly full bottles, shampoo and conditioner, of an organic product scented with lavender. Apparently I had used these products once and decided to return to a commercial product made for long hair that I was accustomed to. What to do with this stuff? Maybe someone would pay 25 cents a bottle for it at the weekly Cat Welfare garage sale. Maybe Cat Welfare doesn't even accept used cosmetic products. I'll just use it, I thought, and see if it's as bad as all that. It isn't - in fact I like the barely detectable scent it leaves, which is probably why I bought it. The simpler composition of the stuff probably makes it easier on the earth when it washes down my bathtub drain and into a river somewhere.

The event made me remember Ann, and her many such bottles. I pictured them gleaming in a pile in a dark basement, like some discarded treasure trove, which they are in a way - evidence of Ann's eternal hope that something would make her blonde hair as beautiful as she wanted it to be. She had pretty hair, and the fortunate disaster of being a pretty woman, disaster because she had just turned thirty. Each and every one of those hair care products radiated the promise, as you know if you look at the ads. The ads tell us what kind of girl to be, and promise to make us that girl.

So there's the problem that women are manipulated by salesmen and the constraints of gender role into constantly striving to be visual objects - to look like someone else, someone with "perfect" hair. But say you awaken to that, and decide to just, you know, wash your hair. You use up all that old shampoo, a project that would have taken Ann quite a while, I think. What to do with the empty bottles? Recycling takes effort. And what to use to wash your hair then? Any shampoo you buy will come in a bottle made of processed dinosaur juice. Coal was strip mined in Appalachia and brought across country on trains to power the factory that went to all the trouble to make this bottle. Human beings worked on numbingly dull assembly lines, maybe at sweatshop wages. Where was this bottle made, anyway?

Wun who lives in Columbus, Ohio, could go to the co-op where, God bless them, aging hippies make available shampoo and conditioner in bulk. You take your own container and fill it. But their shampoo leaves Wun fuzzy. Maybe you decide to stick with the lavender organic product. It is expensive, though, money you could be donating to the care of Aitken Roshi. But maybe it employs people. If you don't buy it, will a good factory go out of business? But how can you possibly support all the laudable causes and buy all the wholesome products? Is it really a wholesome manufacturer, just because it says "organic?" Maybe you should research that. Now the howl sets up, Who has time for that? It was a cry often heard during the years of frenzied high consumption, as Americans worked more and more, and shopped more and more. Nobody had time to think about consequences.

For Ann, whose life had been about fun until the roller coaster broke down, thinking this way was torturous. It was her whole life heaped in that basement, I suspect. Illness and sobriety had made her sensitive and subtle. She knew that if you let thoughts like that creep in, you may see that your closet is bursting with unworn clothes, so many that you have to buy special organizing hangers. Certainly you never need to buy another garment. But how could you possibly not? You want a jacket in the new purple. There's the dilemma.

This ethical awareness was too much for Ann, who just wanted to feel better at the time, and who could blame her? Before long she dropped out of the group. So I have no idea how she solved the problem of all those shampoos. Maybe she just moved out and left them there for the next owner. I did that once, leaving behind a ratty old bike I didn't like. I was confident someone would soon take it. I hope they fixed it up and are enjoying it. Or at least put it into one of those artistic assemblages. There is no junk that can't be put to some use, if only to confound the tourists.

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