Zen and the Art of Neighborhood Cleanup


Today we had our annual neighborhood spring cleanup.


Like every year, a thousand or so people were contacted and asked to help.

And like every year, about ten showed up.

The 24 hour convenient store by our house is incredibly busy.

It feeds the litter machine that constantly threatens to consume our corner of the world.

People cut through our neighborhood and throw their cigarettes and fast food wrappers on the ground indiscriminately.

And even though we pick up the trash as we walk the dogs each day, we never seem to keep up.

When the snow melts each year, we find that indeed, we have missed a lot.


I would love to say that I am the type who picks up trash with a smile on my face, all the while thinking of how beautiful our neighborhood will be when we are finished.

I am nothing like this.

I am the type who picks up trash, while my brain curses the person who threw it on the ground.

I try to stop myself from asking questions like

“Who the hell does something like this?!”


“What can we do to legislate fear into these people so they will no longer do this?”

or worse yet…the questions extend past neighborhood cleanup and expose my fears about the entire world…and I ask…

“Is there any point to this? Does it even matter at all?”

I know that even while we are bending over to gather more trash, that some careless soul is tossing another Taco Bell bag on the ground.

I know that as I fight back vomiting from cleaning up after other people’s dogs, that someone is driving through, emptying the entire contents of their ashtray out of their car window.

I know that good people are always fighting an uphill battle.



I try to make excuses for the litterbugs, but my judgmental brain simply will not buy it.

It counters back that all people know that throwing trash down for others to pick up is wrong, so I am forced to find a time in my life where I might have been less enlightened.

It doesn’t take me long.

I remember the lanky teenager I once was, smoking his stolen cigarettes and tossing the empty pack down.

Was I a bad person?

What was I thinking at the time?

Digging potato chip bags out of thorny bushes gives me time to reflect.

I remember what I was thinking as a teen and the short answer is that I wasn’t thinking at all.

If someone had stopped me and asked why I thought it was someone else’s job to pick up after me, it would have been the first time that it had ever occurred to me that my negligence resulted in inconvenience for others.

My teenage self was a small blight on society, but I was, in no way, a bad person.

I was, and am, a work in progress.



So was I simply wasting my Saturday morning or did my actions actually have a real impact on my community?

The answer of course is that, yes, what we were doing was important.

On the most obvious level, we keep our neighborhood from accumulating so much trash that no one would want to live in it.

Studies show that where there is trash, there is crime.

When criminals see that people take pride in their neighborhood, they move along.

When criminals see trash and broken windows, they look at it as a pass to act accordingly.

As I looked at the thousands of discarded containers along the alley, I imagined someone thinking that it was okay to litter there, because everyone else was doing it.

I know that people will still throw trash down in our neighborhood, but perhaps less people will do it as a result of our toils.

Perhaps someone will see us working and have the epiphany that they shouldn’t litter.

Maybe even someone will see us work and decide to join us next year.

I don’t know and I really won’t devote much time to this way of thinking.

I cannot control other’s perceptions of my actions.


I am a bleeding heart liberal who believes, in most cases, it is better to lead by positive example, then to punish those who have not come to the same understandings that I have.

I know that we are capable of coming up with creative solutions to problems that do not involve profiling and demonizing those who do not act in accordance with our desires.

I know that love is like pushing a huge rock up a steep hill and that ignorance is the gravity of our society.

I know that if I am not humble enough to pick up another man’s trash, then I am not qualified to lead.

And I know that everyone, like me, is a work in progress.

And I know that the greasy haired teenage boy who threw his cigarette packs on these same streets a few decades before, owes a debt to the amazing people who picked up after him.


I know that we matter.

I know that we make a difference.

And I know that there are no small things.

In the end, it isn’t really about picking up old tires and shattered plastic.

It’s about taking a stand for what’s right.

It’s about winning the battle within myself and helping others…

The way others have so often helped me.



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