Several Valentine’s Days ago, my husband, Patrick, and I took a walk with our ancient dog, Cleo, through the landfill of the Albany Bulb, a favored meeting place for garbage lovers. This garbage dump has been a field of meditation for me. As I’ve walked there, I’ve contemplated disturbing statistics. With less than five percent of the world’s population, our country uses one-quarter of its resources. In one year Americans produce 369 million tons of garbage, 1.31 tons per person. If sanity prevailed, our whole culture would examine the hunger for “more” and “better”; we’d learn to live so simply and inventively that there wouldn’t be anything to throw away. But since there is still “garbage‚” I’ve been looking for ways we can meet it with imagination.
On this wild spit jutting into the San Francisco Bay, the landfill of spiraling rebar, blown-out tires and household trash had grown lush with pampas grass, cattails and fennel. At the western tip, local artists had created an outdoor studio of garbage sculpture and paintings open to wind and rain. The artists at the Bulb had worked with the rejected, unwieldy, useless, old, possibly toxic; seen it as if for the first time; and turned it into art.
We strolled past driftwood dragons, bicycle-wheel birds and unruly paintings on plywood salvaged from the shacks of routed squatters. Paintings of nude women and devils, angels, skulls and sea monsters—some born of the toxic garbage in the heart—breathed in the spacious landscape of water and sky; they were healed by the surrounding nature as it healed itself.
Much of the art bore the signature of a collective of five artists who called themselves Sniff, “in homage to what dogs do,” said one artist as he sculpted a flour-sifter hat. Cleo, tottering on bandy legs, did indeed sniff, smell being her last sense to go. To my senses, too, raw and eager this Valentine’s morning, the landscape of garbage art and trash regenerating into wildlife was pungent with salt and licorice and squawks of life.
I return to the Bulb on a dark, windy afternoon, a far cry from that of my last romantic visit. The paths are desolate, bushes and grasses slashed in efforts to throw out remaining squatters. I walk alone.
At the foot of the path where it opens to the bay, I remember a monumental Styrofoam sculpture of a woman made from a former dock. Head tilted skyward, arms outstretched, this Statue of Garbage Liberty welcomed all without judgment. To me she transmitted the essential message of this garbage world—that everything, no matter how disintegrated, ugly or seemingly dangerous, can be loved and transformed.
Expecting the welcoming woman, I see only an armless bust hanging on a battered frame. Where once the generous face took in the vast view, someone has rigged a tiny doll’s head on a stick. Other sculptures are stripped by time and weather, but also by vandalism (“Not surprising,” says one of the artists, “considering the broader culture we live in where there’s pleasure in destruction”). Looking around at the devastated art, I am sick with loss.
For me it has felt like a year of losses. My Aunt Bobby died. And Cleo, too. My eighty-four-year-old mom was hospitalized for double pneumonia. Would I lose her as well? As my sixteen-year-old grows up, there’s loss too of the “child” I’ve gone to such lengths to protect. And each year more precious habitat is lost, clogged with garbage.
Heavy with loss, I turn back up the trail. From somewhere, a warbling note calls. Then a tremolo of pure sound, a melody familiar but forgotten. Up the path—or is it from some hidden enclave through the undergrowth?—someone is whistling.
This lilting whistle draws my attention, brings a skip to my step and unexpected tears. I’ve always loved whistling, most of all a vibrato. My dad was a whistler. Though he spoke with a stammer, his whistle was fluent. After he disappeared when I was four, I lived with my mom. But once a year, until he remarried, it seemed to me that he would suddenly reappear at my mom’s apartment in New York City to drive me to Michigan for vacation with the grandparents. We would drive in his dark green Dodge convertible up through Niagara Falls, where young marrieds were rumored to ride the cascading waters in barrels. Sometimes, on a back road, if my dad were in a certain mood, he would begin to whistle. It was always the same song. I knew the words from my favorite movie, Lili, with Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer.
A song of love is a sad song
Hi-Lili, Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo
A song of love is a song of woe
Don’t ask me how I know
In great loops, my dad would swerve the convertible from one side of the road to the other, the sweeping curves following the melody as he whistled. The funny thing is that even though the song seemed to be talking about how sad love is, the rhythm of the whistling felt playful, rousing a tingle in my young chest.
I sit at the window and watch the rain
Hi-Lili, Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo
Tomorrow I’ll probably love again
Hi-Lili, Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo
As I walk now up the path, listening to the unseen whistler, my mood turns tender. I’m moved by the lightness of this warble, which seems, like my father’s whistle, to include the depths of sadness. I don’t think I could have borne an exchange with my dad about the risks of love without such a light medium of communion. As the words of the Hi-Lili song keep returning, it comes to me that love by its very nature—love of all kinds—includes the sadness of loss.
When I meditate, I often recite the Buddha’s Five Remembrances. The fifth remembrance is a strict reminder: “All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.” To love fathers, dogs, mothers, children, one’s mate, the Earth itself . . . always includes loss. But that doesn’t mean we stop loving.
Here in the garbage world of the Bulb the dangers of loss are palpable. The task of the garbage artist is to see fresh, to reinvent the unwanted and discarded, and once it is complete in its new form to leave it open, at the mercy of wind, rain and vandals. This takes a brave commitment, a kind of love. Between the city, the state, monied interests and gratuitous fear and violence, the artwork at the Bulb may not survive. How else can the garbage vanguard continue except with a little humor and fun, by giving everything and at the same time letting go? I think of the Tibetan sand paintings.
As one artist says, with some lightness of tone, “Vandals destroy my sculptures. We prop them up again.” Through a Styrofoam archway that looks out towards Mount Tamalpais from the garbage art beach, there used to be a view of another statue. She was a grand lady of crumpled metal and rebar with a substantial lawn-mower hat adorning her luxuriant spooling hair. By her side, a refurbished sailing vessel sported a high-flying flag inscribed “Sniff.” Today the frail remains of that lady shiver in the bay breeze. Draped in tattered lace with necklaces of rope and rubber tubing, she now wears a modest crumpled metal bonnet. Her boat is ravaged and tipped over, its mast fallen and sail decomposing. To ornament this fey and fragile lady, someone has added a red Trojan wrapper as an earring and, attached to her hand, an orange-striped parasol that sways back and forth on a long handle and flutters in the wind.
It is this spirit of mischievous perseverance I find so moving: of continuing to love and reinvent our garbage world even as it is continually worn away by time, weather and vandalism. What but such playfulness could sustain a commitment not to give up? The same holds for meditation; it is only through training the mind to be light and flexible that one may plumb and transform the garbage of the heart. I am reminded too of the Hi-Lili song, which includes the sorrow of loss but is not undone by it. It’s a sad song, yes, but resilient: “Tomorrow I’ll probably love again, Hi-Lili, Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo.”