Photo by Beth Burrell

by Margaret Jo Parsons

My legs nearly buckle as I force myself upright. My boyfriend has draped a drift net weighing over 50 pounds over my backpack, already full of plastic. Together, the weight is more than my frame has ever attempted to carry. Once I am satisfactorily perpendicular to the rocky path, I give him a pained smile to communicate that I am in no danger of immediately falling over.

Picking up a towering pile of shipping crates festooned with Japanese text, he leads the way back to our car. This is our second trip today along a several-mile long strip of coastline near the Big Island of Hawai’i’s south point. We don’t realize it yet, but we are experiencing heat exhaustion. The tropical sun above us, nearing its blistering zenith over the equator, reflects off the volcanic rock around us. I try to ignore the fevered complaints of my inadequately conditioned body, fueling my labored steps forward with only the highest octane of willpower.

I have devoted many of my recent weekends to a pursuit that, categorically, fits somewhere in between beachcombing and self-flagellation.

I, like many beachcombers, am entranced by the complex mechanisms and mysterious rhythms of the ocean. Compelled by the record of distant lands that wash up on shore and how the act of finding them continues a dance of a unique inanimate objects across thousands of miles of ocean.

However, the activity also inspires discomfort – both physical and psychological.

My quarry is not messages in bottles or rare seashells. It is, instead, obvious, mostly ugly, sometimes grotesque, and so thick at times I am practically wading through it.


I’m attempting to dredge as much as I can away from the ocean – where, if left, jeopardizes sea life as it breaks down and masquerades as food for birds, turtles, and other sea life.

This glut of plastic litter is just one of the innumerable symptoms of western consumerist lifestyles spreading across the globe. I know many of the symptoms are hidden, quiet – toxic wastewater leaching into delicate ecosystems, decline of biodiversity, the loss of forest and wild lands to development and agriculture. This one happens to be right in front of me – and now that I’ve seen it, I can’t look away.

So I am pursuing the catharsis of direct action with dogged intensity, strangely cherishing the tender joints, rope burns, and even the nausea and lightheadedness. Although I’ve read much about moderation and self-care within the practice of activism, it is only when my limits are stretched taut that I can feel the sweet reverberations of my own song of purpose. I’ve been striving, since realizing this truth of my experience, to articulate why this is so.

Although now long departed from the Catholic tradition, I am reminded of my grandmother’s now antiquated and rather cruel advice to my father as a child – telling him to offer the pain of (mandated by her) novocaine-free cavity drillings to the souls of purgatory. Her suggestion, though understandably unappreciated by my father as a child, recognized a certain beauty, transcendence, and healing potential possible within human suffering.

Western society has preoccupied itself with avoiding suffering at all costs in the modern era; we relentlessly self-medicate, pharmaceutically medicate, meditate – anything to distract us from the suffering intrinsic to human existence. We seem to be collectively convinced that pure bliss lies just on the other side of a new diet or lifestyle practice.

In our busy world, bereft of meaningful rituals and rich in gilded comforts, we have forgotten that pain can be a meaningful ingredient in a richly lived life. Pain and hardship was naturally provided by the cycles of nature to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Many religious traditions throughout history reincorporated knowledge of those cycles through ritual simulations, religious penance, or harrowing coming-of-age rituals. However, since the enlightenment, our attitudes have changed in the western world. It isn’t rational to seek pain. Therefore, we’ve been phenomenally clever in our escape from it.

But did we lose something valuable in succeeding? Can we justly expect a new world to be born without the labor pains?

While choppy ultramarine waves claw at the coastline, I sometimes harbor flashes of anger – at the fishermen that didn’t clean up after themselves, at the tourists that meander casually past us while we work, at myself for having used straws and bottles in my life. For being so small against a problem so big. My anger provides the energy to get started, but it is love that provides me the capacity to endure.

The capacity to endure pain and discomfort for that which we love is accessible within us all; hopefully given to us by our human mothers – if not, by our primordial mothers; the sun, stars, and earth that gave us all that we are or will ever be.

It is here on the beach that I feel myself shedding the worn shell of childhood. I find myself suddenly willing and capable of being something else for the earth than a child who takes far more than she gives. Instead, I will take care of it even as it burns me, even as it leaves me sore.