Almost nothing I have seen while visiting my daughter in Oakland, Calif., would fly in Alpharetta, Ga. Or would it? Most of what I see is different in a good way though, but also in an abrupt, unfamiliar and sometimes startling disruptive way. 

“Severe” is one adjective that comes to mind.  So is “inspired,” and “against all odds.” And finally, “Get over it. We do this all the time,” strolls through my small brain, and makes me smile.

I have to ask myself however, if my perspective is singularly colored primarily by who Amelia associates with — her circle of people that I have been exposed to so far — and that her circle is not representative of Oakland, or California. It’s a question I often ask myself generally anyway: “Ray, is your thinking right now, at this moment, only a narrow, sliver extracted from of a much wider spectrum of light that you aren’t seeing?” 

The older I get, the more I question my ability to see and appreciate the light around me and what it illuminates — “all the light we cannot see,” to borrow the title of one of my favorite books in the history of “ever”  slips into my mind.

I don’t think it is just my daughter’s circle of friends, though. And I still believe I do see much of the light that surrounds me.

Amelia and I went to a grand opening of a store yesterday in downtown Oakland. The name of the store was “Fillgood,” and it tagged itself “Your Local Zero Waste Store with a Refill Corner. Bring your Containers and Reduce Plastic Waste!” 

The store was located in a small, two-room, office-like space. The walls were filled with shelves of organic biodegradable alternatives to everyday commodities, such as detergent, soap, tooth paste, lotions, cleaning solvents. Most of the stuff did not have traditional containers — those thrown away after we use them and end up in a landfill. The idea is to bring your reusable container and fill it up, like those water machines in the grocery store you can fill up with a jug you bring. Either the stuff for sale in the store is organic and chemical-free or it comes without packaging at all, or both.

Our host for the grand opening was a pleasant late-middle-aged woman, Stephanie, who could have been mistaken for any grandmother in Alpharetta at the playground with her grandkids or out walking her little dog on the sidewalk. But instead of doing things like that, Stephanie is opening a “zero waste” store that — to me — surely can’t generate enough sales to pay the rent and survive. But, if one judged her situation by the smile on her face as each new person walked in for her grand opening, one might be inclined to think different. 

Why, I shake my hand, would someone have the audacity to try to sell organic stuff at prices much greater than the traditional products that clog the landfills and oceans and expect to make it?  “Is this not just an exercise in futility,” I think to myself.

Oakland, like San Francisco, is so much more expensive than Alpharetta. Gas is about $4.25 a gallon now, and I saw in the grocery store organic blackberries in those little pint sizes for $5.49. Traffic is worse than Ga. 400. Home prices for tiny houses start around a million, and commercial rents must be no less onerous.  It is hard to live out here — at least for the majority of the people — really hard. Yet, there is Stephanie with a lease on a small commercial space selling bulk organic commodities and multi-use containers and everything costs like double the traditional commodity because organic typically requires a premium price to even come close to covering its cost.

What is she thinking!?

At the grand opening I meet a young woman who is there to start a delivery service for Stephanie’s Fillgood products. Seriously? You are starting a delivery service for a product that surely will never sell more than a couple units a day. As we talk, I find out that she used to live in Cumming, Ga. Maybe, there is not so much distance between us after all, at least, a lot less than we tend to think?

Everywhere I go with Amelia I see “different” here. People don’t use paper towels; they use cloth that is reusable. They share resources like houses, cars and food sources. Many don’t even own cars or desire to own them. They all compost. Of course, they recycle, but this compost thing is somewhat new to me. Essentially, everything that is not metal, glass, or plastic goes into the compost container that is kept on the kitchen counter and is emptied daily into a larger compost container – like in the garage maybe. Then, and this is the part that fascinates me the most, the city picks up the compost every week, just like they pick up the trash and recycling. It goes to a giant compost area where it is processed and ultimately made available —free — to residents who need seasoned compost for their gardens. Yes, some of us at home compost, but composting here seems totally, a part of how one lives. Plus, it simply is representative of changing ideas about how to live and why.

As I write those words, it slaps me in the face that Cupertino-based, California-based Steve Jobs and company based the bedrock of Apple brand not on marketing that displayed their computers or their iPods, or any of the hardware but on ideas and attitudes, like “Think different.” Apple and Jobs were not so much about stuff; they were about ideas. And ideas matter, because they lead to action and to change and give purpose and help create those necessary “why’s” — the glue that holds our lives together.

Now, about that grand-opening store. In hindsight, I think I now get why Stephanie opened up her “doomed to failure” Fillgood store to support its mission of zero waste. Her story isn’t so much about how many containers she sells or how long she manages to stay open; its more about her belief in an idea and the importance of taking stands in the name of ideas, even those that will probably fail.

Taking stands because it is the right thing to do is nothing new to this country. It is, in fact, one of the fundamental reasons we have made it as far as we have as a country. I am drawn to one of my favorite quotes, written by F Scott Fitzgerald: 

“France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter — it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”

We need to not forget who we are, and why.

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