A year before my mother’s birth, a substance that was new to the world, polyethylene terephthalate was patented in England. Better known as polyester on your clothing labels, or maybe a little number 1 in a triangle of arrows with the letters PETE beneath, the raised symbol on the bottom of your soda or water bottle, the thermoplastic is cheap to produce. It’s made by combining ethylene glycol and dimethyl terephthalate or terephthalic acid, using antimony as a catalyst about 80 to 85% of the time. Antimony, a heavy metal, number 51 on the periodic table, symbol Sb, is toxic, having an effect like arsenic, only milder.
And some time in the early 1970s, my mother bought a plaid bath robe made of polyester. How do I know, considering that I was too young to understand the difference? It had that characteristic, all-over, pilly texture most of the time she wore it. Fifty/fifty fabrics tend to pill in spots, but when the effect of rising and gathering fibers is general, you know you’re dealing with polyester. I can tell by touching it. It has that certain quality.
Touching it means something more to me too. My mother was a flawed human like the rest of us, and there were things about her that troubled and upset me, but somehow, in my brain hard-wired for a hunter-gatherer‘s life, a part of me far deeper than knowledge of the periodic table or the construction of chemical names, that texture means “mother.” Not necessarily my mother, but maybe the security of the idea.
It took me years to realize what was happening. I’d run my hand across the synthetic, slightly bumpy surface of well-worn polyester, and something in me registered “comfort.” “Safety,” even. Then that robe just appeared in my thoughts one day, and I understood.
I’m not built to process this world we’ve made. An everyday, artificial noise can startle me as if I detected faint, telltale sounds of an approaching predator in the relative silence of a forest. Glands start pumping alarm into me when all I need to do is press down the car’s brake a little more quickly than I would ordinarily expect to. Evolutionary psychologists tell me that my own animal type, Homo sapiens, spent most of its existence adapting to a life of chasing animals and digging for food, so we’re not constructed to cope with the environments we’ve built up so quickly. When considering my daily experience, I tend to agree. Somehow, we went crazy and took everything over before we could grasp the situation, so possibly the ability to do so was an evolutionary error. We’re simply not built to comprehend the mess we’re making. Or maybe this is just how it works. Nothing lasts forever. You may occasionally see an alligator somewhere, but there aren’t a whole lot of dinosaurs left.
I don’t blame my mother if I always felt that there should have been something more, or rather something simpler in the way we related. I thought I just wanted the toy, bright-colored, smooth, and cold, and she thought a lot of things too. Neither of us fully grasped the world we had been born into. We both expected things to happen naturally, but our kind had cut us off from the nature we were made to work with, and all we could do is try to make sense of daily life.
Families split up all the time nowadays because we just expect things to happen, then we kill ourselves trying to learn to compensate for the apparent failure of our own natures. A young adult enters marriage with the reasonable expectation that love will make everything okay, but before too long, it becomes obvious that you’ve got to give it all a lot of thought before anything starts falling into place, before you’re relatively secure for the long run. What should work as a matter of biology has developed into an ever-growing skill set, the psychological studies we must keep up with or the self-help books that offer bits of easily-understood and semi-useful insight for a price. It seems that happiness requires more and more striving every day, since oxytocin and dopamine just don’t do the job by themselves any more. Our own design fails to deliver what it drives us to need. Then pundits puzzle over the consistently high divorce rate and campaigning politicians make proclamations as if they’re beating their chests, trying to rise in the social order.
When examined at a distance, it seems that the greatest precepts of philosophy and religion are simply meant as correctives; they’re attempts to recreate some original state of moving with tides in environments that perpetually challenge and confound us with erratic, disharmonious rhythms. Then, apes that we are, we end up using great thoughts to start wars as if a competing group had begun browsing in our mental territory.
The world, land and water, is now filled with plastic because we can’t really grapple with the results of our own activities. We’re disrupting our environment drastically, but we seem to have no way of getting together to stop the process. That’s not required for spearing an animal or finding the best roots.
And here I am, a relatively hairless primate who walks erect, just trying to follow the lead of my own body, and I have no idea which end is up. And this fabric containing a dangerous metal, the production of which, especially in dyeing, introduces the poison into my planet’s waters, means “mother” to me. The container that leaches a deadly substance into my orange juice, the antimony-containing fabric that touches my skin, registers as “mother” somewhere deep inside me.
I’m like the baby monkey in the lab experiment I’ve seen pictures of, the little one clinging to a washcloth-covered wire structure. Polyester, a mother I was never made for.
Yet, being able to consider all this, I still care. I still think it’s worth the effort to sit here typing, to express what I experience as best I can, to reach toward my fellow creatures. And maybe you understand, you know what I mean, and that brings us together. That’s a wonder harder to grasp, far greater than our ability to create new substances or examine our own biologies. But it’s real and it’s here now. And it’s hope.
Peter Le Zotte has, for reasons ultimately impossible to pin down, been given a voice and the responsibility to use it. The rest is touch-and-go. His only credentials are life’s scars and a dogged belief that there’s more to personal worth than a credit score, that the ideal of the self-made person is still floating around out there somewhere waiting to be grasped.