life is rubbish

I heard a man singing, as I walked down the dark street. Maybe it was a folk song he learnt playing as a child, or maybe it was a catchy latino-pop melody he'd caught on the radio that morning. Whatever song it was, he sang it - standing with his hands deep in the rubbish bin.

In Elsa Tamez's guide to the book of Ecclesiastes, she suggests we should translate the key Hebrew world hebel not as vanity or emptiness but as something stronger, "All is s••t." (Eccles. 1.2). Life is rubbish, suggests the writer of this small book of the Bible. Nothing changes, the rich and powerful exploit the poor and there is no justice.

And yet, we have to find ways to live in this paralyzing state. Ecclesiastes suggests finding joy and friendship in the midst of the daily grind, thus interrupting the dehumanizing rhythms of money-making, violence and control.

Costa Rican writer Fernando Contreras Castro, speaks of generations of garbage-pickers, who are called divers:
The imperceptible yawn of the flies and the fleet of vultures stretching their wings meant nothing new to the early-morning divers.

Tamez continues, 'There is nothing new, for it is what one sees every day in the underworld, where people struggle daily for the spoils of the vultures and the “divers” in a sea of garbage:
Between the persistent drizzle and the vapors rising from that endless sea, the last trucks, now empty, moved away to begin another day of collection.

In the narrated world of Contreras we find what people experience as hebel in daily life: waiting for garbage, seeing garbage arrive, choosing garbage, selling garbage, eating and wearing garbage...But incredible as it may seem, in this garbage-world it is also possible to find tender and true love, like the love of Unica, Contrera’s main character.’ (Tamez 2000: 41-2, citing Contrera 1994:85f)

Even when life is rubbish, even when justice seems far away, it is possible to share bread, to find love, and to sing an old song, or a new one.

Elsa Tamez (2000) When the Horizons Close. Rereading Ecclesiastes Maryknoll, NY: Orbis

Fernando Contreras Castro, Unica mirando al mar San José: Farben Grupo Editorial Norma, 1994