Leave Every Place Better Than You Found It


"Leave every place better than you found it,” my grandmother said to me as she made up the hotel bed even more perfectly than we had found it. I was five, my first time staying in a hotel. This message has been so deeply ingrained in my family that for as long as I can remember, every time My mother sees a piece of trash, she picks it up. Most of the time that means a stray piece or two on the side of a lonely road in Big Sur; sometimes a receipt that flew out of someone’s window on a hot day. However, the first time I invited my mother to visit me where I was living on a small island in the northeast of Brazil this took on a whole new meaning. My favorite beach seemed to be plagued by small pieces of plastic: bottle caps, water bottle wrappers, candy wrappers, plastic bags filled with sand and mostly buried. I had noticed this before and mostly just shook my head at “such a pity that people throw their trash on the ground here. I wonder what kind of campaign could get them to stop?” My mother is a woman of action, so as the same thoughts floated around in her head the first day on the beach she grabbed one of the empty trash bags stuck in a bush and began to fill it. Naturally, I joined her. This became our beach meditation, slowly observing everything that caught our eye, determining whether it was an alien guest or it truly belonged. If we were not swimming we were beach cleaning. I loved my mom so much in that moment, coming to enjoy this beautiful place and not just shaking her head at the problem but actually taking action, leaving it better one square inch of beach at a time.
This year we were headed back to the island, myself, my mother and my daughter. It was a much-anticipated trip, my daughter was so excited to be able to share her Brazilian family with her Abuela, or "California family," as she calls it. We arrived at the ticket counter in SFO, the attendant asked for our Passports and Visas, but there was a problem, my mother's Brazilian Visa was expired. “No, no.” she said, “it’s not that one, I know that’s expired, it’s this one.” she turned to another page in her passport, my heart sank, I saw the emblem of Argentina and knew she would not be coming with us. I handed it to the attendant hoping she wouldn’t catch it either and maybe if we could get to Miami we would be able to get her some sort of last-minute Visa there. NOPE. She explained it was for the wrong country, my mom's face fell, my daughter began to sob and push her head into my stomach. I too was crushed, I knew the Visa would take 2 weeks, the entire length of our trip. My mind raced, go straight to the Brazilian embassy now, with suitcase and plane ticket in hand, crying, hope for a miracle. Or fly to Argentina instead and try for an expedited visa there, knowing my mom and her handicap with anything paperwork or bureaucracy-related and I knew the chances of her making it on any part of the trip were slim now. Nevertheless, I put on a smile, “Abuela will meet us there in a few days! We’re going to go ahead and get everything ready for her.”
My trip had just changed from sharing the responsibility of looking after my daughter, deciding where to stay, what to eat, taking turns in the waves with my eight-year-old to another international-single-mom-vacation-adventure. Head on swivel 100% of the time; the three books in my suitcase would go unread.

Several days into our trip my daughter and I joined up with a friend of mine who lives on the island and her friend Ruben, newly widowed and visiting from Argentina. We were going to walk from one side of the island to the other, a feat that is only possible during the low tide. We were a motley crew, an 8 yr old, a 32 yr old, a 54 yr old and a 60 yr old. An adopted family for the day, Marcela playing the role of doting grandmother, Ruben easygoing grandpa who, as long as there were meat and beer, was in good spirits, I played ringleader and pace pusher, and Naima was our adventurous child. We descended to the beach through the vibrant green jungle along the steep sand path. With every step I began to have memories pour over me: the first time I went to that beach on my second day on the island in 2007, seeing it for the first time, holding the hand of my daughters father, totally unaware of what the future had in store for us. Then, months later, taking my mother there, picking up trash for hours, floating in turquoise bliss. Missing my mother, knowing she was supposed to be with us, I decided to do what she would do if she was with us, I began to collect trash as we walked. Halfway through our walk we found a shady spot to drop our bags and we plunged into the water to cool off, as we bobbed in the gentle rolling swells I noticed a few pieces of trash floating and I picked them out of the water. We were in a little circle chatting and singing songs in Spanish when a somewhat larger piece of trash floated right to my hand. I picked it up and turned it over. Barcodes and bold black letters made a familiar image: luggage tags. Unconsciously I began to read it, familiar letters popped out, MIA, GRU, SSA, airports I’ve visited so many times. I began to read the fine print, letters that were so natural to me that at first, I didn’t even question why they were there: Chappellet-Volpini/S - wait!!!!
That’s my name! This is my luggage tag!
I couldn’t believe it, I checked the dates just to be sure, as if there might be another person with the name Chappellet-Volpini/S who traveled from SFO-MIA-GRU-SSA, on another day that wasn’t me. It was all there: Nov 15, 2017.

“Mira ló que encontre” I said showing my friends, “Ahh, etiqueta de valija?”
“Pêro, és mia”
Yes, a luggage tag, but it’s mine!
“No te creio”!!!
My friends couldn’t believe it, they had watched the piece float right to my hand and me pluck it out of the water....
“Where did we take these off? “ I asked my daughter.
“In the hotel in Salvador” she said, “remember?”
That was in fact what I had remembered but I couldn’t quite believe that my tag had made it out of the trash can in our hotel room, into the ocean, and somehow floated several hundred kilometers away, only to find my hand.
But In fact, that is exactly what happened.
What does it mean?
Ruben wanted to see the numbers, “remember the numbers he said, surely they are important and will bring you luck”
“What’s the message you get from this miracle?" Marcela wanted to know.

“My first clear message, keep picking up trash,” I said laughing.
“I need to meditate on it for a while to see what else comes up.”

Over the last several days I’ve don’t just that, and so far this is what I’ve come up with.
First of all, I realized every time I picked up trash on the beach I had a little voice criticizing those who had thrown it there or in the water, a little judgment- “Don’t you know any better? Don’t you care about the environment? About the animals? The fish?”
Now having done everything by the book, thrown my trash in the trashcan, and still having it end up in the ocean, and in my hand, I saw that there is no room for judging others, somewhere the system is broken and it’s not necessarily the individuals who are not caring.

I also felt and feel a profound sense that I’m not only connected to the universe and its amazing source of energy, but I’m in tune with it right now, listening, open to its suggestions. The message I received is you are in exactly the right place at the right time, keep following your gut and keep trusting that every moment of your life that is true - you are in exactly the right place at the right time.

As a sign of gratitude, and a way of life, keep leaving everyplace and person better than you found it.

Sequoia Chappellet1 Comment