It's illuminating sometimes to realize the small things that knock you off kilter, when you're doing fairly well handling bigger ones.

Right now, along with all of you, I'm coping with a stay at home advisory, empty shelves in stores, most businesses closed, loss of some of my income, and worrying about people I care about getting critically ill. (I'm not really worried about getting sick myself. I have the constitution of an ox.) I'm trying to keep busy, strategize my needs and look toward the future (this will all come to an end! It's just not clear when).

But when I heard that New Hampshire stores were banning reusable shopping bags, all I could think was, "oh, no! What will I do now?"

I've been using reusable bags since long before it was common. I always carried them in my car. I used to get totally confused looks from supermarket cashiers when they asked "paper or plastic?" and I'd answer, "canvas." My large collection includes bags from multiple stores and totes of all kinds (I use the light colored ones for groceries, so I can launder them in bleach), some inherited from my mom. Over the years I saw reusable bags go mainstream, and then become a premium; some stores gave credits for bringing your own bags.

And suddenly, one hundred and eighty degrees, reverse: no reusable bags. They're bad, they might be contaminated, they could spread diseases! We must only use plastic or paper bags now, for the very reason that a month ago, those bags were discouraged: because they're disposable.

There has always been a tension between what's good for the environment and the planet, and what was seen as "healthy" or hygienic or sanitary. The entire plastics industry was built on the promise of disposable everything--its safety, its cleanliness, its healthiness. Pull out a plastic utensil or bag or cup or medical item, use it once, throw it away. All those nasty pathogens were gone with the plastic. There was no need to wash and sterilize anything. Plastic items were never reused, to possibly spread a germ to someone else.

Of course, we realized finally that all those plastic "disposable" items were not, in fact, disposable at all. They were simply going to rest someplace else...forever. And they were doing far more harm to other living things after they were "disposed of" than they ever could have done by being cleaned and reused. Not only that, but plastic can't be manufactured without creating vast amounts of highly toxic wastes that get "disposed of" in places most of us never see.

The fact that this is bugging me is teaching me a lesson about how deeply ingrained my own values have become. The idea that I have to use disposable bags instead of reusable ones is giving me an almost physical reaction. Since the 1970s, I've been part of the whole sustainable living movement. That's decades of self-discipline and self-denial in service to a higher principle. The earth and everything living on it is, collectively, more important than I am. Not wasting anything, not thinking of anything as "disposable" is all a part of that.

But so, of course, is changing my behavior to protect other people from getting sick. No one has shown that anyone could get COVID-19 from a shopping bag; we know almost nothing about this virus. But an excess of caution, in times like these, is impossible. It's a small enough sacrifice to make. Meanwhile, I can smile ruefully at this small revelation about myself. We think we're so adaptable and flexible...until we find out where our sticking points are. In times like these, the hardest thing we often have to do is realign our priorities, even if only temporarily. But in times like these, realigning our priorities is the least that we have to do. When it's all over, we'll be the better for it.

Inanna Arthen