earth – noun \ˈərth\
: the planet on which we live
: land as opposed to the sea, the air, etc.
: the material in which plants grow
I celebrated Earth Day in a hospital waiting room today.
My plans to commemorate the occasion by spending intentional time around the little patch of earth I call home were delayed a bit, and instead, I sat vigil with friends made from dust. We cried tears of salt; we ate food raised in dirt. And we prayed desperately for organs and cells to heal themselves as they were made to do.
Later this evening, as I picked up garbage along the country roads of my neighborhood, I thought tenderly about land and birds and all manner of created things. Collecting cans and bottles and paper bags and styrofoam seemed like just such a tiny little way to try to save the planet. All I was doing was tending a very small strip of margin ground between the tilled fields and the paved road. The four-foot margin of grass collects run-off rainwater in the summer and plowed snow in the winter and might occasionally attract a bird or a mouse. But it’s not large enough for deer or even squirrels to live in.
With each bit of rubbish that I gathered, I thought of my friend fighting for his life in the hospital, and another friend also battling illness and old age. I thought of the warm touches and the tight hugs and the weeping and praying we did together in the waiting room outside the intensive care unit, and I understood that very small acts are sometimes the only way we show our love and care.
I walked home to the smell of freshly cut grass and newly burned gasoline. Funny, I thought, that some people might consider manicuring their lawn as a way to care for the Earth, while others would see the artificial order and noxious fumes as a kind of abuse of the land. We do that in other relationships, too, though: exercise our good intentions in ways that are hurtful and destructive. Sometimes, we spend entire lifetimes not understanding the harm we’re causing. Sometimes, we spend entire lifetimes trying to heal from the harm we’ve endured.
When I got home, I stuffed the large bag of trash I gathered into our rubbish bin to be picked up next Tuesday. As I closed the lid, I realized that these bits of plastic and glass and rubber and paper that are no longer littering our neighborhood will instead end up in the landfill just a few miles from our house. What might have been repurposed was so dirty and mud-crusted that it seemed silly to waste water to clean it for recycling. It’s a small consolation. Very small.
Yesterday, I took the recycling to the covered bins at the local Street Department. I was thinking of the Earth while I unloaded the cardboard boxes from our juice pouches and the glass jars from our spaghetti sauce, thinking about all these things that won’t be in the landfill because we took the time to rinse them, collect them, sort them, and deliver them to the recycling bins.
As is often the case, Russell was there. The spry elderly man who has worked for the Frankfort Street Department for decades seems to run the recycling barn, whether he has that title or not.
“Do you know what the IDEM is?” he asked me as he carried a scoop shovel over to the plastics receptacle.
“Did you say ‘IDEM’ – I-D-E-M?” I clarified. “Yes, IDEM,” he repeated.
“Indiana Department of Environmental Management?” I said optimistically.
“That’s right. They are coming for an inspection this week,” he told me, leaning in close like it was a secret. “The place has to be spotless . . . inside,” he added, pointing to the barn behind me.
So, in addition to emptying the receptacles, he was ordering the trucks out of the building and scrubbing away the oil leaks with Dawn dishwashing detergent.
“I’m so glad you guys do such a good job with recycling,” I told Russell. “Everytime I drive past the big dump, I think about how important it is to recycle.” I pointed Northwest, as if he didn’t know about the big dump.
Then he told me about 1988, and the progressive Mayor who decided our city needed a recycling program. He mentioned the trip he took with other employees of the Street Department to observe the LaPorte, Ind., recycling program. And then he told me about how he and the other employees built this recycling barn with their own hands.
Their own hands.
It’s the hands that made Earth Day special for me, really. Hands that held on to my friends in distress, hands clasped during prayer. Hands tending, collecting, bringing healing to the margin areas for all manner of created things.
WORD COUNT: 790
The winner of last week’s drawing for a copy of Michelle DeRusha’s new book, Spiritual Misfit is Cat. I have contacted her by email to arrange to have the book shipped. I’m sorry I couldn’t provide a copy to every reader.