Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Because What We Do Matters

The day has finally arrived when the signs marking the Eagle Rock Canyon Trail will be installed.  It has been at least a year in the making.  As with all things volunteer, the process of approving the plan, designing the signs, getting bids, raising the funds, placing the order, making the signs and scheduling the volunteers takes more time than you think it will.  I am equally astonished and relieved that this day has arrived.  

Even so, I'm nervous for several reasons, not the least of which is that I know nothing about post hole digging, other than the YouTube video I watched.  More practically, the weather has been hot and dry, and the ground is likely to be hard and compacted.  The volunteer corps for the day consists of a few Boy Scouts and their parents.  As a mom, I'm thrilled to be working with kids on a project away from the TV and the computer.  As a pragmatist, I pray with the fervor of a convict hoping for a pardon from the governor, that one of the parents will have some solid hole digging expertise.  

My prayers are answered. One of the parents, Hector, is a contractor.  He attacks the hole digging with all the skill and confidence of a professional grave digger. Before I can relax, however, we tackle the issue of hefting the heavy bags of concrete up the steep hill.  I suggest that we put it into smaller buckets, giving everyone in the crew a smaller portion to carry.  After some head scratching, the bags are hefted on sturdy shoulders and, without further complaint, they are hauled up the switchbacks of the trail to the summit.  

In less than half the time I had allotted, all four holes are dug and the sign posts set in concrete.  More importantly, none of the many horrors I had imagined having come to pass. I am grateful beyond words.  Well, of course, that's not true.  I am reminded of a story, and I motion the boys and parents to huddle up.  I express my gratitude, and then I share this story.

"There was this American who was traveling in India, and he visited a small village.  When he arrives, he sees that they are excavating for a new road.  The whole village is involved in the effort.  They are all lined up, the ones in front digging, and the ones behind handing the buckets of soil, hand over hand, to the rear of the line where the soil is stockpiled.  The American happens to be a road builder himself, so he watches with great interest for a few minutes.  When he can't stand it any longer, he blurts out, "no, no, no!  You're doing it all wrong. You're working too hard for such a simple road. You need to get some heavy equipment in here, one good dozer will clear this roadway for you in no time. And you'll only need a few people to do it, not the whole village."  

An interpreter translates his words.  Their quizzical looks and and animated gestures make clear that his meaning has eluded them.  One of them steps forward and says, "We do not understand. Why would we do that? It would deprive each villager of their opportunity to participate in building this road.  When everyone participates, everyone can walk the road with pride and know in his or her heart that their contribution helped make this road."

I'm quiet for a moment and scan the faces.  The boys are quiet, and the dads are nodding their heads. "So that's what we're up to here today," I continue. "After today, when you come with your friends or family to walk this trail, you can say, "I helped.  My contribution mattered." " The boys nod thoughtfully and respectfully, and then race each other down the hill, grateful to be relieved of their Saturday morning obligations.

Retelling the story to my family , it occurs to me that this story is the basis for offering the Earth Family Retreat.  Everyone has something to contribute.  This sounds so simple, and yet it keeps coming to me.  We have become so specialized in our society.  "Not my job" is our mantra, as we sidestep the trash on the ground and the use the last sheet of paper in the copier without refilling it. 

Whereas my grandparents did much of their own food growing, clothes sewing, produce canning car repairs, lawn maintenance and house cleaning, I rely on an army of people, some of them faraway countries, to supply me with those services.   It occurs to me that this is one of the reasons we feel powerless to take action to resolve the bigger problems facing our society and our planet.  We have distanced ourselves from even the simplest of tasks; how could we possibly feel qualified to tackle climate change or economic reforms?   As much as we may be grateful to be relieved of monotonous tasks, I suspect that, either consciously or unconsciously, we also feel demoralized to think we have nothing to contribute.

What if we knew how much of a contribution we do make on a daily basis? In the movie Pay It Forward, young Trevor McKinney thinks that his idea of creating a charitable firestorm is a failure.  He doesn't realize just how much of an impact it has made in the lives of countless people across the country.  Like the flap of the proverbial butterfly wing that has the power to set off a volcano, the ripple effect of any small act may be unknowable.  And it may be immense.  

What if we could know just how much of a contribution we can make in creating and guiding the kind of world we want to live in by doing small, simple things? Would we continue to wait for politicians, scientists, corporations and church leaders to take action to solve the environmental, social, economic problems?  Instead of thinking, "there's nothing one person can do that will make a difference, how empowering would it be to say, "this may seem like a small thing, but it has a huge impact in the world?"  

While walking the beach, author Loren Eiseley saw a boy carrying one of thousands of starfish that had washed up on the beach back to the ocean.  Eiseley told him that he was wasting his time, that there were too many washed up starfish and that one person alone could never make a difference.  The boy replied, "it makes a difference for this one."  What we do makes a difference. It's soul-affirming when we can see that it does.

The Earth Family Retreat is an opportunity for us to offer something small and see that it does make a difference.  But for setting up a chess board, there would be no chess game that started a conversation about your grandfather that inspired someone to tell a favorite story about their great-aunt which gives rise to an impromptu Ancestors Circle where everyone shares a favorite story about a family  member they miss, and a profound healing occurs.  Or maybe it's just a chess game.  In any case, you've made a contribution, and it's apparent and it's perfect. 

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