Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hummingbirds and Hobos

I can't even count the number of times I cried his week. But last night was the kicker. The tears started and stopped with this story:

There was a fire in the forest. The flames raged and the animals scattered. They flew and fled to the far edge of the forest. Except for the hummingbird. The other animals taunted the hummingbird, critical of her foolishness. But the hummingbird couldn't bring herself to leave the forest. She looked around her, she felt the heat on her wings. But with all the weavings of an irrational mind, she flew to the nearest source of water, and returned with a single drop of water. She flew back and forth, back and forth, her wings looking still in their constant motion. The animals stared in disbelief, saying "Hummingbird, why do you tire yourself with no purpose?" On and on, she tirelessly dropped the smallest bits of water onto the fire. Finally she breathed, her song breaking, and told the others, "I am moving because I can't bring myself to stand still. I am trying, I am one single bird, tiny and small, dropping these tears of water because it is all I know to do. I can't not do this."

I think that I have been in the fire all week, fluttering my wings in disbelief, feeling the edge of burn on my dry wintery skin. Wangari Matthai spoke at the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, MI last night, finishing her talk with that story. Wangari is the 2004 Noble Peace Prize winner, leads the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, and has been the first woman to receive her Phd in Central and Western Kenya. She has been a member of Parliament, the first woman to teach at the university level, and so many other things. As she told that story, I waited on edge for some radical and clever ending of the story. I expected an ending that was triumphant, an ending that brought the fire to a beautiful and fruitful close. But it was so simple, and so applicable.

When I heard that she would be speaking for free in Grand Rapids, Josh and I freed our schedules so we could go, and with a severe winter storm warning and our first trip after a $1700 repair to our Honda, we left with plenty of time to be there early and obtain good seats for the 7pm talk. Twenty-eight miles from Grand Rapids I felt the car lose control. Stopping on the edge of the interstate, Josh walked around the car, braving the side sweeping snows from passing semis. Without knowing what was going on, we dragged the car on the interstate, clutching our seatbelts, to the nearest exit. We traded spots, Josh drove up and down the streets not feeling anything unusual, and then veered back onto the interstate. With the snow, the wind, and the open road Josh finally felt what I had felt and we surmised that we needed new tires. We located a tire place that was still open, all of a sudden with just 10 minutes to go until Wangari began speaking. The tire place had us in and out in 20 minutes, assured us that the new tires would solve our fishtailing and feeling of floating, and told us the easiest way to get back on the interstate. Fabulous.

Approaching Exit 77C, I start to finally feel relief. Then suddenly we are swept past the exit by multiple orange barrels. We end up on another highway, irritated and lost. We stop at a gas station, I walk in and broadly ask to whoever might be listening, "Where is Fountain Street Church?". A man paying for his smokes careens his neck to look at me, smiles with his four tooth grin and says, "Fountain Street Church? I can take you there, if you trust me." I say, "Sure, I'll follow you." To which he says, "Well, it might take awhile to follow seein' as I'm walking." I it's an awfully cold night to be walking, and crawl into the back seat, clutching my cell phone. He tucks on into the front seat, adjusting his belongings into his roomy coat. I immediately start thinking about the weapon he must be trying to comfortably reach. He introduces himself as Martin, and after directing us where to head, starts telling stories of the buildings that we pass, mentioning that he got pneumonia from drywalling in the cold at an ominous looking building just east of us. I tell him that I've spent my week drywalling our upstairs and I am just not patient enough to make that compound smooth. After giving me really great tips on how to improve my skills we finally arrive at the church- it's 7:45. He jumps out of the car saying "Have a good life!" and I look at Josh, making sure we are both still alive and not in a dream. Martin was a very kind homeless man that asked nothing of us, just got us where we needed to go as quickly as he could and gave me tips on drywalling.

We walk into the massive stone church and after a few wrong turns hear the strong, deep voice of a Kenyan woman. We tiptoe to the balcony and catch the last half of her talk. She talked about her initiative to plant a billion trees in 2007 as part of her organization, the Green Belt Movement. She talked of the overthrow of the dictatorship in Kenya and the transition the country has finally made with democracy. She spoke about the time that she and many other women spent in jail for fighting the deforestation of Kenya. And she talked about the relationship between not maintaining the environment and conflict. The poor are reaping the devastation of countries not caring for the environment. Eventually the poor will rise up and fight. But no one wins in these conflicts.

Her overall message seemed simple- Kenya used to survive on their backyard forests and trees, but then Kenya became desert with only 2% of their land remaining forest. So she started planting trees and raising her voice in opposition of the Kenyan dictatorship. I felt such awe for her, but at the same time I was feeling a deep personal discouragment. We live in a democratic nation, and supposedly the strongest democracy in the world. We have trees and clean water. But our leaders choose to lie and deny that they daily make choices which take advantage of our limited resources. We have the information, the science, the knowledge, the money, and our leaders knowingly choose to void these things. What can I possibly do, a drywalling girl with a psychology degree that works at a brewery.

This hummingbird recycles, reads, reuses grocery bags at the store, denies plastic bags when offered, shops at the Salvation Army and trades clothes with friends, buys local, grows some of her own food, talks to friends, questions her governement, votes on her values, listens to people that have been challenged and in turn challenged these issues, keeps her heat down, doesn't buy food wrapped in plastic or food processed with chemicals, avoids meat from feedlots and cramped coops, bikes, carpools, walks, and is learning the Ann Arbor bus system, works locally, cleans with baking soda and vinegar....

I don't know what else, and really this isn't exactly the point. The point is that Wangari spoke to a thousand people last night, and I heard her say that by my living a life where I choose to think and listen and then live, I am doing enough. I will bring the drops of water, and just by doing something rather then nothing, I am making a difference. This week was so discouraging, each day a new set of tears appearing unexpected. But all of a sudden the overwhelming notion that I fail and don't make a difference in this life that I live has completely dissipated in the very same fire I humbly drop water on.