“Start where you are.
Use what you have.
Do what you can.”
Before I got knocked flat by the “yuppie flu” (now more respectfully, if still problematically, titled Systemic Exertional Intolerance Disorder) I was an ambitious person.
In high school I answered the call from a favorite AM Radio DJ to collect money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. I organized other kids to collect donations door-to-door and street-by-street. We covered the whole town. At the end of the day, our kitchen table was covered with neatly stacked bills and columns of coins. As a reward, participants took a chartered bus to Cleveland to a live concert with the popular DJ.
While I was pregnant with my third child I organized other volunteers in Scioto county, Ohio’s largest county, to collect signatures for a state-wide ballot initiative. Collecting enough signatures for a bottle bill turned out to be relatively easy. Nobody likes trash and a deposit on containers was a proven method to cut down on roadside litter and broken glass. Several other states already had a bottle bill and the facts spoke for themselves.
But once our bottle bill was securely on the ballot, those facts didn’t speak loud enough to drown out the flood of money that poured into the state in opposition. The widespread support we encountered while collecting signatures evaporated under the barrage of expensive radio and TV and print ads we couldn’t match. The bottle bill would destroy jobs! Factories would close! And prices on soda and beer would go through the roof! It’s a communist plot!
Okay. Maybe nobody made that last claim but, the bottlers and beverage producers smeared proponents of the bill as a mess of dirty-hippies-who-aren’t-like-you. It was the most expensive ballot initiative (campaign?) in the state up until that time. And, of course, we proponents lost, Big Time. And, of course, soon after that glass bottle factories closed and truck drivers lost their jobs when the beverage industry turned to plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Prices went up. And trash increased exponentially.
But I digress. My intent here is to illustrate my appetite for projects to Save the World! (or at least a part of it). I was a big donor to the Mothers’ Milk Bank Club (started by bereaved mother and nurse Laura Taylor) and decorated and furnished a large doll house for the club raffle several years in a row. My husband and I were key members in a storefront food coop. If there was a local anti-war rally I was there with my kids and a sign. Etc.
Even after my fourth baby, I was confident there were lots more good fights out there for me, and, as soon as my children were a little older, I’d take on The World!
This didn’t happen. My illness destroyed my expectations. I can no longer be the kind of ambitious that talks to lots of people, remembers their names, encourages them to get involved, and gives them marching orders. It makes me tired just to think about it. These days, on a good day, I might manage to blow a fanfare or wave a banner.
You who have your own limitations, especially invisible illnesses, know the adjustments necessary to self-image. We live in a culture that values achievement and high income. One where “What do you do?” is a common rejoinder after the exchange of names. Those of us who don’t do much or earn any money are stung by the assumption behind the question.
So what do I do with the embers of my burning desire to change the world?
As the joke goes:
Q: How do you eat an elephant?
A: One bite at a time.
So I nibble on the problems of the world. When I can get my thoughts together, I write letters to the editor. I make sure that we take advantage of our relatively secure financial position and donate small monthly amounts to support non-profits. I am a faithful — if fitful– penpal to several incarcerated persons. I add my small bit to committees at our Quaker meeting. I compost. I recycle. I can still participate in the small things that, in the aggregate, make a difference.
Today, in this unseasonable November, I am tending caterpillars. I find black swallowtail caterpillars where the butterflies laid eggs on the carrots, fennel and parsley I planted to attract them. I confine the caterpillars to jars and feed them until they form chrysalises. I’ll keep the chrysalises safe over the winter so the new butterflies can emerge in the spring. Then the cycle will start over again.
Linoleum block reduction print/JBH
Not all of these caterpillars would make it to adulthood without intervention. Years ago, I watched them on the parsley and wondered why I’d see a dozen one day and only three the next. Do birds eat them in spite of the foul-smelling orange horns they sprout when startled? Spiders?
A butterfly flitting by can lift the heart. And there are fewer of them than I remember as a child. As more gardeners use fewer pesticides and herbicides and plant more of the plants that butterflies need, we will see more butterflies. And my little guys and gals will be out there repopulating the world, lifting hearts wherever they go.
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
It is no small thing to lift a heart.