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A work in progress

Jenny McDevitt reflects that hope finds a way; that creation hasn’t given up on us yet, despite overwhelming rationale for doing so; that, while it may be too late to fix everything, we can still fix some things.

dying plant

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

A few months ago, a friend of mine posted a picture of the floss she had bought — made of a biodegradable material, housed in a small, refillable glass vial. It was one photo in an ongoing series of her efforts to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Gentle reader, I confess that in the moment, my predominant thought was both self-centered and self-critical: I don’t even floss my teeth enough with regular floss, never mind earth-friendly floss.

I have no expertise in sustainable living. I believe God created the earth and everything in it. I believe that loving and honoring God means protecting and caring for the world that God so loves. I also believe in science and scientists who tell us climate change is real. I believe them when they tell us the timeline to change our actions was yesterday, but since we’re already late, the adjusted timeline is now. And yet, the underutilized floss in my bathroom cabinet is encased in plastic. I try to remember my reusable grocery bags, but sometimes I forget. I choose paper over plastic, I strive to fill my recycling bin faster than I fill my trash bin, and I buy local as much as is practical, but I haven’t cut ties with Amazon entirely. (Plus, if I buy the biodegradable, refillable floss, but it’s not available locally and it has to be shipped, does the energy and fuel required by delivering it straight to my door negate the good of the floss in the first place? I’ve fallen down an internet rabbit hole attempting to learn more about this.) In this, as with so much else, I am a work in progress.

Being a work in progress, though, is not an excuse for stagnancy. Too often, we use the phrase to explain away wherever we have paused indefinitely, with no urgency or intention of future momentum. (I know this because I have done it myself.) But a true “work in progress” requires fidelity to the grammatical implications of the term itself — it requires a commitment to doing the work it takes in order to keep progressing. Our Jewish siblings capture this tension beautifully through wisdom taken from the Pirkei Avot: You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Over the course of the pandemic, I acquired more houseplants than I’ve ever had before. A few of them came from the soon-to-be-in-the-dumpster area of a home improvement store. They’d endured some form of trauma, either in transit or in shelving, and their pots were broken, their roots exposed, their greenery fading. They were free for the taking, having been classified as unsellable, and therefore worthless. I took them home, repotted them and watched all but one flourish within weeks. That one, though, languished. It didn’t matter how much attention or inattention I offered. Water, sunlight, fertilizer, all in varying amounts, yielded no visible effect. It remained tiny and barren of leaves. I nearly threw it away multiple times. It didn’t seem particularly alive. But it didn’t seem particularly dead, either.

This went on for over a year. Then, about a week ago, seemingly overnight, one stem shot up more than seven inches. And at the end of the stem was a brand new leaf.

The leaf, however, is brown. It hasn’t grown a bit since its arrival. By all appearances, it is not fully committed to sticking around. Nevertheless, it seems to be a sign of hope: Hope that life still finds a way; that creation hasn’t given up on us yet, despite overwhelming rationale for doing so; that, while it may be too late to fix everything, we can still fix some things.

Hope, however fragile it may be, is still hope. May we do everything we can to protect it.