Early this spring, I was taking my usual walk, and I couldn’t help but notice three beer cans in my path. Annoyed, I picked them up. And then I picked up an empty whiskey flask, a crushed cigarette pack, and a slimy soda bottle… By the time I made it home, I had an armload, and I really needed a shower and a change of clothes.
So then began a weekly stroll farther and farther along the roadside, picking up whatever garbage caught my eye. Yesterday, I completely ignored the fact that it was windy and that we had had a rainstorm the night before. I sauntered out with three trash bags in hand. What can I say? It was sunny, and I was feeling ambitious.
Pumped with the sensation that I could at least do this little thing well, I began to pick up bottles, cans, broken car pieces—though I was momentarily stumped when I came to a hubcap and a bumper—couldn’t fit those into my bags.
Cars passed, and at first, I’d look up and wave. Occasionally I could see the face of the person driving. Clearly, they weren’t sharing my joy. On the contrary, they looked either concerned or bewildered.
As I shuffled along and my bags got heavier, I pondered the situation. I tried to see what I looked like from a driver’s perspective. Then it hit me. I could easily be mistaken for a vagrant, someone doing community service for a traffic violation, or a disgruntled do-gooder. After all, my wave and smile had disappeared after the first quarter mile.
By the time I reached the edge of town, I knew I had to turn back. Actually, common sense would’ve had me turn back a half mile ago, but picking up bottles and cans can be amazingly addictive. It’s like finding another prize to add to your collection. You just have to ignore the fact that your toes are squishing in muck, and your hands don’t smell so good anymore.
A neighbor stopped on my return trip and offered to take the bags in his truck, and I, like the complete idiot I can sometimes be, waved him off. I thought I could just finish the north side of the road, and besides, home wasn’t that far away.
Did I mention that heavy rain can turn fields into sucking quicksand, and strong winds over an open field are nothing to sniff at? Well, once my bags were full to the bursting point, turns out that they also equal the weight of a bloated elephant. And lo and behold, I was carrying three bulging sacks, creating a wall that just demanded to be knocked down.
Yeah, I made it home and sorted the cans and plastics, and I even took them to the recycling center. But as I pondered my aching shoulders today, I had to consider why this whole scenario seemed so bizarrely familiar.
How many times in life have I tried to pick up the trash along the roadside of life, and in the process, got a few weird stares and a bit messy? Did I mention aching arms?
It seems that following an inspiration to do some small good in the world does not necessarily equate with enjoying the sensation beyond the first few moments of self-satisfied pleasure. More often than not, I have found that following up on a good deed involves all sorts of complications and grimy realities I never considered on the outset.
If I listen to my shoulders, I’ll never take a trash bag down the road again. But then as I returned home from the recycling center, a beer can lay there, sprawled on the ground like an intoxicated groundhog, and I knew I’d be back.
After all, it was the only one…
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
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