One year ago, I lived in Washington, D.C. I walked amid suits and skyscrapers, museums and monuments. Every building declared that this was a Very Important City, and every politician and think tank and NGO affirmed it. Congress wrestled with the budget, the bureaucracy implemented infrastructure projects, the Pentagon directed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lobbyists pressured the government to fund X and support Y and oppose Z. Everyone pushed their pet cause.
“For the betterment of the country!” they all cried. “For the betterment of the world!”
I stepped into this bustle as often as an unpaid intern working for an environmental nonprofit could, but most of the time, I skirted around it. I built a daily routine for myself. Each morning, I woke up early and wrote. Usually short stories, but sometimes poetry. I discovered some of my ideas about life and love and self as I watched my thoughts appear in words, and then in sentences, and then in paragraphs. Some of those paragraphs were published, where they hopefully helped other people figure out thoughts of their own. I read, too, before I left for work. Usually something by Hemingway.
One story from those months stands out: “Cross Country Snow.” It was not a famous story, at least not compared to “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” or “Big Two-Hearted River,” but it meant something to me, because it was about saying goodbye. I was getting ready to say a lot of goodbyes when I graduated in May, and Hemingway’s story made the prospect easier. I found it comforting, hearing someone else describe the pain of separation.
Then I would finish breakfast, close my book, and walk to work. Orderly mobs with parted haircuts crowded the sidewalks, each member with an agenda of social change and economic prosperity. I waded through briefcases and laptops, ties and lapel pins. I passed millions of dollars in business casual clothing every day. And I passed millions more in salaries, and many millions more in power and influence. The people around me understood the policies and programs that most of us only heard about while flipping through radio stations. Half a block from the White House, I would escape that mob and duck into 729 15th Street NW.
I would spend the day researching tree-planting projects and taking minutes at environmental coalition meetings. I followed two dozen blogs during those months, which gave me a basic understanding of climate change, illegal logging, and advancements in green technology. I wrote my own blog posts, too, which highlighted environmental problems and proposed solutions. Meanwhile, emails and reports flurried throughout the office. It was a nonstop information exchange as we raised awareness and coordinated action.
“We need pest control!”
“Support CFLR projects and SUFC!”
“Save the longleaf pines!”
We waged a campaign for the forests. We marketed ourselves through social media and mailing lists, magazines and blogs. It was the battle to be heard, to be read. Progress—anyone’s progress—would only happen with support.
Eight hours of work left me exhausted. As I walked back home, I listened to music or poetry on my iPod. I heard “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” quite often during those months. The speaker confesses his normal life, his old age, his unattained greatness. It was that poem, along with the book Blue Highways and a few others things, that eventually inspired me to flee the city and hitchhike across the country for two months.
But during one of those afternoon walks, long before I left Washington, D.C. to travel, someone stopped me on the sidewalk. He wore an orange shirt and held a clipboard. I knew he wanted me to sign a petition or donate to a cause, but I still paused T.S. Eliot mid-sentence and took out my earbuds.
“If you could change one thing about the world,” he asked, “what would it be?”
“I’d need time to think about it. But it’s a good question.”
“Just one thing,” he pressed. “One thing to make the world better.”
“There are a lot of good options.”
“The first one that comes to your mind.”
“I don’t know…”
“End hunger, stop pollution, ban nuclear war?” He smiled encouragingly.
“I guess—I guess I wish people would read more.”
The man made a face. “That they’d read more?”
“Books, poems, newspapers. Basic literacy.” I shrugged. “Just more reading by everyone.”
“It slows you down,” I said. “And I think it would make people more informed. And more empathetic, too, but in a way that’s better than just being automatically informed and empathic. Because I think the process matters.”
“Well.” He glanced at his clipboard. “Okay, then.”
“Our organization brings food to children in Third World countries, and we’re asking people to donate just one dollar a day.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m an unpaid intern.”
The man said he understood. I put my earbuds back in place, and as I walked home through the crowd of politicians and lobbyists and nonprofit workers, I listened to the rest of the poem.
previously published on Calvin College's alumni writer's blog (The Post Calvin) on March 6, 2014.
Josh deLacy graduated from Calvin College in 2013, hitchhiked around the United States for two months without using money or interstates, and now lives and writes between the Olympic and Cascade Mountains.