Greening My American Dream
By Nancy Sleeth
I knew we’d been the talk of our neighborhood for quite some time—right around the time we’d learned how much electricity the dryer used and we’d begun hanging our clothes out on a line in the backyard.
That was something only poor people did—not a respected physician and his wife in an upscale neighborhood on the coast of Maine.
We’d also given away about half the stuff we owned—furniture, clothes, appliances, even one of our cars. Some kids at school teased our daughter Emma for wearing her brother Clark’s hand-me-downs. And now, on top of everything else, my husband wanted to quit his job.
No one seemed to understand what we were doing—maybe least of all me.
It had all started with a rough week in the ER for my husband Matthew. Three of his patients had died in the span of a few days. Though they’d all suffered from fatal diseases and though Matthew had done all any doctor could do for them, he was shaken; I’d never seen him so helpless, so defeated.
One night after the kids were in bed, Matthew and I sat up together. “The world’s a mess, Nancy,” he said.
“I know it’s hard for you when your patients die,” I replied, taking his hand.
“It’s like the whole world is getting sicker,” he said. “Do you know how many more cases I see now of cancer, or of asthma and other respiratory problems than I did just ten years ago? And it’s not just people. The whole planet is dying. Think about it: there are no elms on Elm Street, no caribou in Caribou, Maine. Species of fish are becoming extinct right and left.”
“There are a lot of problems facing the world today,” I agreed.
“Don’t you see? Pretty soon we won’t even have a world, and then none of the other problems will matter.”
Matthew became consumed with researching environmental issues and doing our part to help solve global problems in our own backyard—literally. He asked me to help plant a garden so that our food could be as “locally grown” as possible.
“If everyone did this, just think of the fossil fuels that would be saved from not having to transport food,” Matthew explained. “The pesticides that wouldn’t go into the ground water, the refrigeration that wouldn’t be necessary.” He was so excited. “And isn’t this great? A family, working together in a garden, just the way God intended!”
I smiled and went along with him, figuring I’d humor him until he got over whatever kind of kick this was. But it was so much easier when I could just run out to the grocery store and pick up whatever we needed, and I hated how stiff our towels and clothes felt when we dried them on the line. Still, I guess I was kind of congratulating myself on being so agreeable. How lucky my husband was to have such an understanding wife!
But what Matthew asked of me next didn’t leave me feeling so understanding. “We’re part of the problem,” he said one night a few weeks later.
“What?” I asked.
“We’re part of the problem. Resource usage is directly proportional to wealth. People who live in wealthy neighborhoods use more energy than people who don’t.”
“But I’ve done everything you’ve asked—I’ve used the clothes line, tended the garden, recycled, cut down on driving…what else is there?”
“I want to quit my job.”
“Is there another hospital you have in mind? Or are you thinking about private practice?”
“I think it’s time I started practicing a different kind of medicine,” he said. “Global medicine.”
Matthew explained that he wanted to quit working as a doctor and devote himself full time to saving the planet.
“Why are you doing this to us?” I demanded. “We have a comfortable income, a nice life! This doesn’t make any sense! Being a doctor is a good work; it’s nothing to be ashamed of. How will
we put food on the table?”
“God will provide, Nancy,” Matthew said.
God has already provided you with a good job to support your family, I thought. Have you lost your mind? But Matthew looked so earnest that I couldn’t bear to break his spirit. “I’ll think about it,” I said.
I stayed up much of the night praying, then went outside the next morning and prayed some more while everyone else was asleep. Matthew’s plan offered no job security and no benefits or salary. To follow him would be a complete leap of faith.
As I looked around in the morning light and contemplated the amazing planet God had given us, I knew what I had to do.
We sold our big, beautiful home, packed up the few things we hadn’t given away, and moved to a smaller house. Much smaller—the whole place was the size of our previous house’s garage.
I went back to work as a teacher while Matthew started up a nonprofit environmental ministry called Blessed Earth, an organization dedicated to educating people about how God expects us to be good stewards of the planet. Matthew wrote a book about ecology and was soon in demand to speak to faith-based groups about environmental issues.
I won’t lie to you: it was hard at first. Even though I believed in my husband and what he was doing, changing our lives so drastically was difficult. Matthew promised that if I gave his way a chance, I’d understand that it was the right choice, and because I love my husband, I’d taken that leap of faith.
Sometimes, though, I missed that beautiful home that represented for me the American Dream; I missed fluffy, warm towels right out of the dryer; I missed driving around to clear my head or vegging in front of the TV.
One morning in our new home, though, I woke up a little later than usual. Clark and Emma were already in the garden, working in the cool mist, weeding in companionable silence. In the field behind our new house, a half dozen deer silently watched them work. I rushed outside to join them.
Clark hoed between rows while Emma and I concentrated on thinning the carrot seedlings and pinching new suckers off the tomato plants. Before the sun got hot, we had the garden in good order and were ready for breakfast. As we walked back to the house together, Emma laughing as Clark chanted an old gospel song in his most exaggerated baritone, I knew that everything was going to be okay. More than okay.
That evening, Emma helped me pull together a simple dinner of soup and bread, while Clark set the table and Matthew lit candles.
As we sat around the table holding hands, Matthew said a blessing of thanks for the roof over our head, the food on our table, and God the Creator who makes everything possible. Matthew squeezed my hand before releasing it, and I felt every remaining fear and anxiety float away.
The journey that Matthew was leading us on had changed our lives, but this new life was good. Very good.
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