One early May Saturday my spouse and I helped plant trees in the Southtown area of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The kids came too, but pretty much against their will. The group of us volunteers spread out over several streets to plant. Our familial pod of four ended up staying on Umatilla Street where everyone had parked, met, gathered gloves and shovels and shivered in the morning shade waiting for assignments.
At our planting site we shoveled out a deep round hole for the tree from the scruffy strip of city-owned grass between sidewalk and street. Meanwhile, our little sprouts complained they were cold. Help us shovel then, we said, working and moving will keep you warm. Nooo! they whined, and instead lounged like bored cats on the sunny sidewalk about 30 feet up the street from us.
The younger one brought me a piece of broken glass as if it were a non-dangerous novelty like beach glass or a shell. Mom mode kicked into hyperdrive: “Ah! Put that down! Watch where you’re sitting, guys. There’s broken glass! And if you see anything weird don’t touch it. Especially anything looking like a needle. And don’t wander off. If you’re not helping you need to stay there on that sidewalk.”
What did they think of these surroundings? What’s it like to be a kid and see only what you see, not thinking about cause and effect? What’s it like to look around and not think you understand socio-economics and urban decline and food deserts and property values and upward mobility and urban sprawl? What’s it like to be able to see things and people, taking them in as is rather than reading between the lines? What’s it like not assuming you have all the answers?
In the overturned dirt I spotted a marble. There were other items too—an orange Crush bottle cap, plastic wrappers, some nails—but nothing else as interesting as a marble. I picked it up. It was mint green milk glass with a few tiny chips where dirt had settled in. I nearly threw it back. What was I going to do with a marble? Maybe it needed to stay here for someone else to find someday. Then I changed my mind and slid it into my pocket as we finished planting the tree.
At home I put the marble on the kitchen window sill. For safekeeping I nestled it in a corner near two smooth river rocks, one pinkish, one cream-colored. Together the two stones have a visually calming effect so they reside in our busiest, messiest, most conflict-prone area of the house—the kitchen. They sit at the feet of a praying angel figurine given to me seven summers ago by my aunt-in-law. The faceless angel’s hands are together, fingers pointed upward like a prayer emoji. On her gown below her hands in chiseled bas-relief is a tree. Flip her over and the inscription reads “a tree, a prayer.”
Maybe I didn’t initially want the marble because I didn’t want to think about how it got there. It would likely have been left from a child back when children played marble games outside on sidewalks in this part of Grand Rapids, back when it was safe to do so, back when this street named for a Native American tribe would have seemed quaint and not tinged with irony.
The Umatilla marble is still here at the feet of the angel on the kitchen windowsill with the smooth stones. When I notice it I pray for Umatilla Street–safety and provision for the people and regular visits from city watering trucks for those baby trees.
Since then the marble seems to have taken on our inward upward groaning, our wordless pleas to heaven, our longing for justice to roll far healthier and mightier than the low mucky trickle of the Grand River, the still-toxic flow of the Kalamazoo. One day, writes the prophet Isaiah, “the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11, NIV).
Maybe that child will walk barefoot down Umatilla Street, a drawstring pouch of milky marbles in hand.