Today is my birthday. I am thirty-six years old.
My mother died before she turned thirty-five. She left behind two small girls.
Last year, I dreaded my birthday because I was afraid I would die just before it. Instead, I was in the hospital with a two-day-old baby, celebrating life every which way.
Now, I am thirty-six. In some ways, I have accomplished little in my life. I recently watched a video of Springsteen from the mid-eighties and thought, “Shit, he was my age and he was already one of the greatest living musicians.” Yes, Toni Morrison did not publish a book until she was thirty-nine, but Barack Obama entered the State Senate when he was my age. I don’t have a book deal or any major articles. I am not a full professor, despite the Ph.D., a degree that is sort of a pointless accomplishment if one uses it to drive carpool and wipe asses.
However, I get out of bed every day. I am a reasonably good parent. I am in a stable marriage. I floss my teeth, am nice to at least 65% of the people I meet every day, and wear clean underpants. None of these may seem like monumental accomplishments, and perhaps they are not.
But with my childhood, I have every reason to be howling at full moons and ripping the hair off of my head. To be more or less sane is actually a pretty big deal for me. Yeah, I have a tendency to thrust my tongue up against my teeth and I have a short fuse. Yep, I like to be in control of my life because I feel totally vulnerable if things spiral out. I think I probably have earned the right to these mild neuroses.
Other than that, I am a pretty average member of society. And average is a sizable accomplishment for me, given how far back I started.
While my childhood gives me a hall pass out of being extraordinary, it does not excuse me from being responsible. I do not get to sit back and say, “Eh, I’ve suffered plenty. I’ve paid my dues.”
Because we all have dues. Yearly dues that we must continue to pay as a price for residency here on this planet. We are renters here, not owners, and we must treat the property with dignity and respect. We cannot throw the clothes in the drier on a sunny day because we’re too busy rushing out the door to hang them on the line. We cannot say, “Fuck it. It’s been a long week. I am just too tired to cut up my own fruit, so I’ll buy it wrapped in plastic and already cut.” We don’t get to use paper towels just because we deem ourselves too busy to cut up stained clothes and make rags.
Every single choice we make must put the environment first. We don’t get to put our convenience first anymore. It has gone on too long, and there are no more excuses. Every thing we do, every moment of our lives, every bite we eat, place we go, decision we make, must take into account the impact it has on our planet. We will not always be able to buy local or organic or used; sometimes, people affect the world they live in. But even when we are forced – due to any number of factors – to do something that is more injurious to the planet than we would like, we must be cognizant of that fact and understand it as a problem, not just the way things are.
We must plan ahead so that we don’t take too many trips to the store but also so that we aren’t throwing away wasted food. We must think in advance about what we will need, voluntarily forgoing convenience because it comes at too high a cost. It is simply too late to do it any other way.
That is, if we want to continue having birthdays for ourselves and our children.
Life is not always convenient or easy. We need to suck it up and accept that. We must live life with fewer new machines, working with old technology instead of replacing a phone because there is a jazzier model and accepting that the business of our lives is not to have fun but to survive, and that there is work involved in that process. We need to stop excusing ourselves because we think somehow our lives are harder than everyone else’s, so hey, we can drive three blocks instead of walking. I don’t get out of it because I had a fucked up childhood, and you don’t get out of it either, no matter what your reasons.
Today, on my birthday, I reaffirm my commitment to make choices based on what will keep my planet and my children safe, even if it means I have to work harder and give up conveniences. That is the price I pay for getting another year here on earth.