As each year draws to a close, my indulgent husband and I do a little activity we like to call, “Where are you going, where have you been.”
We’ve been doing this since we married in 1999. It’s probably the longest-running tradition I have ever held onto.
The name of it comes directly from the book of Genesis. It’s a terrible story, the story of Hagar, the servant of Sarah, who had a child, Ismael, with Abraham. Hagar is being terribly mistreated by Sarah, and she runs away with her son. But God stops her and has a chat with her.
In that chat, God calls her by name, and says, “Hagar, servant of Sarah, where are you going and where are you coming from?”
Her actual answer is unimportant to me, what I love is that God calls her by her name and asks her about herself. He asks her to consider her biography a bit, and then asks her to project into the future.
As you can imagine, that is what my husband and I like to do at the end of every year. We each, individually first, take stock of where we have been, who we have been, the things that we have done over the course of the last calendar year. He has a better memory than I do, a fact which always becomes painfully obvious when it comes time to compare our notes.
Secondly, we take time to think about where we want to go, who we want to be and what we want to do in the year to come. It’s a way to set an intention, if not to make resolutions.
Sometimes, those intentions are ones we forget about after three days. Sometimes, like this year, they seep into the fabric of the year and stain it.
The 2021 Intention
The one word I set as an intention for this year was “Sustainability.” I’m not sure I knew what I was getting myself into when I started down that path, but I liked what I thought I knew about the concept of sustainability. “Let’s save the planet,” I chanted to myself at the start of the year.
The trouble is this: there is not much about my life I can really revolutionize. We are four people living on one salary with one car in a small two-bedroom apartment. We could not make investments in, say, that electric car we had been talking about once, before we had kids and back when we were both working.
Because I assumed sustainability was about grand gestures, I got it into my head that we should try to banish the car from usage this year. With our circumstances and the COVID restrictions at the beginning of the year, this actually would have been feasible. Except that I have two little boys who desperately needed to get outside, who needed physical challenge that living downtown could not provide them. So we ended up packing up bikes and scooters and skateboards in the car and driving all those elements to every single skate park we could find.
My sustainability efforts were not getting off the ground in the way I would have liked!
Then it turned out that our boys would be going to a school on the other side of town. Public transportation would be a possibility, if I was willing to lose an extra hour or more each day of work time to get the boys to school. Bikes were also a possibility, at least when the weather was nice.
I tried both.
And then I had to come face to face with my definition of sustainability.
What Sustainable means
Wikipedia says this: Sustainability is the capacity to endure in a relatively ongoing way across various domains of life. In the 21st century, it refers generally to the capacity for Earth’s biosphere and human civilization to co-exist.
Here is the Oxford Dictionary definition of the word sustainable: able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
If I was going to try to co-exist with the Earth’s biosphere and maintain the level of my efforts, I needed to either, 1. start by making small enough efforts so that they would become habits (nullifying my “grand gestures theory” of sustainability), or 2. concentrate my efforts in the areas which I am most passionate.
It was very, very hard to unhook my grandiose ideas of what sustainability should look like from the overwhelming need to make a difference. However, it is not because something seems overwhelming that nothing should be done, nor that I am incapable of making any change.
I was not going to be able to give up my car. That grand gesture was not going to be sustainable for my family this year. However, I could get very, very intentional about learning how to alter my clothes so that I would be more satisfied with my closet and less likely to donate an item that would end up rotting on a beach in Chile or in a landfill in Ghana.
Clothes are a passion for me. I can’t deny it, or pretend it isn’t so. That was why I first and foremost needed to deal with my shopping problem. But beyond the idea of a “Buy No Clothes in 2021” Challenge (which was, thank you for reminding me, about more than just sustainability–it went back to needing to stop throwing money at my self-worth problems…)
Dealing with what was already in my possession in a sustainable way was, and is, a small but doable way for me to participate. And, as circular as this sounds, because I was pursuing sustainability in something I was passionate about (clothes), the efforts themselves became “sustainable,” meaning that I could keep them up over the long term.
Making Sustainability Sustainable
The scope of the environmental crisis is beyond what any one person can handle.
Rather than crashing and burning in my efforts to do a grand gesture (which I tend to do), I needed to tease out for myself the small things I could do, and make those doable things into habits. Success and progress breed momentum.
There is always a way to make progress, and it turns out that the easiest place for me to find space to grow is in the things that I am passionate about. The critical thought pathways I developed by refashioning and altering my closet helped me move from it just being about the clothes in my closet, to being about how I would wrap my gifts this year using upcycled textiles.
These are my teeny-tiny efforts at sustainability.
In the end, Sustainability was a great word to set as an intention for the year.