I’ve always loved Earth Day. When I was in about fourth grade, I came home with the idea that my parents should make the toilets in our house “low-flow,” and even had the instructions on how to make it happen.

It didn’t happen.

Like most things, I like Earth Day when I can choose my own adventure, but not so much when someone else points out my conspicuous consumption, like when my kids come home from school with their own Earth Day Ideas™ from school.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that my great-uncle was pals with Gaylord Nelson, the United States Senator from Wisconsin who founded Earth Day. On the eve of the first Earth Day fifty years ago, in 1970, Senator Nelson said in a speech:

“Our goal is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all human beings and all other living creatures. Our goal is a decent environment in its broadest and deepest sense. And it will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical and financial commitment far beyond any other commitment ever made by any society in the history of man.”

I don’t disagree.

But man, what a list.

We started our Pandemic Lockdown with all the gusto of the granola-crunching hippies in 1970s Madison. We assembled our second (!!) compost bin and planted a garden. We’ve been using cloth napkins at meal time for years, but we ditched paper towels completely and dragged out every scrap of cloth diaper, burp cloth, and tea towel that has ever graced our countertop, and dried our hands with those after all of our repeated hand-washing. Our toilet paper is made from bamboo. Like most of the world, we cooked most of our meals at home and virtually stopped driving anywhere. We made all of our bread and yogurt from scratch to cut down on packaging waste. Makeup? Optional. Clean clothes every day? Meh. Shoes are optional now. I started dressing less like a university administrator with an eyebrow pencil and more like a New England poetry professor with views about goats. We’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony like a Coke commercial, but with home-brewed kombucha instead of Coca-Cola. We were CRUSHING OUR EARTH DAY GOALS. You’re welcome, Mother Earth.

On the Monday following Easter Sunday, a stray cat showed up on our front step. Pets tend to show up in our lives like acne or rebate checks, so it looks like we’re cat people now. She might have had fleas when she first arrived, which coincided nicely with the washing machine breaking the next morning. We rolled the paper towels out again like an old, comfortably disposable friend. Next, the dishwasher broke. Sorry, Mother Earth, but we’re Team Disposable Plates now. Gaylord Nelson is probably looking down from his Senate Seat in Heaven, shaking his head and thinking, “Well, they started strong.”

We started with the best of intentions. We are exhausted, like the rest of the world. We’re doing our best, but right now, our best has to include paper towels and disposable plates. Our “long, sustained… commitment” as imagined by Senator Nelson fifty years ago lasted … about a month?

There’s no better time than now to do our best, but there’s also no better time than now to give ourselves a break and enjoy our forgiveness. God help us if God is counting our plastic forks and carbon footprint. Our appliance breakdown may be untimely, but it was timely in stopping me from patting myself on my own back for my Earth Day Winning Strategy. I needed something where I felt like my #doingallthethings would feel like some contribution to a world falling apart, and I also needed an interruption to my own self-righteousness.

This interruption was a reminder of my own fallibility, my own limits, and my own need for forgiveness as much as all of my fellow earth-dwellers and earth-abusers. We’re still up for the long, sustained commitment as imagined by Senator Nelson, but looking at the long game, we’re going to need some grace and forgiveness along the way.

The dishwasher is scheduled for repair tomorrow. We’ll have laundry capabilities again next week. I can get back to my regularly-scheduled self-righteousness in time for another season of virtue-signaling. I will fail again, to be sure. In the meantime, and always, I’m grateful for forgiveness for my self-righteousness and forgiveness for falling from my sustainably sourced pedestal.

Image credit: Denver Post/Getty Images