My mom is the most difficult person to shop for. When any holiday or birthday was on the horizon, her response was always the same because she didn’t want anything and if she did she would have already bought it herself anyway. This is all true, of course. Still, it was always for a birthday that I felt something should happen even though she treated it like any other day.
As I started my teaching career I realized that my students always wanted to know when my birthday was. Usually they found out when a poster was brought into my room on November 6th to wish me a happy day. It’s a topic I easily brushed aside in hopes that getting to work would free their minds of the mundane reality that is my birthday. Even as a youngster it was clear that it was another day that was rarely more special than any other day I woke up healthy for. Again, I blame my mother and Sandra Cisneros is the writer who put my feelings to text. The short story “Eleven” begins like this:
What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.
My birthday life made sense when I read this piece because it was like an onion that’s nothing more than layers or years of life. Each layer wraps around and encapsulates what’s inside by using it both as a frame and protector. Even the layers don’t know any better because they, like days, don’t distinguish themselves against opposition or through comparison. There’s a symmetry found in the addition and building up from the middle that occurs whether against or with our will.
Recently I’ve started celebrating my birthday by throwing myself a party. Instead of my guests bringing something for me, I provide most of the goods in the form of sour beer and stinky cheese and only ask for peripheral items like plates, napkins or waters. After throwing the first such party in 2009 it became apparent that this was the way I wanted people to celebrate me with them. Let’s get together and make memories.
My students are NOT invited to these gatherings, of course! Nor do they know of their existence (until they read this… oh the shock). A few years ago I learned of an organization that builds wells and/or filters and provides communities with clean drinking water. This organization forced me to rethink how I viewed my birthday and gave me a way to invite them into my sense of giving.
Charity: Water operates under a simple principle that asks individuals to give up the money they would receive on a birthday and donate it to a community in need. If you are turning 11, you ask for donations of $11 from your family and friends and set a goal. Simple, right?
Not until 2013 did I decide to make the push to donate my 41st birthday. I decided to ask for 10 donations to make a goal of $410. Having fundraiser before, this was not enough so I doubled it up and set my sights on $820. I challenged my five classes to raise some money and received support from family and friends alike. I even made cakes and cookies to sell in support. All said and done- $511 dollars was raised to help build water filters in Indonesia.
This year I vowed to do better. For my 42nd I came up with the same formula and was fortunate to see that Keurig Green Mountain offered funds to match this year’s donations until their $740,000 was equaled. Before I knew it I not only sold more cake and cookies than I had planned, my grand total surpassed my expectations at $1288. Not only did I enjoy the idea of my birthday, I found my students feeling good contributing to my fundraising. It became a season of giving, because it’s what every season should be.
So why give something like my birthday to an organization like Charity: Water? I grew up with a mother who gave me everything she had to see that I had what I wanted when I got home from school. In my younger years I wanted Superman shoes. My memory sees me pitching the ubiquitous fit only to see my mom find the money to take me to the store to get them. If I was craving cake, there was a slice. Cookies? They were ready when I got home from school with cold milk on the side. I felt like Santa after sliding down yet another chimney at times. And that’s the connection: I give to others because it is what I saw and continue to see my mother do and it is what brings me the greatest joy. She is a giver and often gives too much because it’s what brings her joy and happiness. Now I see her helping her younger sister and her nephews, hems my grandma’s clothes and shaves her corns- even helps with makeup before a Thanksgiving feast. It’s giving at its greatest and not because she has to, it’s because she want to and is happier because of it.
So this is, in a blog, the story of my life. I give to others what I can because I have the ability and access to. Like any nonprofit, the awareness of what can be done is known only when others can see an impact. After I started my 41st birthday campaign I watched a Charity: Water documentary from 2012 about Rachel Beckwith. More than anything it confirms that we give to others because we can and that is the most beautiful gift of all. In the thought of Zach Sobiech, “What makes you happy is seeing someone smile because you put it there” and that is what giving should be whether you see it or not – in any season – for any reason.