Your Identity Is Not Your Own

Sometimes I wake up with the sadness
Other days it feels like madness
Oh, what would I do without you?

“What Would I Do Without You,” Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors

More and more in life I find my identity hopelessly intertwined with my husband. My identity is our life together, and our life together is a life worth living. And hopelessly is used in that hopeless romantic sort of way. The best kind of hopeless.

Now I know that I am my own human and in that sense different from every other human, but it seems that the idea of my identity being intertwined with anyone else’s is frowned upon by Everyone Else. Everyone Else has opinions about everything. Everyone Else oozes with selfishness (but conveniently under the guise of “being your best self” and “taking time to care for yourself before others”). Everyone Else thinks that things like “me time” and “me-o’-clock” and “my truth” are essential to being Everyone Else human. And if you’re not bathing in me-time at me o’ clock with your my-truth-flavored bath bomb from Lush, Everyone Else gets uppity. Good thing I don’t care about Everyone Else.

So I accept that my identity is not my own. And maybe the most important thing in my life is not me … but we.

I’ve been quite sentimental as of late, due, in large part I think, to my impending international move. Knowing that I’m going to have to get rid of a lot of my sentimental stuff (including a house that I’ve considered a home for the past 12 years, the house where I’ve gotten a dog and then another dog and then had a baby and then another baby and then another baby), I’ve had to reassess The Important Things in life. And — spoiler alert — The Important Things aren’t things. They’re people. What makes this great adventure to Ecuador great is that I’ll be adventuring with my husband. And together, we’ll be parenting our kids through all of it.

Oh, what would I do without you?

Well I wouldn’t be moving internationally, for one thing.

A decade goes by without a warning
And there’s still a kindness in your eyes
Amidst the questions and the worries
A peace of mind, always takes me by surprise

My husband and I always talk about how we are getting better and better at life. Life, to us, is a fun challenge, and we are both competitors. For example, the other day I was griping about the nozzle on the glass cleaner spray bottle and how every time I sprayed it, a thin stream would shoot out of the side of it, hitting whatever happened to be to my direct right (which, to clarify, was not the mirror in front of me that I was trying to clean). So Husband suggested switching the nozzle with another one from a different bottle. But though the neck of the bottle was the same, the size of the bottle was not. So we pulled the tube off the broken nozzle and put it onto the not-broken nozzle. Success for the glass-cleaner bottle! But, wait, it gets better.

We didn’t put a tube back onto the broken nozzle before screwing it onto the bottle because there was so little cleaner left in the smaller bottle that even with the tube, it wouldn’t have quite reached the liquid. So now when we use the small bottle with the broken nozzle, we tip it upside down to spray, and since we’re spraying directly onto the kitchen countertops, the shooting-from-the-side syndrome is not an issue. AND WE’LL USE UP EVERY DROP OF THE CALDREA COUNTERTOP SPRAY. Living life to the fullest, people.

And that’s how, all of a sudden, another decade has passed. It’s now time for us to get better at life somewhere else. After the height of the nozzle achievement, what’s left for us here? And even though we have (SO MANY) questions about leaving life here behind and (SO MANY) questions about starting a new life on a different continent, we surprise ourselves with a peace of mind. I think that’s what makes all of this feel right.

So you got the morning, I got midnight
You are patient, I’m always on time
Oh, what would I do without you?

And the fact that we’ve chosen to do life together even though in so many ways we’re different makes life just that much better. Differences can be scary. They can seem irreconcilable. They can make you doubt yourself. But at the end of the day (for us, all the days since July 31, 2004), those differences combine to make the beautiful identity of us. In Holcomb’s song, he alludes to patience being different than “on time,” and I really resonate with that. When it comes to schedules and start times and what-not, Husband is … patient. The euphemism here is not missed on me. But even though I like to be on time, he’s taught me that being five minutes late here and there is not cause for shortness of breath, raised heart rate, dizziness, stiff neck, bulging eyes, white knuckles, and road rage. (Deeeeep breath.) And maybe I’ve helped him be (closer to) on time here and there. Combination of differences is good. I am a little bit more patient. He is a little bit more on time. Win, win, one bit at a time.

You got your sunshine, I got rain clouds
You got hope, I got my doubts

My physics-teaching husband could tell you all about balance and how it works and why it’s necessary, but I can tell you this: balance in a marriage is gold. (“You’ve heard of the golden rule, haven’t you? Whoever has the gold, makes the rules.”) Sometimes balance means I’m sad and Husband isn’t. Or I doubt and he hopes. At the end of last school year (I teach English at a college-prep school), someone in authority over me doubted me. And after 15 years of enthusiastically teaching English, I started doubting myself. And while I took that doubt and turned it into positive action (innovating in my classes, reading (actually good) professional development books, trying new teaching methods), it still remained, like a steady, dull buzz. Husband took my doubt and turned it into hope by dreaming a new life into fruition.

What would I do without you?

My identity is not my own. It’s invigorating, it’s empowering, it’s intertwined.

It’s me.

Oh, what would I do without you?
Oh, what would I do without you?
Oh, what would I do without you?

Now go give the song a listen. And if you get a chance to see Drew and Ellie in concert, do it. What a perfectly imperfect, intertwined love they have for each other. It’s beautiful to behold — because it’s real.

Your Dreams Are Not Your Own

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” — Hebrews 11:1 —

My husband and I have done a thing. A big thing. It’s exciting and scary, and I (still) have lots of questions about it. But the thing has been decided, we’re doing it, and our entire world is about to change. This week, I’m sharing a post that my incredibly talented and intelligent and philosophical husband wrote. So with my intro as a teaser, please enjoy my husband’s words as he reveals what we’re up to.

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How many dreams have you had? How many can you remember? The answers are probably not zero, and are likely numerous. Whether they were dreams while you were asleep, day dreams, or the figurative dreams of future achievements or adventures, they exist.

My wife planned a wonderful night for us to go out to eat with friends and then to a Drew and Ellie Holcomb concert. It is rarely my idea to spend money on such luxuries, but it was like a dream. Was it my dream or her dream?

As my training in philosophical writing* would have me do, let me briefly acknowledge many definitions of dreams, my delineations of them, and narrow the focus of the topic.

A dream of completing some banal goal is finite and cannot be undone. This is basically anything done in your past that you had dreamt of doing at some point in your life. If it is to run a marathon, once you’ve done that thing, your dream has been accomplished and cannot be undone.

Conversely (or should I say contrapositively — look that up if you don’t know the difference), if a dream can be undone, then it would qualify as not finite (or infinite). You might dream of having a house or a family. Both of those things can be taken from you in varying degrees of tragedy or negligence. To keep that dream a reality is a never-ending effort.

There is also a difference between material dreams, personal dreams, and interpersonal dreams.

No surprise, a material dream deals with some inanimate object that you desire. I have a bicycle. I dream of a better bicycle. One that shifts so smoothly it barely makes a sound. One where the brakes never screech and always work well. One that is lightweight for my wife to move easily on her own but can also have all the desirable baskets, bottle cage, bell, lights, computer and other accoutrements. I can acquire the materials to make that happen, thus dream complete…for now.

A personal dream is something you can, essentially, do on your own. (I realize I needed a mom and dad and food and shelter and whatever else to bring me to adulthood. It takes a village, blah blah, don’t get uppity.) If I dream of running a 6 minute mile, that’s on me. No one else can train or run for me.

As expected, an interpersonal dream involves other people, which can make it much more complex. I dreamt of dating my now wife, but before she was my wife or girlfriend, she had no intention of agreeing to my dream. So this includes all sorts of celebrity encounters, potential friendships, or joint ventures with other beings. (For the sake of argument, if I had a dream to wrestle a bear, that bear would also need to be a relatively willing participant.)

Complex dreams involve lots of the aforementioned categories. We have a house. I dream of making it better. I also dream about who could move into the house for sale down the street (or who of my current friends I could persuade to move there which would make living in my house better). That’s some material, interpersonal, and possibly both finite and infinite dreaming.

Other dreams are fanciful (or were) like playing in the FIFA World Cup. So much time and effort on top of God-given talent would have had to go into that personal dream much earlier in my life for that to become a reality. Plus, given its dependence on coaches or teammates along the way, this is hugely interpersonal.

Or a dream could be downright ridiculous. I dream of being a knight in King Arthur’s court but with modern amenities and the ability to fly in a rocket ship to Mars while eating dark chocolate peanut butter cups. 

And yet dreams for some people — graduating from college — are expectations for others. (I do not plan on unpacking that issue in this post.)

The problem with dreams for me is not if I have them or if I can remember them or how to define them, but can I stop them? People may not dream of moving to a suburb of Jacksonville like Orange Park. I get that. Once you’re there, however, you might develop dreams for your future there. I did.

If I am stuck** somewhere for any length of time (more than five minutes will usually do), I will dream of how it could be better. Imagine a waiting room, for anything. Hopefully I brought a book, but is the seating optimal and efficiently arranged? Sitting and writing at a cluttered desk — can I build shelves? Will that just invite more room for more clutter? Living in my house — what if we knocked down a wall, built an indoor laundry room, added a half bath…?

Some of the dreaming is not location dependent. My kids dream of going to a playground, but not usually one in particular. My wife may dream about a relatively close and not crowded beach, sitting in the warm sun, and reading a good book. I might dream about real estate investments locally or somewhere else which could also be done in that waiting room if I don’t have a book to read.

People, whether they be friends, family, or co-workers, may have dreams for your life. Parents may have dreams (or expectations) of their children to go to and graduate from college. I have dreams for my kids to be happy and healthy but also to be intelligent and kind (and successful, however you define that).

Since this may be more like an unkempt lawn growing wild, let me give it a fresh cut. (Note: I may still get caught on a section here and there just like my real-life mower does for various reasons.) So let’s focus on infinite, interpersonal dreams that are not location dependent and stay in the relatively rational realm. Mine will specifically address my family.

Twenty years ago, the expectation was to go to college, but my dream was to have fun and find a wife. Not incongruous, so all was well. Then, it turned into graduating, actually getting married, having a home together, and maybe more. Hold up. We needed jobs (let’s avoid all topics of dream jobs, it’s ridiculous). 

Twelve years ago, we needed new jobs (again, not dream jobs, just paid employment to thrive). Once settled with better jobs, a big house, and stability, the dream became filling the house with children (and stuff, kind of). With children, the dream quickly turned into wanting more time. Time for everything, the kids, each other, our jobs — life. 

Side note: what did we do with all of our free time before kids?

Six years ago, I stumbled across Mr. Money Mustache and had a new dream — retire early. That’s when we would have time for everything. So I ran the numbers and figured it would take ten years to get to a point of walking away from obligatory work.

Three years ago, well before we could actually retire, I stopped working to partially fulfill the dream of more time with my kids. I was a stay-at-home, homeschooling dad. I loved it. I also still loved my wife. (It’s an infinite dream, one that needs never-ending effort.) If her job was making her unhappy, I needed to at least provide a potential solution. Note: I had already told her to resign or quit or just leave, but that was not good enough.

About one month ago, I applied to teach again. Part of the reason was to provide her a way out without her deliberate resignation. This would serve the purpose of love and protection, too, which I vowed to do. Part of the reason was to possibly live out a dream I had — to live internationally, and potentially raise bilingual children. Recently, my dreams were coming true all over again. I was my wife’s knight in shining armor (see ridiculous dream above, double bonus). I was offered a job teaching math in Ecuador.

Dreams change and yet remain remarkably consistent.

My dreams are not my own, not entirely. And think about the dreams while you’re asleep. They are nothing but weird images and storylines unless you share them. Dreams are not meant to exist in isolation.

Odd note: I have been reading through the Old Testament. So many revelations came through dreams. While I am a skeptic as to the veracity of those claims, dreams can have that power.

Second tangent: I had a dream (while awake) to buy the property across the street from me so I could rent it to a friend before my parents moved down to Florida (my dream for them) to be close to their grandkids (and another dream for them). That dream came true, but is being undone as we are likely liquidating everything for our international move to Ecuador in less than six months. Oh well, dreams can be superseded by other dreams, I guess. 

And we’re back. Back to the Drew and Ellie Holcomb concert, almost. Drew Holcomb has a TEDx Memphis talk of similar nature to this post so I resonated not just with the beautiful music but also the message of a fellow dreamer. (John Lennon was also probably on to something.)

Because my wife shared her dream of a great night out with friends and a concert, we both got to live the dream. What happens when you stop dreaming? I’m not sure. As I mentioned, I can not seem to stop that part of my brain. But what happens when you stop sharing those dreams?

I applied to the school in Ecuador because my wife had a rough week at school and had gone to bed really early on a Friday night with no morning obligations. Normally, we might have just stayed up doing nothing together and loving it. The kids were asleep, too. So I was left awake and alone. Dangerous? I searched for my dream of living and teaching internationally. While I could have remained quiet about my pursuit, I told my wife the next day. My dream was not my own. I couldn’t dream without my family.

I can also tell you my wife dreams of me writing. She turned on her faucet of words months ago. Being so moved at the concert — a dream which was not my own — I felt the need to share her dream of writing. Is it also a Valentine’s Day gift? Bah…who cares; it’s too late anyway.

The dreams that really matter are not just about me. They are the dreams that never end, and I hope they never will.

-Steve

*I have limited the repetitive nature of philosophical writing in this post in hopes for a more readable blog, but if challenged to further develop my thoughts in an unassailable way, I may be inclined to expound on these ideas. For example, some may wonder what the differences between a dream and a goal are. I do not address goals directly in this post.

**Rarely would I consider myself stuck somewhere. It is mostly a choice to remain in that place for some end result or sheer inertia.

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Why I’m Death Cleaning My House

“After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” –Dumbledore to Harry, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

I have decided to death clean my house. In my ongoing attempt to live out one of my mantras to live simply, I want to declutter, organize, donate, and trash (LPETA, the verb). My husband is on board (and actually more of the proponent), so it’s in full operation.

And we’re starting with books. (Why? Because for the most part, the library is our book storage unit. And we pay taxes for the privilege of someone organizing the books in a clean environment.)

In the nursery room of our home we have a beautiful set of built-in bookshelves. I have loved these shelves since the day we moved into this house, over 11 years ago. Coupled with my and my husband’s love of books, you can imagine how quickly these shelves became filled.

When I lost my mom in 2009 — a year after we moved in — I inherited all of her books.

When I had my first son in 2012, we were gifted plenty of books. When we’d visit my childhood home where my dad still lived, we’d slide a few of my childhood books off the shelf and pack them into suitcases for our return trip to Florida.

When I had my second son in 2015, more books rolled in.

When I lost my dad in 2016, I inherited all of his books. We donated quite a few while in California cleaning out his house, but many of them ended up with us.

When I had my third son in 2019, more books pitter-pattered onto our shelves, including a fuzzy Bible. Yes: fuzzy, like a sheep. A sheep-Bible.

Here we are in 2020, a year of perfect vision. What better time to do some sifting and some gifting? Because really what it comes down to for all of us is that if we don’t sift, someone — at some point — will have to. A moment of honesty here: I had been on my dad for years about paring down his belongings (wrote a bit more about that here). I had even gone so far as to fill boxes of his stuff to drop off at Salvation Army — stuff he never ever used (and probably didn’t even know about). But he refused. So I set the boxes on the linoleum floor in the dining area of his kitchen. When we returned the next summer for our annual visit, those damn boxes were still squatting on the floor, taunting me. I was frustrated with my dad. I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t let me help him clean up his house. So when he was diagnosed with cancer — or, I should say, when he told me he had been diagnosed with cancer — cleaning his house was certainly not the priority. Spending time with him was.

For a two-bedroom duplex, it was a beast to clean.

So I have begun death-cleaning my house. Döstädning, in Swedish, it is the art of preparing your home in the (certain) event that you leave this earth — decluttering, organizing, donating, and trashing. Here’s a summary taken from this Time article, which is actually simply an excerpt from the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson:

  • We have a difficult time talking to our loved ones about death. But maybe we should try a little harder. Perhaps we can use death cleaning as a way to broach the subject.
  • Death cleaning is getting rid of the things we don’t really want or use.
  • Don’t leave the burden of cleaning to your loved ones.
  • It will take time. Start with a basement or attic or cupboards — get rid of that stuff you didn’t even remember that you had, or the stuff that has been sitting for so many years it is no longer good.
  • Get the word out. Family or friends might want some of your stuff. (My brother-in-law, his wife, and their two kids just upsized to a house in DC, and they’ve already expressed interest in some things.)
  • Allow yourself to spend time with your objects one more time. Appreciate the time with the objects.
  • Magnusson ends by suggesting a trip to the dump to physically throw some of your crap objects as far as you can.

I am in my thirties, and I am death cleaning. Not because I think I’m going to die soon (I definitely don’t think that — I’ve read How Not to Die, after all), but because I want to live a decluttered life now. Think about it: does it bring you joy opening up that “junk drawer” in your kitchen? What about your hall closet stuffed to the gills with . . . what? And underneath your bed, are there some storage boxes down there? And then what about your basement or attic or garage?

It’s overwhelming, but not if you start with the stuff you really don’t care about. And after you get rid of that crap, you will feel so good. You will feel like the little donkey when his burden is finally lifted.

This morning, I simply took a quick look in the bathroom cabinet and threw away some stuff. EASY.

Last night, we filled 7 fabric shopping bags with books. And even though the used book store bought the equivalent of only one bag, the books are still in motion. We will try another bookstore that was recommended to me by a former student, sell some of them online, and then donate the rest.*

Earlier this week, I took a quick look under my kitchen sink and realized that this lovely bottle of Mrs. Meyer’s lemon verbena baking soda cream cleaner was just sitting in there, not being used. So I took it out and put it on the window sill above the kitchen sink. I’ve used (and enjoyed) it a few times since doing that.

Two weeks ago, I took a quick look in my hall closet and saw a single-panel curtain I had bought from World Market with the intent of using it to sew pillow covers. I bought the fabric two years ago, and with an 11-month-old crawling around my life right now in addition to the other two crazies, sewing pillow covers just isn’t in the works for me. So I gave the fabric to a friend who enjoys sewing.

Three weeks ago, I took a quick look at one of my under-the-bed storage boxes and realized that I had a couple of maxi skirts in there that I never wear. I have a beautiful co-worker who loves wearing maxi skirts, so I passed them along to her.

Small stuff, here and there with one big project: books. I’m feeling great about the process, and the strategy of doing a little bit here and there works for me. And I’d say that it could work for anyone. It’s easy, and it’s gratifying. For even more inspiration, revisit my post “Burn All of the Things.”

So I’ll continue with the small stuff here and there. And when it comes time to assess the boys’ toys?

Pray for me.

*Update: We dropped off three big bags of books at Goodwill today. Yay.