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.

Lemon Cream Pie and California Dreamin’

“Shake the hand that feeds you.” –Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Lemon Cream Pie. Just saying those three words brings me back to my grandmother’s warm kitchen, watching her bustle around in her silky sea-green “cooking” robe. My grandmother was fancy — no simple apron for her. But the fancy was always in direct contrast to the frenetic bustling, especially for holiday dinners. She would scuttle here and scuttle there, taking the scalloped potatoes out of the bottom oven, basting the turkey in the top oven, snatching the heavy whipping cream out of the fridge. She always had the wild-eyed look in the kitchen, but as soon as I came in, she’d stop in the middle of whatever she was doing to wrap me in a squishy (read: voluptuous) hug and give me “some sugar” — aka, kisses on the cheek. And then back to the bustling.

It’s funny how we don’t truly appreciate things until they’re gone. This year, I’ll be having Thanksgiving dinner with only my immediate family: my husband and three boys (and, unlike growing up, I’m so very, very outnumbered). Not only do we live across the country from my California grandmother (and my aunts and uncles and cousin), but at the ripe age of 95, she’s certainly not bustling anymore.

So the lemon pie comes down to me, and it’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly. The first order of business is to find the recipe. The (potentially) devastating part to this is . . . I don’t know if I have it and . . .

My grandmother never used a recipe.

Years ago, when I was an undergrad, I decided that I needed to learn how to make “The Pie.” I asked my grandmother if she’d walk me through the recipe, and she happily obliged. All I remember from that afternoon at her house in Palo Alto is a flurry of trying to keep up with her as she tossed into a bowl a cup of this, a spoonful of that, and then . . . mix and pour and pie crust and oven and hot and cold and refrigerator and eat. Surely I must have written something down, but I’m not sure. And I’m not sure if I still have the (potentially) written down recipe. And if so, it’s probably chicken scratch and hardly readable.

(And now I will take a short hiatus from the writing of this post to rummage around my kitchen and see if I can find something — anything — that resembles my grandmother’s lemon cream pie recipe. Wish me luck.)

***

Update: I found a recipe! It’s in my mom’s handwriting (but on a recipe card that says “from the kitchen of Inez,” my grandmother’s name), and it’s severely lacking in details, but it’s something! Here it is:

Beat 3 eggs til foamy
Alternately: add 1/3 cup lemon juice and 2/3 cup sugar
Beat together well
Cook in double boiler. Stir constantly til thick. Take off heat. Crumble/beat in 3oz. cream cheese. Beat to melt.
Top with whipped topping.

That’s it. I flipped the card over, only to find a blank side. Nothing about a pie crust. Nothing about how to make the whipped topping and how much. Nothing about chilling it and for how long. My grandmother has dementia and is hard of hearing, so calling her on the phone to clarify anything is out of the question. So I’ll be using what I have as a base recipe and crossing my fingers for the rest of it.

How beautiful will it be, though, for me to take the rough recipe and smooth it out with my additions. I am actually looking forward to it. I’ll definitely add some lemon zest. I have a lovely new pie crust recipe from a coworker (thank you, Caroline) to try, and I am familiar with making homemade whipped cream. As for how long to chill the pie . . . that’s probably going to depend on how patient I am.

***

Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, acknowledges the importance of our relationships with food and with the makers of our food. We should know what our food is. We should know who makes our food. We should appreciate our food. Simple, good advice — and there’s so much more in the book. If you’re a human, you should definitely read it.

When he says to shake the hand that feeds us — if nothing else — it’s a good reminder for us to be aware. As Thanksgiving approaches, more than likely our families are beginning to plan for the day. And the plan probably revolves around food. Just this morning my California cousin Krysta sent me pictures of mini plum and apple pies that she’s testing out for Thanksgiving. I responded to her text with a snarky “FINE! YES I’LL TAKE ONE OR THREE!” I’m deliciously happy that she’s enjoying baking pies. I’m just not thrilled that I won’t be partaking in the eating of them. So, yes, this week in particular, many humans are beginning to think about and plan for . . . food. Be aware of that. If you are one of the humans thinking and planning, you already are. But if you are a human that simply shows up to grandma’s house, sits at the table, and chows down, take a minute to be aware (read: thankful) of all (read: love) that goes into the preparation of the food.

I’m asking my students to write “Favorite Thanksgiving Food” articles this week. It’s been a fun conversation so far about their experiences and memories and how they fuse together into a pan or cookie sheet or skillet or bowl. Some of my students have taken the assignment to heart and have spoken with family members who make the dish. Some of the students have already obtained the recipe. (Did they accuse me of assigning this just so I could get a glut of recipes right before Thanksgiving? Yes. Yes, they did. And I didn’t completely deny it.)

Food in so many ways links us to family. When I think of lemon pies, I think of my grandmother. And as I suck on this Ricola cough drop right now, I think of Krysta. And that’s not even something homemade. There’s plenty of research that tells us that our sensory experiences (especially smell) link to past memories. But aside from the science, there’s something special about food. When I sent out an all-call email to my coworkers to ask them for food articles they had, I was hit with a barrage of online articles and glossy magazines. One article I read from The New York Times, after copy-pasting it onto a Google doc so my students could view it, was 44 pages long. About food. But clearly about so much more than that. It was about tradition and family and ingredients and preparation and elegance and recipes and beauty. And it had beautiful pictures. Allison Roman from The New York Times clearly poured her heart into this article about . . . food.

My post began with lemon cream pie but quickly became about my grandmother. It then took a broader turn to being aware of and appreciating the humans making our food (and maybe even shaking their hands). As I close out, I’m thinking about my students as they pour their hearts out (hopefully!) writing their articles. Perhaps they’ll take an extra minute of their day to make a connection to a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle through . . . food.

So as we continue through this season of thanks, let’s be more aware. Let’s appreciate more. Let’s give more thanks. Let’s cook together. Let’s sit together. And eat.

Stuff! And Other Foibles.

“The seashore teemed with no weeds, no crabs, no crayfish, no coral, no pebbles, no rocks.” –Yann Martel, Life of Pi

I finally read Life of Pi. (Interesting side-note: The novel was published on September 11, 2001.) While not my favorite, I did quite enjoy it. When I came across this sentence, I had to do a double-take. How can a seashore teem with . . . nothing? I was immediately drawn to the paradoxical statement. And the sentence proceeds to list six different objects that aren’t there. With a “no” in front of each object, the effect on the reader is overwhelming. With the absence of a coordinating conjunction between the objects (asyndeton, for the Literary Prude English Teachers of America), the six objects overwhelm, yes, but also come at the reader like rapid fire.

So why does Martel want to overwhelm us with loss? And as a fiction writer, why draw attention to what is not in the scene? How do we write using good imagery when we’re not describing what’s actually in the scene? Well, I don’t think Martel is concerned as much with imagery as he is with emotional reaction. In this particular scene, a storm has just blown through the island, taking most everything with it. Perhaps Martel wanted to emphasize the effect of losing everything? And to a seashore, losing things like weeds, crabs, crayfish, coral, pebbles, and rocks might seem like everything.

How might the seashore be feeling about this loss?

Without seeming indifferent to environmental issues, I’m not particularly compelled by the idea of a seashore temporarily losing these things. I am, however, quite compelled by the idea of how this sentence applies to us. When storms blow through our lives and leave us with nothing, how are we still teeming? What does it mean? Is it healthy? Good? Bad?

Read any self-help literature these days, and it’s teeming with tips on how to minimize our lives. I did a quick search on Goodreads using the word “minimal,” and 100 pages of results came back. Minimalism as a way of life is quite popular. I’d like to say that I adhere to the philosophy (on a very small scale) in my own home. I purge on a regular basis, and I am mindful not to become emotionally attached to my things. I’ve read Marie Kondo’s book Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up, and I’ve watched all the episodes of Tidying Up on Netflix. In other words, I’m a pro.

OK, not so much a pro, but I’m trying!

Before my mom passed away, she hired a moving company to pack up her entire apartment into boxes and move them to my house. She split living her final days between my home in Florida and her cousin’s home in Tennessee. My husband and I took some of her things and fixed up the guest bedroom for her — we wanted her to feel comfortable and “at home” as much as possible. And I think she was as comfortable as she could have been as she lived the last of her life.

But let me tell you, nothing prepares you for the loss of your mother. Martel captures the scope of it when he says “To lose your mother, well, that is like losing the sun above you.” It is very, very difficult to sustain life without the sun.

And yet.

My life went on. Not only that, I had to take care of the rest of the boxes of my mom’s stuff sitting in our garage. It was at that point that I realized that I couldn’t allow myself to form an emotional connection to my mom’s stuff. My mom was gone, and her stuff wasn’t going to bring her back. And while my mom loved me, her stuff did not — and would not ever — love me.

I lost my mom. And then I got rid of nearly all of her things.

And yet.

My life went on. With less stuff.

When my dad died 7 years after my mom, I had to go through all of his belongings as well. I picked just a few things to keep, but the bulk of it had to go. So my husband and I set up a “poor-man’s” estate sale at his home and let strangers pick through his stuff. It was humbling, sad, and exhausting. I resonated again with Martel’s words in Life of Pi: “To lose your father is to lose the one whose guidance and help you seek, who supports you like a tree trunk supports its branches.” (For more about how I dealt with the loss of my parents, read this post.)

Resiliency is a fascinating thing. Nature has plenty of examples of it: natural forest fires, hurricanes, earthquakes. Given time, nature takes its course and the forests that were burned down reseed, the earth that was ravaged by hurricanes dries out, the fault lines exacerbated by earthquakes fill back in. Nature taking its course doesn’t mean that things go back to exactly the way they were before or that the land is necessarily better for it. But nature is pretty good at healing itself.

And I think humans are, too.

It’s interesting that after a storm hits, people come together. In 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. I was 7 years old, living in California, and what I most remember about it all was neighbors gathering in my garage eating together because my dad had a camping stove. It was awesome! To me, it felt like a party! (To my mom, not so much. Her china cabinet fell over, and every dish except one shattered. She cried.)

When Hurricane Irma hit in Florida in 2017, I wasn’t naively thinking there would be a “party” in my garage over a camping stove (we didn’t have one at the time, but after that hurricane, we bought one), but the neighbors came together to help each other out. There was a lot of destruction, flooding, and power loss, but what I remember most was the kindness.

So when Martel writes the “seashore teemed,” perhaps he wanted us to understand how overwhelming loss can be. Or perhaps he wanted us to realize just how much we will always still have left in us — even after experiencing great loss. Perhaps he was reinforcing the idea that we don’t need “things” in our lives as much as we think we do. Yes, the seashore teemed with the absence of all of the things.

But the seashore still teemed. And “teemed” is an action verb.

There was action.

There was movement.

There was hope.

And just as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reminds us, “The tide rises, the tide falls.” Life will continue. Healing may need to happen, and it may take time, but life will continue. Take a minute, listen to the ocean in your head, and read his poem:

“The tide rises, the tide falls, 

The twilight darkens, the curlew calls; 

Along the sea-sands damp and brown 

The traveller hastens toward the town, 

      And the tide rises, the tide falls. 

Darkness settles on roofs and walls, 

But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls; 

The little waves, with their soft, white hands, 

Efface the footprints in the sands, 

      And the tide rises, the tide falls. 

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls 

Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls; 

The day returns, but nevermore 

Returns the traveller to the shore, 

      And the tide rises, the tide falls.”

It may not be the most inspirational, hope-filled, happy poem. And, yes, it does seem that the “traveller” in the poem dies. But the commentary on nature is clear: it goes on. And as natural beings, so do we. We’ll deal with loss — and even we won’t live forever — but we’re resilient and can pick ourselves up and move one. And though I don’t have my parents living this life with me, I do have a wonderful husband and three wonderful sons. My life?

It’s teeming.

Read books. Not one kind. Mostly print.

“Friendship . . . is born at the moment when one man says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . ‘” –C.S. Lewis–

Isn’t that so true of fellow readers? When I come across people who have read and loved Khaled Hosseini novels, I have to resist the urge to wrap them in a big hug. When I find someone who reads, and the two of us have ongoing conversations about what we’re reading — my oh my, that is friendship at a whole ‘nother level. (As Aladdin would say, “Do you trust me? Then click on the link.” He said that, right?) But seriously, I do believe that there is something special about a friendship that involves book conversations. Especially fiction: we can talk to our friends about reality (ad nauseam) . . . but also about fictional worlds?

Level up.

Having just recently entered the blogging world, I am beginning to see the tip of the iceberg of the reading community here. And I am really excited about it.

Because when it comes to books, I can talk to complete strangers. As a matter of fact, when I am at a bookstore or the library slinking around the New Releases or YA sections, I have this secret hope that someone will pick up a book that I’ve read so that I can tell them how good it is or make recommendations based on it. This will then lead, of course, to more conversation about books and then, of course, to my recommending more books and then, of course, I will have become “the person at the bookstore who recommended that book that changed my life” and I will have achieved immortality.

Level up.

Can I tell you an embarrassing secret? When I go to bookstores, in a matter of minutes, I have to poop. TMI — sorry. I don’t remember exactly where I read about this — maybe the book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal — but when we’re feeling nervous, our brain sends signals to our gastrointestinal tract, causing it basically to have contractions or spasms. But I am the opposite of stressed at a bookstore. I am excited. So I’m thinking that excitement might work similarly. Don’t believe me? Read this article written by the professionals and scientists from the ever-reliable source, Buzzfeed. The more you know.

Level up? Well, maybe if you have constipation issues. (Seriously, though. You’re welcome.)

So if you’ve gotten this far reading my post, let me say this: if — gasp — you don’t read, consider reading for your digestive health. (Or at least browsing in a bookstore. It might work for you. It does for me.)

Aside from digestive health (which is very, very important by the way — did you know that your poop is a valid tool for assessing your health? WebMD Poop Slideshow), you should be reading books because you’re a human. I even wrote a post about it: “Are you a human? Then I have a book recommendation for you.”

Just with food, it’s important to get a variety of books into our diet. While The Literary Prude English Teachers of America would have you believe that you should only read the classics, I’m an English teacher who is telling you to read all kinds of books. Don’t limit yourself to — *adjusts turtleneck* — the classics. Don’t limit yourself to — *adjusts tie, adjusts American Flag pin* — only non-fiction. We don’t want to trap ourselves inside a bubble. I have a hard time with this. I’d be in — *adjusts my not-figure-flattering, high-waisted shorts* — the realistic/contemporary fiction bubble.

Moving on to the next level, I think it’s worth a conversation to talk about how and what to read. “Read books” is simple and perhaps vague advice. But that’s where we have to start. Reading in general is great, but if the extent of our reading is magazine articles or Instagram captions or ESPN.com, it’s not enough. So we start with something easy and perhaps a subject in our wheelhouse and go from there. (Looking for a recommendation? I listed a few in my book recommendation post.)

So we all have our bubbles. Let’s pop them and see what else is out there. We know that reading fiction increases empathy (go ahead, Google it because internet=truth), and that’s pretty darn cool. We can read about people who are very different from us (people that we might not even want to know in real life) and come to a new (better) understanding of them. We might even go from reading that book to being a better human to people who are different from us.

Level up.

Let’s recap:

  1. Books are good for our digestive health.
  2. Books help make us better human beings.

So far so good! Now I do want to take this conversation one step (level?) further. (Side-note: use “farther” when talking about anything physically measurable; use “further” for everything else.) I want to talk about . . .

Print books.

Now I know a lot of people read on their devices. Or listen to audio-books. And that’s great! But I think we lose something when we continually deny ourselves the physical pleasure of holding a book in our hands and turning the pages. There’s magic in it: you feel the book, you touch the pages, you smell it.

And in my personal experience, being both a human and an English teacher, I have found that I remember what I’ve read better from a print book, and my students have richer discussions when they’re using a print book. That is anecdotal, of course, but I’ll tell you this: I fought hard to get print books back into the hands of my students for the upcoming school year because I’ve seen a difference. I’ve taught students who solely use ebooks, and I’ve taught students who solely use print books. Students don’t get to the same depth of discussion when they read ebooks. Students are hardly ever completely focused on the discussion when they have a screen in front of them. And I’m even talking about my cream-of-the-crop AP Lit seniors. They are human, and they message each other during class. They do. They really do. (If you’re a teacher at an all-iPad school and you don’t think your students are doing fill-in-the-blank things on their iPads other than whatever you happen to be teaching, YOU ARE DELUSIONAL. Same goes for employees sitting in a meeting. It’s a reality. Maybe it’s sad, but it’s the way it is.) I’ll go ahead and confess that I definitely do off-topic activities on my phone or iPad or laptop during meetings. It’s just so easy and convenient (and fun)!

Listen:

We live in a screen-centric world where everything is at our fingertips, notifications come in like a constant drizzle, and multi-tasking is the norm and even exalted. Probably our job requires quite a bit of screen time. Of course we’re going to binge-watch Stranger Things. Even our cars have screens in them. And then our man-made appendage-screen, the phone. For me, sometimes my phone is the ultimate rabbit hole. What do I even do on that silly thing?

Recap: SO MANY SCREENS.

So why not take a break from the screen? Here’s how:

  1. Turn sound off on phone.
  2. Set phone in a room.
  3. Leave said room.
  4. Pick up a book.
  5. Read book.

A print book won’t interrupt you with notifications. A print book won’t beep or buzz at you (well, unless you have some weird interactive kids book which I don’t recommend your having in the house because sometimes at night when all the kids are in bed and you hear it making sounds it’s really scary and then you want to burn it). A print book doesn’t force you to basically stare into the sun (or the light of a screen, that is). A print book provides you with a tactile experience. I could go on.

So here we are! Read books. Not one kind. Mostly print. (Nod to Michael Pollan, one of my idols. Read his book In Defense of Food. It’s a total game-changer.)

Thanks, friend, for reading this post on a screen. Now that you have, toss your phone or iPad or laptop or desktop computer out the window, grab a book, and read. Enjoy the feel of holding the book in your hands, the sound of the pages turning, the smell of the paper and the ink, and the escape that only a book can provide. (I think I have to poop.)

But wait just one more minute . . . If you are a kindred spirit book lover, please introduce yourself and drop a book recommendation in the comments below. I’d love to geek out with you about books. And maybe experience the sentiment C.S. Lewis expresses in his quote: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . “

Happy reading, everyone. And nice to meet you.

Are you a human? Then I have a book recommendation for you.

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.” –William Faulkner–

I don’t even like Faulkner. I am an English teacher, and I don’t like Faulkner. I own it. His writing style is too dense for my preference, and that’s OK. It’s a beautiful thing to have the freedom to read whatever we want and have an opinion on it. But the bottom line is that we’re reading.

Because we don’t simply read for reading’s sake. And if you think that’s what you’re doing when you read, well, you’re wrong. When we read — whether we acknowledge it or not — we absorb. We absorb new-to-us diction, a variety of phrasing and sentence structures, unique narrative styles, and I could go on and on. HOW COOL IS IT TO READ AN AWESOME BOOK AND BE SUBCONSCIOUSLY LEARNING AT THE SAME TIME? Love that. My poor (lucky) students get to hear me rant about that all the time. When students tell me oh, I HATE reading, I take on the challenge to find something they’ll like. And I take it very personally. I WILL FIND SOMETHING GOSH DARN IT JUST GIVE ME A LITTLE TIME (and maybe tell me the last movie you watched and really liked because I’ve found that to be quite helpful).

I like the Faulkner quote because it is a clear challenge for us. Do you write? Do you blog? If you do either but don’t find the time to read, I think Faulkner would call you a hypocrite — an unskilled hypocrite. I think he speaks truth when he says that to “see how [writers] do it,” you must read. Read to become a better reader, yes, of course.

But read to become a better writer.

But I’d like to take the Faulkner quote one (crazy) step further: Do you interact with other humans? Do you have a pulse? If either question applies to you, then you should read.

Oh, but you don’t have time to read. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. (Excuse my while I finish dry heaving.)

That’s ridiculous. Of course you do. If you want to read, you have time to do it. 15 minutes before bed is all it takes. The sleep research even tells us what a great idea it is: reading before bed (on a print book, not a screen), helps communicate to your brain that it’s time to go to sleep land. How lovely!

If you do actually want to read, here’s what I do know: we as humans are really good at making time for what we want to do. (Like mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. OMG, an hour has passed — what is my life.)

But what if you don’t want to read because — gasp — you don’t like reading? Then I’d like to issue an apology (something I’ve done every blog post so far: here, and here) on behalf of your parents and the Literary Prude English Teachers of America (LPETA) . I am betting that some of you weren’t taught that reading is something to do for pleasure. Or maybe your schedule was kept so busy (for your college resume, amiright?) that by the time your head hit the pillow, you were out. Or maybe you had English teachers and professors who refused to release their talons from the “classics” (you know, the ones that the students hate or don’t even read — or the ones where they think just squeezing in some SparkNotes for those pesky reading check quizzes will suffice). Now there’s nothing wrong with the classics, don’t get me wrong. But if that’s all the students get? Yeah, good luck getting them to be lifelong readers. One size does NOT fit all.

Being an English teacher myself, I think I’m allowed to say that it’s stupid and antiquated to think that literary fiction (i.e., the classics) is the only kind “worthy” to be taught in schools. Come on, English teachers, stop being pretentious, literary prudes, and live a little! It’s OK for students to also read commercial fiction (I see you, literary prude, who noticed that split infinitive). It’s not the end of the world. If we teach only literary fiction, most of which is — let’s be honest — kinda boring, what is the takeaway for students? That most books are kinda boring. WHAT A DISSERVICE THIS IS TO THE HUMAN RACE.

May I admit something to you? That pretentious, literary-prude teacher I spoke of? That was me. That was me for the first few years of my naive teaching career. I’m embarrassed, but looking back, I see that I was just trying to be one of the Literary Prude English Teachers of America (i.e., compensating probably for my own insecurities). I was the English teacher who would scoff at commercial fiction, trying to convince my students that only scum of the earth read it and that The Scarlet Letter was God’s gift to the literary world (I can’t stand The Scarlet Letter, BTW). But the worst part of it all? Even as I was basking in my English Teacher Pretension, I wasn’t reading. Not really, anyway. I read the books my students were required to read but not much else. Well gosh, that’s embarrassing.

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Stephen King

So whoever you are — student, novelist, blogger, adult, teacher, or any other kind of human — support your local library, pick up a book (or 7) for free, and read. Let’s read to make ourselves better. Let’s read to make others better. Let’s read books that are uncomfortable to us. “Read, read, read,” as Faulkner simply (for once, might I add) states.

So if you’re wondering where to start, here’s an aside of some of my favorite book recommendations, organized by genre:

  • YA/adult fiction: Beartown, Fredrick Backman
  • Historical fiction: All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
  • Non-fiction/writing: Writing with Style, John Trimble
  • Non-fiction/science/humor: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach
  • Poetry: Felicity, Mary Oliver
  • Graphic novel: Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
  • Short stories: Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Classic lit.: Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • YA: Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
  • Adult fiction: A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
  • Memoir: Educated, Tara Westover
  • Novel in verse: Long Way Down, Jason Reynolds

I hold firmly to the belief that if you are a human, there is a book out there that you will enjoy. Maybe it’s at a lower reading level. Maybe it’s a graphic novel. Maybe it’s a novel in verse (lots of white space!). Maybe it’s young adult fiction and you’re . . . fifty. Maybe, as Faulkner recognizes, it’s trash. But it’s there. And, man, what a world opens when you get to dive into a good book. There truly is nothing like it.

So get off your phone, and find it. Consider it an adventure! A journey to a new world! It will be fun! Do it! (And then friend me on Goodreads.)

~~What I’m currently reading: (1) A Curse So Dark and Lonely, Brigid Kemmerer and (2) How Not to Die, Michael Greger~~

Ernest Hemingway and Shitty First Drafts

“The first draft of anything is shit.” –Ernest Hemingway–

I thought it fitting that for my first official post, I use this gem from Hemingway. I have an affinity for Hemingway because he reminds me of my dad: crass, pessimistic, depressed, and with a penchant for alcohol. Already we’re starting with the warm fuzzies!

But really, what I love about this quote is its simplistic realism. If we’re being honest, you know that Hemingway would despise blogs. Blogs give any schmuck the freedom to publish first drafts of pure, stinking shit. And as I write this post, my older boys are running around hitting each other with pool-noodle light sabers, my 4-month-old is fussing in the next room, and my husband is making smoothies on our super old (LOUD) blender. Not exactly the kind of environment Hemingway would probably prefer to work through draft after draft to reach literary gold.

As I begin my blogging journey, I need to remember Hemingway’s words for two reasons:

  1. I move into this process knowing that I will try to write truth. Because of the nature of my life, I probably won’t get to compose draft after draft of my work. But with Hemingway’s words ringing in my ear, you better believe that my “first drafts” will be as good as I can make them.
  2. I will be humble. Always humble. I think Hemingway can at least appreciate that.

My life may not be conducive to finessing each word I write, each phrase, each punctuation mark, each sentence, each paragraph. Yet this life is what I have. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. While I certainly respect the writing process (trust me, I do — I’m a high school English teacher, remember?), when it comes to life, we only get one draft.

And while it may seem shitty sometimes (literally: changing poopy diapers, anything having to do with potty training — both older sons pooped inside my home, one pile on the rug in front of the toilet, one pile in the middle of the living room), it’s our beautiful life that we get the privilege to live.

So I say to Hemingway’s sentiment in regards to life: EMBRACE THE SHIT!

And when it comes to blogging, I’d like to issue an apology on behalf of us all. Hemingway, dear Hemingway, you have left us a legacy of meritorious literature and six-toed cats. Meanwhile, we sit at our computer, thinking we’re the shiz, publishing shit shit shit. May we try to do better. May we look over our drafts before publishing. May we consider our word choice, phrasing, sentence structure and length, and punctuation (used for style, not just grammar). May we remain always humble and think about others above ourselves. May we enter this blogging world and make it better.

May we blog with dignity. And rise above the shit.

Amen.