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.

so you want to be a human?

“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you/ in spite of everything, / don’t do it.” –Charles Bukowski, “so you want to be a writer?”

His whole poem is *bursting* with little gems like this one — a lot of reasons not to be a writer. My students love it because they immediately latch on to the “don’t do it” part. I gently explain to them that he is talking about being a writer, not writing an assignment for a class. (Two very, very different things.)

I have to say, I enjoy a little Bukowski sentiment in my life occasionally. His self-righteous, smug nonchalance feeds my own privileged, first-world ego. So what if writing doesn’t burst out of me. I have the privilege to write. Or not write. (Also I don’t write for money. Or fame much of an audience — if your eyeballs are reading these words, WOW! And thanks! So I don’t write novels. So I don’t write for a living. A privilege it is, indeed, that I write whenever and however I want. I don’t have anything riding on it.)

But beyond the privilege element, I appreciate the organic nature of living — not forcing yourself to do certain jobs, to like certain things, to be certain ways. It also makes me seriously question the entire American schooling system — learning certain things, learning certain ways, learning at certain times, etc. I’m afraid that we’re gobbling and slurping the joy right out of it, all in the name of “knowing what’s/when’s/how’s best.” And while our motives are good — raise smart kids to go to good colleges to get good jobs to “make a difference in our world” — I think the foie gras approach is maybe not the best. Students are stressed and tired, anxiety issues are at an all-time high, and rarely do students get to explore what they are naturally curious about.

If, as a teacher, I rigidly stuck to the curriculum all year every year, I would . . . maybe die. And if not death, certainly I would become a rule-following robot simply beeping out the lesson of the day. The beauty of a school with flesh-and-blood humans as teachers is that we’re just that: humans. We have complex minds that stray from the curriculum when need be.

Sometimes when we stray from talking about enjambment

in a poem, time frees up to talk about how we don’t know who we are

without our stuff.

Recently, I had a student fill out an evaluation on me and my class, and she wrote that sometimes I and the students go off on tangents and that we should stick to the topic. And while I agree that a certain knowledge base should be taught in a class that is preparing for an AP exam in May, some of the “tangents” we have I’d argue aren’t even tangents at all. When a poem makes you look inward, it’s not a tangent. When a novel makes you question why you’re sitting in a desk surrounded by four walls, it’s not a tangent. When I tell the students a story of a caller to a radio show arguing about the placement of a “deer crossing” sign because it’s a dangerous place for deer to cross, it’s a tangent. But sometimes our brains need a break and we need to laugh and we need to be reminded of our humanness.

I don’t know why, but sometimes stories like Donna and the Deer Crossing Signs come bursting out of me.

The problem is when we’re in situations or jobs that allow us no “bursting” freedom. If you feel like that’s you, my privileged self would tell you to leave! Change your situation! Quit, and get a different job! I know enough about my blog audience to know that you’re probably set up well enough to do it.

So do it already.

I might rewrite Bukowski’s poem to expand it beyond being a writer — and take a slightly different approach:

“so you want to be a rule-following robot”

if you want life and vitality to come bursting out of you
in spite of everyone telling you how to live
don’t be it.
if you don’t want to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
phone
don’t be it.
if you want to think
and have opinions
and questions
and dissent,
don’t be it.
if you want joy
and fulfillment
and belly laughs(-till-you-cry),
don’t be it.
don’t be like so many robots,
don’t be like so many thousands of
robots who call themselves humans,
don’t be dull and boring and
rule-following-till-you-die.
the statisticians of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your robot number.
don’t add to that.
don’t be it.

if you can see the sunrise
and be flooded with possibilities
and be overwhelmed with beauty
and be overcome by life itself
to the point of a tear forming in the
corner of your eye,
then you’ll be a human, my friend.

I think my disdain for rule-following robots is clear, but I wonder what Bukowski would say about them. I think he might believe that following rules at all is bad. And this is where we’d differ. There are plenty of rules I follow:

  • For the most part, I follow the law. Do I occasionally speed or slow-slide through stop signs? Yes.
  • When I play games, I am one to try to follow the rules. And I confess, I do get annoyed when people don’t want to follow the rules. Last year at my school’s gift exchange, we got to the very end, and the last person to go got her own gift. She declared that we should open the game back up so that she didn’t end up with the gift she brought. I was not in favor of this. But that’s what we did, and she got the gift she wanted (and took it away from someone who thought the game was over). It’s silly, I know, but it just seemed selfish to me. AND WE BROKE THE RULES.
  • I minimally follow the rules at school. This means that if it’s a rule I think is dumb or busywork, I’ll probably follow it — but in the most minimal, least-amount-of-effort way. And will I still gripe? Yeah, probably. It’s something I need to work on, for sure.
  • I have this fear of being reprimanded, so I try to follow general rules of social conduct when I’m out and about. This mostly means that I don’t let my boys climb up onto the shelves at BJ’s, disappear into the clothing racks at Marshall’s (Narnia, clearly), or push their kid-carts careening down the aisles of Trader Joe’s while other bug-eyed shoppers frantically swerve their carts and dive out of the way and into the frozen bags of asparagus risotto. I used to not let my kids sit in the large section of the cart because it’s against the rules (according to what’s written on the plastic piece on the baby seat, that is). Yeah, I just don’t care about that one anymore, mostly because I don’t think anyone else cares.

The point for me is to avoid being a robot. Know the rules before you break the rules. Be aware of the rules you do follow. Know why you follow them. Bukowski’s screw-it-all philosophy doesn’t quite work in the real world. But if we can find a balance between following rules (and conventions and norms) and being true to ourselves (and our motivations and our desires), that’s where the magic is.

So if being a writer means you wait until “it comes out of / your soul like a rocket,” we might be here awhile, waiting for your book to be published. But on the flip side, if you’re writing (or fill-in-the-blanking) just because you’re supposed to (or expected to) but really don’t enjoy it, do something else. Or change your mindset. Or change something.

Poems that have influenced my life (and this particular blog post):

How to Achieve Immortality (it involves pie)

“Its meaning is in the doing.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer

Oh, this book. It’s on another level. It’s strange, and . . . I like it. When the mayor says these words to our narrator, Hiram, it’s one of those moments that make us pause. We know something big is happening. I’m still working my way through the book (only on page 93 right now), and there are these little wisps of smoky magic throughout. I’m intrigued, and hopefully my 9-month-old will allow me a window of reading time more than three minutes at a time.*

(*Note: NOT a recommended reading strategy, but if it’s all you have, you take it. I hear people tell me — ad nauseam — that they simply don’t have any time to read. And as I look at them with an ever-so-slight eyebrow raise, I think to myself, “Wow, to not have five or ten minutes in a day. That’s something.” And I would wager that something is in fact not true. Turn your phone off. Try again. Goodbye.)

But aside from my sentiments on reading (and how if you’re a human you better be figuring out how to do it — hint: open book, look at words, turn pages), I love this quote because of its — you guessed it — simple truth.

Meaning is in the doing.

We’ve heard it before: don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk; actions speak louder than words; practice what you preach; etc. But what these familiar phrases lack is meaning. And that meaning element is good. Really good.

So what is the meaning of your life? Simple. Look at what you’re doing. I don’t care what you believe or what your Enneagram is or even what you say. What do you do?

Do you believe in God and/or the Bible and/or Jesus but find yourself gossiping with co-workers, holding onto grudges, dwelling on and perpetuating negativity?

Do you look for the cutesy-tootsie Enneagram infographics on Instagram and immediately post to stories OMG? It’s real life if it’s on your stories. We all know that.

Do you say you want your kids to get the best education when they never see you reading (but instead see you as a screen-zombie to your phone)?

Do you want a happy life but go to bed each night exhausted and drained, wondering when the next weekend/break/hiatus/sabbatical will be?

I’m a teacher, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of living for the weekend (and the random government days off and Thanksgiving break — ON IT!! — and Christmas break and spring break and summer break). But, hello — what am I doing each weekday to be happy?

Sometimes I like to sit down and think about what I do in a day. I suggest you do the same. So let me walk through a typical “school day”:

  1. Wake up a little earlier than I need so that I can enjoy a quiet few minutes with my cup of coffee and a book.
  2. Do all the necessary personal preparations for school. I have a simple wardrobe, so dressing never takes a long time. I don’t wear much makeup or do much of anything with my hair, so, again, less time. I think the key here is not worrying too much about how I look.
  3. I ride my bike the almost-mile to school. As I ride down my street, I often see the beautiful sunrise and thank God for the morning greeting. I see a couple of folks fairly regularly that I wave to and say “Good morning!” Rick is my regular walker, and we’ve actually stopped to meet each other since we see each other nearly every morning. When it’s cold (in the 40’s — I don’t bike under 40 degrees fahrenheit; I have standards, people), my regulars and I exchange the knowing nod of it’s cold and WE OUT HERE.
  4. I get to school with plenty of time to spare so I never feel rushed in the mornings.
  5. I enjoy chatting with my homeroom students. They’re ninth graders and crazy. And I love them . . . almost all the time.
  6. I write my curriculum based on what I love. So classes are never dull. (Does it get tedious doing the same lesson again and again in a day? Sure, but the students are so different that even with the same lesson, the variation still prevails.)
  7. I enjoy my lunch with adults. This is a time I get away from the students. Some teachers let students eat in their rooms, but that just isn’t for me. I need a balance of teenagers and adults in my day, and chatting with adults at lunch is a needed respite. (This year has been a little different because I actually bike home every day for lunch to nurse my baby. But I always get to chat with my husband, and he is — I would say, for the most part — an adult, so it counts.)
  8. I try not to stay late at school. I’ve found that if I’m absolutely overwhelmed with papers to grade or lessons to write or fill-in-the-blank to do, I’m actually not being efficient at my job. Even if you’re not a teacher, see if this applies to you. Work smarter, not harder. (Hey, just because you’re that person who stays super late every day at whatever job you’re at doesn’t mean that you’re actually a good employee. WE HAVE GOT TO STOP THE MADNESS OF EXALTING THE RULE-FOLLOWING ROBOT-OVERWORKER.)
  9. I ride my bike home, sometimes in the rain, and enjoy noticing weird and interesting things on the path. Like a huge spider in a huge spider web that I have to swerve to avoid smashing my face into. Sometimes students or parents or coworkers give a little honk and wave as they drive by. It’s nice.
  10. I enjoy my evening with my family. We try not to make plans so that our weeknights are open to our every whim. Whims normally include trips to Trader Joe’s, maybe a dinner out at Moe’s on kids night, the library, or — the craziest whim — staying home. The husband has a fire going in the fireplace when the temps get way, way down into the fifties here in sunny Florida.

No crazy tips on how to be happy except to say that my life isn’t crazy. I do my best at living life, and that includes spending the most time doing what I love and being with people I love. Being a mom and wife and teacher? Love that about my life. Reading lots of books and writing (on a mostly-weekly basis)? Also love that.

So my last blog post was about my grandmother’s lemon cream pie. Since today’s blog post is all about doing, I thought I’d update you on the pie progress.

PIE PROGRESS UPDATE: I made the pie. I made the pie on Wednesday night, chilled it overnight, and brought it to our friend’s Thanksgiving celebration on Thursday. I thought that I hadn’t whipped the cream long enough for it to set properly and was absolutely terrified that it would turn into a gloppy pudding mess as soon as it was cut into. You know, when you lift out the slice, and the rest of the pie just sort of oozes into the open space and globs it right up? Yeah, that’s what I imagined. So I downplayed my pie to everyone at the feast, and when it came time to cut, I prayed “DEAR JESUS DO YOUR WORK HERE IN THIS PIE.” As I ever so carefully lifted the slice out, the whipped topping just held.

AND IT WAS MAGNIFICENT.

In fact, when I truly beheld its magnificence (in my mouth), I was transported back to my grandmother’s table (with all her fine china and crystal because, you know, she fancy) in Palo Alto, California. And I said a little prayer of thanks, and scarfed that pie down.

The point is, I wrote about the pie. I found the pie recipe. I read the pie recipe. I thought about the pie. But it wasn’t until I actually made the pie that meaning glinted through (in the form of a crisp, buttery crust, a tart lemon cream, and a light and fluffy whipped cream with little shreds of lemon zest on top). It was nice to think about the pie and read the recipe and reminisce about my grandmother. But it was joy making the pie and sheer decadence eating it.

I also brought some of my homemade sourdough bread to the feast, in the forms of a fougasse and four baguettes. Again, I like to talk about bread. And I like to write about bread. But it’s the doing that brings the true satisfaction. And I think satisfaction goes hand in hand with meaning. Like my read-more-books-talks with adults and the I-simply-have-no-time syndrome, people love to talk to me about bread and how they’re “going to try to start making bread.” But then, inevitably, they catch themselves and admit that they “simply have no time.”

Really, could we all probably come up with *all the things* that *take up all the time* and actually not accomplish much in life? YEP. So figure out what it is you want to do in life and do it. Or figure out what you want your kids seeing you doing and do it. Case in point: There’s a baby on my back. Right now. As I write. That baby is just soaking in the writing vibes. Now in fairness, he is asleep in a baby carrier on my back. And that is not normally how I write. But my husband is *doing* a bonfire and campout tonight with first-born and second-born. (They’re in the backyard in a tent. Bless my husband’s soul.) So I’m on baby duty 100% tonight.

When I try to think about what I want to do in life, I try to think about what I’ll remember (for good reasons or at least some hearty laughs) later in life — or what my husband or kids or students will remember later in life. Bonus: Doing things that people will remember will create your legacy. And you will achieve immortality as your deeds will live on forever after you pass. Immortality? Level up.

Will this lemon-pie-making become a probably-yearly tradition? Yes. And I think my kids will remember the tart-sweet of those bites and think of me. Same with my weekly bread (minus the tart-sweet).

Will my writing live on after I’m gone? Yes. And maybe my kids will get a kick out of reading what their silly little super cool mom had to say about life and love and sentences.

So what this all loops back around to is . . .

IMMORTALITY.

Really, though, it is. Do things. Do things that you (and partners and kids and students and people) will remember. And as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said (but because he has achieved immortality through his words, he still says — present tense), “Let us, then, be up and doing / with a heart for any fate.” If you have time, read the entire poem here. It is life-changing. But it might take a minute.

I wonder what you’ll do.

Simple Melodies, a Celebrity Sighting, and Some Wisdom from Chopin

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” –Frederic Chopin–

Simplicity as the final achievement. Think about that. Whatever it is we’re doing with our (probably hectic, probably busy, probably complicated) lives, it’s all leading up to our final achievement. For composer Frederic Chopin (my favorite, by the way), he believes that the crowning reward of art is simplicity.

Seems counterintuitive for a crowning reward to be . . . simple. But I think he’s on to something here. Something big.

Every Tuesday night for the last several weeks, my husband and I have met with some friends in a “supper club,” studying Handel’s Messiah. During the week, we listen to a couple of movements and when we meet, we eat together and then gather around the piano, play, and discuss. Every fourth Tuesday, we eat out. The first time eating out, we met at a cute little place in Riverside called The Bread and Board. As we were chatting at the table, enjoying delicious victuals, one of the ladies in our group sharply elbows her husband to tell him that she’s spotted the associate conductor of the Jacksonville Symphony sitting two tables over — the very conductor we were to see in a few weeks when we went together to see Messiah, Gonzalo Farias.

Long story short, after she goes over to chat with him (and — oops — interrupts his studying a score of music), he comes over and sits with us. Clearly passionate about music, he becomes energized answering our myriad questions.

And then we ask him to come to our supper club.

And then the next Tuesday, he does.

And then after we gather around the piano, playing and discussing our “homework,” we ask him to play.

And he does. And it’s awe-inspiring. And it’s Chopin, my favorite.

If it weren’t for all of our kids clomping around in other parts of the house and slapping sticky hands against the window pane separating the piano room from the backyard (where we tried to sequester them), I would have become emotional. It was that moving.

I credit this entire experience to my friend who had the guts to approach him at all, and then to her husband who asked him to sit down with us, and then to both of them when they asked him to come to their house for our next meeting. Nothing complicated here — just some spirit, good manners, and kindness.

And it led to an unforgettable experience.

I think Chopin (and my new friend Gonzalo) would be the first to say that the crowning reward at the end of the piece doesn’t come unless sometimes tricky, sometimes complicated notes have been played. Those notes give the ending the respect it deserves. But it’s interesting to note that when we look at a piece of music, it’s not always lots of tricky, complicated notes.

When I was forced to play in piano competitions growing up, I would occasionally be chosen to play in the honor recital. I remember the piece that the judges particularly liked was one of the simplest pieces I had ever played for the competition: Howard Hanson’s Enchantment. I still have the sheet music. And it still has the (now faded) orange sticky note with the words “Honor Recital Selection” on it. It wasn’t the most difficult, technically speaking. (But good luck playing it if you only know how to play technically.) It did require a great amount of emotion to be played well. Somehow as an angst-ridden pre-teen, I had that.

The more I live (and play piano and sing and dance around my living room and sometimes classroom), the more I comprehend the beautiful analogy between music and life. A good musician is fully invested — in the short staccato notes, in the smooth whole notes, in the fortissimo, in the pianissimo, in the crescendos, and in the diminuendos. Whether the piece has much variance or little, the musician is fully invested. Hanson’s Enchantment begins at P (soft) and ends at PP (very soft). So when I play it, it’s not about dramatic volume changes. It’s about being fully — softly — present emotionally. And sometimes

softly

is the most emotional way to play.

So you can imagine my chagrin when I searched Hanson’s piece, and the video I (unfortunately and regretfully) clicked on was of a little girl hot-dog-fingering the piano keys. (Hot Dog Fingers is a real thing. Check it out.) I listened to maybe ten seconds before closing the entire tab. I didn’t want to hear any other videos of the piece (being potentially hot-dog-clubbed to death). I’ll just write my post and go play it myself.

***

“After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

I think sometimes life can feel like only “notes and more notes.” We glorify busyness and teach it to our children at home and in school. We tell each other that we’re only worth something if our resume is packed, our agenda is full, our GPA is high. A packed resume and a full agenda and a high GPA aren’t bad things. But if they are the only things we’re living for, we’re going to come up for a breath, only to fill our mouths with cotton balls. Blech.

Simplicity has to be a part of our life. It’s funny how when we realize this, we’re quick to shell out money for an app or a program or yoga classes or meditation sessions. And these can be great. But the simplest answer? It’s free.

Do less stuff.

Then when you occasionally have a packed schedule, you know it’s just that — an occasionally packed schedule. Normal life can be simpler. And with simplicity comes clarity.

So instead of making plans every weekend, make plans only on some weekends.

Instead of having 17 “close friends,” have five.

Instead of shoving and pushing and punching your students through an entire English textbook in a year, pick and choose only a few large concepts and do some deep dives. And have the students give input on what they’re interested in. I’m sure the other subjects can do this as well — even math (I’m thinking homework load, for one thing).

Instead of more knickknacks in the house, get a houseplant, preferably one that’s been propagated from a friend. (Thanks to my neighbor and friend, I have the most amazingly healthy swiss cheese plant. And from another friend, a fiddle leaf fig. And rubber plant.) And then you can propagate. Make more for yourself. Give away as presents (to your five close friends). (I feel like a plant post is going to be in order for the near future . . . )

And when your life does get busy and complicated and tricky, which it most certainly will, remember to focus on the beautiful simplicity of the people in your life you love. Look around at the creation God has made for us to enjoy. Breathe it in. It’s life-giving.

Know that the busyness and the complications and the trickiness will come to an end. And that the simplicity that follows will be a “crowning reward.” And then busyness and complications and trickiness will come again. And that’s OK. Just as mountains need valleys to be mountains, so, too, do we need complexity to have the simplicity.

It’s always about the balance, isn’t it. Mountains and valleys, complexity and simplicity, lots of notes, few notes. And often we need one to appreciate the other. So I don’t want my message to be simply to simplify (though I’d argue most people could do some good with that). My message echoes Chopin’s:

Play a vast quantity of notes and more notes.

But pause sometimes.

Allow silence.

And then maybe play five

or three or

two notes.

Play a simple melody*. Feel it in your bones. Let it move you.

And then? Maybe take a break, turn on some music, and dance around the living room (with kids jumping off the couches and a baby on your hip, optional).

*Here are some of my (simple) favorites:

Is there a piece of music or a song that moves you? Please share. I’m always hungry for more music in my life.

So Much Depends Upon a Poem Glazed with Rainwater Beside the White Chickens

“so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens” –Wiliam Carlos Williams–

What a simple stark image. Williams is a straight shooter, and that’s something I love about him. My students heard two of his poems this week, and as we discussed what about his poetry resonated with people, we came to the conclusion that perhaps it was the simplicity. He is simply conveying an assertive observation about a wheelbarrow sitting out in the yard next to some chickens. I reminded the students about Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry” where he says that all students want to do is “tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.” Not only that, the students “begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.” Whoa. I don’t want to be teacher to those students. I don’t want my students believing that beating poetry is what they’re supposed to do. I don’t want any human believing that.

As a teacher and as a human, I have to remind myself that the simple things can mean just as much (if not more) than the depth and elusiveness of mystery. Mystery is fun at times. But simplicity? It’s the refreshing, cool (unflavored and not even carbonated) water of life. (Though I have to say, I’m quite the fan of seltzer water. When Polar goes on sale — buy one, get one — at Winn Dixie, my husband literally loads up a cart full of cases. Does he get some sidelong glances? Oh, yeah. Does he care? Nope. When he loads them into the back of our Nissan Versa, does the car sag? Yes. Man, I love my husband.)

Funny to think that at the time Williams wrote this poem (in the 1920’s), his simple, stark style broke the “rules” of poetry. Williams as a rebel and a rule-breaker? I can get on board with that. As soon as a group of people start thinking “Well this is the only way to write a poem/pen a novel/give a speech/lose weight/find a spouse/be a Christian/be successful/live life,” we’ve got to stop and immediately assess. Williams refused to be a rule-following robot, and so should we.

Poetry gets a bad rap. People think of it as lines of boring, enigmatic text written by erudite-elitists. And some of it is. But some of it? Glittering jewels spilling from a treasure chest on a sandy shore. I agree with Coleridge’s assertion that poetry is “the best words in the best order.” The issue (or beauty, depending on your perspective) is that every human has a different definition of “best.”

One of my all-time favorite poems is one of the simplest. To me, the words are rubies and diamonds and emeralds. To others, maybe not. But at this point in my life I have (finally) learned to be confident in appreciating something even when popular opinion runs contrary. So if you’re a PEE (Poetry Erudite-Elitist), you might not like this one. But I don’t much care.

One day after another–

Perfect.

They all fit.

“One Day” Robert Creeley

If anything, you might skim over that quickly and wonder why it would resonate with anyone. I liken this to my admittedly very limited understanding of art. I look at a Jackson Pollock piece and think, “Huh? Am I missing something here?” But perhaps for others, they see it and see chaos and confusion and addiction and emotions colliding together — and they resonate with that.

To me, words are images, so in that way, I appreciate art. In the Creeley poem, each day of life is a puzzle piece connecting to the next, fitting perfectly. How beautiful is that image? We certainly don’t know what life has in store for us, but it’s comforting to know that each day fits perfectly into the next — no matter what you do (or don’t do).

After my students read “The Red Wheelbarrow,” they wrote their own version, starting with Williams’ first stanza (“So much depends / upon”). Every single student wrote a different poem. Every single student had a different opinion on what they greatly depended upon.

Such a simple poem. Such a simple prompt. And yet it produced wildly different poems about subjects ranging from grades to sweet tea to Minecraft gardens.

Might it be that sometimes it’s the simplicity that reveals the complexity?

He said that when he was little

he wanted his house in Heaven to be made out of

Legos and peanut butter.

Because he liked them.

How sweet and simple and profoundly representative of childhood. It is about a boy and his two favorite things. But when I read it as an adult, it’s about the innocence and simplicity of childhood. And I resonate with that.

So while it’s good to have the mystery and depth, it’s necessary to have the simple, the stark, the single puzzle piece. And if you’re a reader? Please don’t be a PEE (also: Prose Erudite-Elitist). Some of my older students sometimes tell me that they don’t read YA literature because it doesn’t have enough literary merit. GAG. They tell me that Rupi Kaur is that Instagram woman who writes a sentence and calls it poetry. The irony here is that their own snobbery is holding them back from being better readers, better writers, and better humans.

Don’t snub the simple. Don’t exalt the turgid. And don’t hate poetry based on what you read in high school. (I’m sorry, by the way, that you had teachers who fed you boring, unrelatable poetry.) If you’re on Instagram, and you’d like to dabble in some modern, simple poetry, here’s a good place to start. And here are some of my favorite poets: Maya Angelou, Pablo Neruda, Ted Kooser, Mary Oliver, Robert Creeley, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, E. E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Stephen Crane, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Edgar Allen Poe. And if nothing else, wander around a bit on the Poetry Foundation website.

Take a sip of the cool, refreshing water that is simplicity. Let it quench your soul. And remember, you can’t live without it.

Out of the Echo Chamber and Into the (Red)woods

“Neurotics complain of their illness, but they make the most of it, and when it comes to taking it away from them they will defend it like a lioness her young.” –Sigmund Freud–

The father of psychoanalysis has some words for us today: Complainypants* complain of [fill-in-the-blank], but they make the most of it really actually love having something to complain about, and when it comes to taking it away from them they will defend it like a conservative his guns.

(Listen: I have an uncle in Tennessee with a truck bed full of guns. I wouldn’t mess with that.)

So because I don’t want to go up against a lioness or my gun-loving uncle, I’d love to figure out a way for everyone to live well, complain less, and not feel threatened.

The first question to tackle is WHY in God’s grandeur do people “need” something to complain about?

I know I have a tendency to get caught up in the echo chamber of my own voice spewing verbal vomit of the complaint du jour (Mmmm, that sounds good — I’ll have that). And let’s visualize for a moment verbal vomit spewing in an echo chamber.

Ick.

And if you’re more extroverted than I, perhaps you usher other fellow complainypants into your echo chamber. Now we have several people, in an enclosed area, verbal vomiting.

Uh, this is straight unsanitary.

But back to God’s grandeur.

God has created a pretty great earth for us to tinker around on. Just the fact that the sun comes up every morning is pretty awesome. (Do a quick poetry search of the word “aubade” — a poem celebrating the dawning of the day — and you’ll get pages of results.)

When I was a camp counselor years ago (shout out to Redwood Camp in the Santa Cruz mountains), I’d take my little elementary-school darlings on (very easy) hikes through the redwoods. WOW, would they complain. We are literally in the middle of the most magnificent redwoods on a beautifully sunny (but not too hot because it’s Northern California in the mountains) day, breathing in the fresh, crisp air with birds twittering in the background and the 9-year-olds are finding things to complain about. I had to institute a rule: if you complain about one thing, you have to verbalize five positive observations. And you know what? It worked pretty darn well. A potential complain-fest turned into a waterfall of gratitude.

It was a simple exercise in perspective that worked really well for 9-year-olds.

But I’d venture to say it’d work well for us humdrum adults as well. Because even though the “world is charged with the grandeur of God,” we somehow continually hone in on the negative. And then talk about it. Maybe even out loud. And maybe even to other people. And before we know it — yep, vomit-covered echo-chamber walls surrounding us. It’s so gross in there, but we’ve acclimated. We don’t notice the vinegary, acidic throw-up smell. We’re not fazed

by the slow crawl

down the wall

of globs

and chunks

and

corn

kernels

and stomach acid.

Imagine being outside of the chamber and opening the door to that! And to see multiple people inside bobbling around? It’s enough to make a person sick.

Why, we might ask, don’t the people inside HOOF IT OUTTA THERE?

Well here’s where things get interesting. And sad.

When we get comfortable in our environment, it’s difficult to make a change — even if the change will benefit us and everyone around us. Just a quick assessment of American culture will tell us that we looooove being comfortable. (I wrote about that here.) And what’s more, when we get used to complaining-as-default, we forget how to communicate in any other way.

Go ahead and think of that person in your life who’s always complaining (maybe it’s you). If you’re in conversation with this person and you’re only allowed to talk about positive topics, would they (you?) have a difficult time coming up with things to say? The following isn’t shocking or new information, but I’ll say what many others through the centuries have said: It’s easy to complain. It takes more effort and creativity and confidence to speak about topics in a positive light.

Just take a minute and transport yourself back to high school, the land of gossip and cliques and lip smackers. What do you and your friends more often than not talk about — how well so-and-so did on her speech . . . or can you buhlieve Jessica posted a pic with Eric when he and Danielle just broke up last Tuesday? If it was the former, congratulations. You were a better person than I in high school.

(I’d like to take a moment and make a general apology about who I was as a person in high school. I wasn’t horrible, but I sure as hell could have been better.)

So far we’ve

  1. gotten comfortable in our environment (acclimated to the vomit pooling at our feet) and
  2. started to forget how else to communicate (complaining is easier, and we’ve become products of our environments).

And now . . . for a delicious dose of delusion!

When our complainypants voice is the only one we hear echoing back at us or we surround ourselves with other complainypants and their chittering voices or we seek out other complainypants to be complainypants together, we start to believe that these negative opinions are the

only

ones

that

exist.

This is a problem. This is where we lose touch with reality. Perception becomes reality. And the perception? It’s stinky and gross.

This is a problem for the delusional Debby’s (not to be confused with Debbie Downer) out there, but it’s also a problem for the positive Polly’s — unless they speak out.

So maybe you’re sitting here reading this post thinking, “I’m actually a pretty positive Polly most of the time.” Great! You have an important job to do: YOU, my friend, have to take down the delusional Debby’s, one Debby at a time.

When you are talking to a complainypants friend, thinking, “I don’t agree with him-her,” it’s time to get to work. You must speak up. You must voice your opinion. If you don’t, your silence will become validation to your complainypants friend that you share their opinion. Yikes.

This is also a problem.

Problem 1: Being delusional.

Problem 2: Perpetuating said delusion.

To recap, we’ve

  1. gotten comfortable,
  2. forgotten how to communicate in healthy ways, and
  3. become delusional.

Wherever you are right now, stand up. What is the thing in your life you’re complaining about? Now take a big step backwards. Think about what preceded your getting to the point of complaining. Why are you at a point in your life that you’re complaining about the thing?

I’m going to venture to say that one reason you’re complaining about the thing is that — in some way —

you care.

So before we trap ourselves in the verbal vomit echo chamber, chunks flying, let’s

take

a

step

back.

Let’s realize that maybe complaining can possibly come from a good place.

Last week at my school was the whirlwind that was Homecoming Week. On Friday, each grade participated in a lip sync competition. This has become quite the big deal at my school, so naturally, whoever didn’t win was going to be mad.

I may have (horrifically) underestimated how angry the seniors would be if they didn’t win.

(They didn’t win.)

One senior girl charged up to me, complaining that the competition was rigged! She complained that the juniors were cocky and shouldn’t have won! She complained that the judges didn’t fill out the rubrics correctly! She complained. I was annoyed and taken aback and frustrated. (As student council co-sponsors, my colleague and I work hard to make homecoming games as fair as they can be, including creating rubrics to be filled out by unbiased judges.)

But as I was talking to my colleague after school that day, we both came to the realization that we’d rather the anger (and subsequent complaining of unfairness) than indifference. She complained . . .

because she cared.

Students bursting with school spirit, charging through a great week of playing games in the hopes of representing their grade well? I respect that.

So can we all take that step back together and assess why it is we’re complaining? Is it because we actually care about something? Perhaps there’s something we can do (action) to make the situation better before we even get to the point of complaining. Perhaps we can change our mindset and focus on the five other positive things going on.

Is someone else complaining to you? Encourage action. Or a shift in perspective. Remind them of the five other positive things going on. But speak up.

And give yourself (and others) some grace. Complaining is so ubiquitous it’s easy to get sucked in. And it may even stem from a good place of caring. So as we do in life every now and then, let’s take a step back (or a step out of the pool of vomit), lift up our head, reassess, and forge ahead as best we can to a life well lived.

*The term “complainypants” comes from a blog my husband and I enjoy: Mr. Money Mustache. Here’s a fun (but rated M for mature) article to check out: “How to Tell if You’re a Complainypants.”

Dead Dogwood Trees and a Happy Birthday to My Husband

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity . . . and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” –William Blake–

A few weekends ago, while I was in the middle of cooking dinner, my seven-year-old comes running into the kitchen telling me that Daddy needed my help outside. (I didn’t go. I was in the middle of pan-frying gnocchi!) A couple minutes later my son comes in again, this time saying that a tree is going to fall on the roof or the car if I don’t come help. I move the pan off the hot burner, put on my flip flops, and head out to see what in the world is going on.

Was it surprising to me to discover my husband holding onto a rope which was tied around a half-cut dying dogwood tree in our front yard? No. At this point in marriage (15 years — read my anniversary post here), I have learned — from the sages at CBS’s Big Brother — to expect the unexpected.

So he tells me that I have two choices: I can hold the rope (I might want gloves) which is holding the tree (very very heavy) or I can use a CHAINSAW AND CUT THROUGH THE REST OF THE TRUNK. Suffice it to say, I chose the former. (Yes, I’ve been married for 15 years. No, I never thought my husband would actually think I’d pick up a chainsaw AND USE IT.)

Wrapping the rope around my waist proved useful, and once I had a firm hold (OF A TREE), my husband walked over to the trunk, stood up on the picnic table next to it, and CHAINSAWED THAT SUCKER. To prevent the tree from falling onto the roof of our house or onto the top of our vehicle, my job was to pull the tree in a different direction.

In a different direction . . . TOWARDS ME.

My husband assured me it would be fine. I’d just need to run (FOR MY LIFE) after I pulled the tree just enough to get it to fall away from the roof and car. What happened next is a bit of a blur, but I do remember his yelling “RUN,” my screaming (bloody murder), and covering my head with my hands and bolting.

If I didn’t bolt, a tree would have literally fallen on top of me.

I did get scragged (new word; made it up) by some small branches on my way out, but all in all, I escaped mostly unscathed.

Success!

I appreciate William Blake, but I might change the quote to “The tree that moves some bolting mad out from under it as it comes crashing to earth . . . ” And even though my husband might seem batsh*t crazy with his ideas, I’m always the one who actually goes batsh*t crazy when I get roped into one of his schemes.

One night, years ago when I was pregnant with my first child, I remember being woken from sleep to a muffled yell: “Jen!” I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, and in half somnambulism, I got out of bed and staggered down the hall toward the source of the yell. I could still hear it, but I had no visual. Into the living room I went. The yelling seemed to be . . . above me. I looked up at the ceiling. Nothing. Then another yell, clearly from the ceiling. This time, I saw movement on the ceiling in the corner. It was a cord, dangling. My husband was in the attic, in the middle of the night, yelling out to his pregnant wife to help him connect some cord to some plug for the TV or stereo or I don’t even know what. I had to drag a chair over to the corner to reach the cord, and I remember thinking “Who does this? And in the middle of the night with a pregnant wife no less?”

My hubs.

I have a lot of (not-fun-at-the-time-but-funny-to-reminisce-about) stories with him. And I will tell you it sure keeps me on my toes.

We do tend to have fun doing these harebrained activities. And then laughing about them later is pretty great, too. Boredom isn’t something that happens all too often with us (though some boredom is important, my friends).

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”

One thing I love about my husband is his perspective on life. Like Blake says, two people can see the same tree but react in two completely different ways. (Husband: Will cut tree. Will pull down. Will succeed. Wife: DEATH.)

I’m going to end this post a little early this week. I’m going to go spend time with my husband and create more (batsh*t crazy) stories with him.

If you know him, wish him a happy birthday tomorrow. I’m beyond grateful to get to spend all of his birthdays and all of mine together. He is the best. Even if he’s nuts.

Burn All of the Things! (or at least donate them)

“Things! Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful fire! More room in your heart for love, for the trees! For the birds who own nothing — the reason they can fly.” –“Storage,” Mary Oliver–

Mary Oliver! Such truth, such wisdom! At once humble and confident, Oliver seems able to catch a ray of light and express it through words. (I love writing. I do. But I STRUGGLE with that poetic element of conveying physical beauty. Mad respect to those writers who possess this gift. Mary Oliver is definitely one of them. Check out this other post I wrote about her and her wisdom.)

So in this particular excerpt, Oliver doesn’t mince words (just one of the beautiful aspects of poetry — words are very deliberately chosen and ordered, like jewels lined up and patterned). She starts (simply) with the one-word exclamation, “Things!”

I wonder what that means to all the readers out there. I wonder what that means to you. Do we read that as if she’s exasperated? Hopeless? Angry? Excited? Surprised? Take a moment and experience the poem for yourself, from beginning to end. Pause for just a moment after the exclamation, assess your own emotion, and continue:

When I moved from one house to another

there were many things I had no room

for. What does one do? I rented a storage

space. And filled it. Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and looked in,

but nothing happened, not a single

twinge of the heart.

As I grew older the things I cared 

about grew fewer, but were more

important. So one day I undid the lock

and called the trash man. He took

everything. 

I felt like the little donkey when

his burden is finally lifted. Things!

Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful 

fire! More room in your heart for love,

for the trees! For the birds who own 

nothing — the reason they can fly.

A wise student once said that good poetry changes you — that you’re not the same person at the end of a poem as you were at the beginning. Wow. (Sometimes I have these moments as a teacher when I stand in sheer amazement that I get to do what I do. The wisdom that radiates from the beautiful humans that are my students floors me.)

All that to say, I came out of that Oliver poem changed. When I got to “Things,” I can only describe my emotion as happy resignation. Things — who needs ’em? What a great reminder that this beautiful life we live with the beautiful friends and family we’re so fortunate to share it with is more important than things. Things encroach. Things overflow. Things make babies. And before we know it

things

displace.

When our lives start turning into a photo feed of (heavily filtered) stuff . . .

Thing,

thing,

thing, thing,

thing.

THING!

Thing,

thing.

Thing!

Thing.

Where are we? Where are we really?

I got rid of my “dustbuster” vacuum today. It hasn’t worked well in awhile, and I have an upright vacuum that gets the job done. (I also would probably shed real tears if Mary Oliver advised me to toss my Dyson Small Ball Multi Upright Vacuum Cleaner I Love It So Much into a bonfire.) There was no good reason to keep a sub-par dustbuster in my house, especially when it was sitting underneath the piano getting dusty and collecting dog-fur tufts.

Yesterday, I gave away three reusable bags. (Let me tell you, those make babies!)

And my husband and I make it a point to read the books we have and then give them away. We consider the public library our “storage unit” for our books. What a concept! Read more about the wonder that is the public library here.

It feels good to purge things and make a beautiful fire (or just drop them off at Salvation Army or Goodwill). And remember, when we get rid of things, we open up room in our heart for love — and in my case today, after lugging a couple of bags to the Goodwill drop-off location, I opened up room in the back of my car. I suppose the case could be made that love might happen in the back of one’s car. There are still a couple of bags back there that I need to drop off at Round Robin consignment, so maybe not quite enough room for love . . . yet.

As I write this post, sitting at a desk that is quite full of odds and ends, I know that getting rid of things is never ending. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t try. Have some spots in your house that you keep nice and clutter free — spots that spark joy (check out this spark joy podcast, based on the book The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up).

But tangible things(!) are only part of the problem. Our homes and cars and classrooms and cubicles and desks and backpacks and lockers get cluttered with who-knows-what, but our minds get cluttered with things, too. I’m a firm believer that decluttering our physical lives helps declutter our mental lives.

And when we’re decluttered humans, we’re better humans. (If you’re a regular reader — thank you!! — you know that being a better human is important to me. I hope it is for you, too.) I think Oliver believes that being better humans means we’re more open — whether it’s our home for unannounced guests or our hearts for love (or the backs of our cars . . . ).

So how can we declutter?

The tangible things: Well I’d start with a good ol’ fashioned purge of your stuff. Donate it. Give it to a friend. (Burn it!) Try not to get too emotionally attached to things. (They don’t love you back.)

The intangible things: Take some things off your schedule (and therefore off your mind). Try for fewer activities. Allow your kids to have open schedules that include boredom from time to time. Allow yourself some boredom from time to time. Put the phone in another room (or — gasp — don’t bring it with you on your errands). When you’re back with your phone, reassess what you actually need (I use that term loosely) notifications for. Maybe notifications for phone calls and texts only.

And then: Go outside. Play piano. Sing. Write. Read. Talk to your spouse. Talk to a friend (not Siri; not Alexa).

I think Mary Oliver would advise sitting under a tree and listening to the birds. (Think about the last time you did that; I can’t remember the last time I did that.)

We shouldn’t let a day go by without getting into nature. Writing this, I’m hoping to finish soon and go sit on my screened-in porch and listen to the cicadas and frogs harmonizing in my backyard. This is a way I can get into nature — and not get mosquito bites. (Mosquitoes: not an element of nature I want to “get into.”)

Mary Oliver’s advice is simple: get rid of the things in our lives that we really don’t care about. We won’t miss them, and getting rid of them will release a burden. We’ll free up our homes and hearts for love. Remember the birds who own nothing? It’s the reason they can fly.

So let’s get rid of our things.

Let’s get rid of our things (in our daily planners).

Let’s get rid of our things (that notify and beep and buzz).

Let’s get rid of our things (that worry, that stress, that cause us to lose sleep).

Let’s get rid of our things,

and fly.

Sleep, Poetry, and a Few Disruptions Along the Way

“Something has come between us—
It will not sleep.” –“The Catch,” A. E. Stallings–

Sweet, sweet sleep. Our bodies need it. And if you believe otherwise, just stay awake for an hour and 20 minutes to watch the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Even if you laud the importance of sleep, you might give the movie another watch. Such a classic.

Reading the first line of Stallings’ poem “The Catch” pretty clearly tells us that something is wrong. Not only has something come between the “us” (problem number 1), but that something will not sleep (problem number 2). The dash forces us to pause between lines, increasing the ominous tone leading into line 2 where we still don’t know what this awake thing is. Is it a monster? An emotion? An argument?

Turns out . . . it’s a baby. No surprise for all the parents out there. (Read the entire poem here. Do it. It’s a great poem, and one that new parents especially will resonate with.)

But what I love about this set of lines is that there is truth beyond the experience of a baby. And the beautiful thing about good poetry (and good literature) is that it becomes alive to its readers: the poem exists as (dead) words on a page until we bring all of our experiences and opinions and knowledge to it. And we do that by simply reading the poem. Reading a poem brings life to it. So if I didn’t convince you to read in this post, read to bring dead words to life.

Read to bring dead words to life.

The power of that — and it’s completely in our hands! Let’s use our power! We bring life from death!

(And if at this point you still haven’t read the poem, go click on the link and read it for the love of the living!)

But wait, there’s more! Read now and not only will you infuse life into the poem, you’ll also infuse a little more life into yourself (and order your snuggie now and you’ll receive this free book-light!). Whew, that was a lot to take in. But the point is — unlike infomercials — the power you have isn’t a gimmick. And it doesn’t cost anything. So maybe you’ve hated poetry since high school when your teacher shoved Shakespearean sonnets down your throat (foie gras, anyone?) and then made you memorize (regurgitate) them and then made you write (vomit) them ad nauseam —

but maybe

you can realize that life and experiences change and that you might be in a better season of life to appreciate the written (in-poem-format) word.

Read to bring

dead

words to life.

Changing line breaks in this sentence makes it poetic. Now we’re reading this as a poem, journeying through one enjambed line at a time, wondering why line breaks occur after three words and then after one and then after three. We wonder why the word “dead” splits the poem — why it’s alone, on its own line, floating. We wonder about the symmetry of the lines. We wonder.

And wondering means we’re alive.

I get really excited about this stuff. And as a teacher, I get to live out my excitement in the classroom every day. I come home and tell my husband all about it, and he says flatly, “I don’t know that your students are as excited about all of this.” But I’m excited, and I’m excited to share my excitement, and I’m excited to excite my students, even if it’s a process and their excitement isn’t quite at the level as mine.

Ah, well. At least my students won’t fall asleep in my class when I (loudly, dramatically) talk (and jump and gesticulate) about line breaks in poetry.

So when Stallings says “Something has come between us,” yeah, she’s talking about a baby, but how do we interpret the line from where we’re at in life? And maybe if you’re a rule-following robot who only cares about answering standardized test questions written about this poem correctly, you don’t care. I respect that — to an extent (play the game to beat the game) — but as soon as you’ve finished the rule-following-robot-made standardized tests, please release the talons from the what’s-the-answer mindset. There’s beautiful, beautiful freedom to be had after the release. Interestingly, Stallings’ poem title (“The Catch”) is the opposite of the release. Think about that as we explore.

Let’s tuck in with some questions:

  • What is “Something”? An idea? A mindset? A human? A rule? A disagreement?
  • The “us” — it’s first-person collective, so it’s me and someone (something?) else. Who? A partner? A friend? It mentions later in the poem that it’s a lover, a husband, but what might the “us” mean for you and me as we read the poem right now?
  • And then why does the “something” not sleep?

What is it in our lives right now that disrupts our sleep? That comes between us and a friend or a lover or a child? There’s truth here. There’s depth. Introspection to be had — even (especially!) when we’ve had completely different life experiences from Stallings. Truth, depth, and — I’d add — a smoky purple wisp of magic.

So as I turn to introspect and ask myself on a deeper level what disrupts, I’d say it’s my own insecurity. Partially because I’m a teacher (and supposed to have memorized all of the facts) and partially because I’m married to a very knowledgeable human (you definitely want him on your team for Trivial Pursuit), I’m insecure of my own knowledge. What if someone asks me to definitively point to Finland on a map? What if my good friend who is also a government teacher asks me to name two Florida district senators (is that what they’re even called)? My hands sweat just thinking about this: THERE! They’ve found me out! They’ve realized that I’m a fake! A fraud! That I know NOTHING.

That I know

NOTHING.

But if I put the line break after “know,” it changes the story. The space after know becomes opportunity, growth, change. And then it changes our mindset as we move to the second line. “NOTHING” now becomes humility — humility in being able to admit I don’t know some things that maybe I should. But because I’m a human and I’m alive, I keep trying and I keep learning. If I don’t know something, I’ll look it up (I may do this in the privacy of my own phone, but there may come a time when I have the confidence to ask a human). One step (towards more knowledge) at a time.

And while we all know how important sleep is, it might behoove us to see the sleep disruptions as opportunities. Maybe those disruptions are there for a reason, and the reason is to make us better humans. I can say this: my literal sleep “disruptors” (my kids! my baby!) make me a better human. But my insecurity-turned-humility does, too. And then guess what happens when we take a crisp minute to address the disruptions? We sleep better.

So let’s raise a cool glass of carbonated water with a wedge of lime to disruptions! To opportunities! To becoming better humans!

And to getting more sleep.

Cheers.

Addendum: In the middle of writing this post, something came between my typing fingers and the keyboard. It did not sleep. It was my 6-month old, waking up from a nap, needing my immediate attention. The absolute best “disruption.”

The Absurdity of Life . . . And Other Bits of Inspiration

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” –Albert Camus–

So this is a tricky one. If you squint, you might even think that this is an inspirational life quote.

And that, of course, is completely absurd. Because if you know anything about Camus, you know that he adhered to a philosophy of life that renounced hope and embraced dissatisfaction. He also lived a life of philosophically “searching.” So by his own standards, he may never have been happy.

I do not resonate with this.

But there is something really special about his words. Camus acknowledges that if we are constantly in a state of “searching,” we won’t be happy. And if we are constantly in a state of “looking,” we won’t be living.

Oof.

Just do a quick “search” for self-help books on Goodreads, and there are 25 pages of results for just popular self-help books. It’s overwhelming! And clearly a sign that we are searching.

We are searching for happiness.

We are searching for meaning in life.

And actually I think it’s great that we have such an innate drive to find happiness and meaning. The people I know in my life who are the most secure in themselves have a good sense of both. I like to think that I do, too. I hope to instill a good drive towards happiness and meaning to my children. To my students. To family. To friends.

But the struggle is real. Just take Sisyphus, for instance. Punished by Zeus for his trickery and deceitful ways, he spent a good portion of his life pushing a boulder up a hill just to let it roll back down and start again. This is the ultimate struggle: laborious and nauseatingly repetitive. Just — for a moment — think about that being your life.

Absurd, right?

Futility is the enemy of hope. And without hope, what do we have? We don’t search for self-help books thinking that we’re not going to find anything. We don’t go out to an expensive dinner thinking we’re going to hate the food.

But it’s important to temper our expectations. We can’t expect that once we find and read that one great self-help book, we’ll have all the answers and be happy and fulfilled in all aspects of life. The danger with this mindset is that we will keep putting off happiness and meaning until we reach some mythical (imaginary) point. Reminds me of a poem I read to my students every year. C. P. Cavafy’s “The City” illustrates to us that if we think we’ll only be happy if we go to another city[/insert any other noun here], the problem isn’t the city[/insert any other noun here], it’s us:

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,

find another city better than this one.

Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong

and my heart lies buried like something dead.

How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?

Wherever I turn, wherever I look,

I see the black ruins of my life, here,

where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”



You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you.

You’ll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.

You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:

there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

Like I tell my students, this is a fresh call-out for us all. Let’s reject the cliche “the grass is always greener on the other side” and do our very best to enjoy our lives right here, right now. Because what happens if we just keep waiting and searching for the right “city”? What happens if we believe that the city is the only place we can find happiness and meaning? “Here is the deepest secret nobody knows”: if our eyes are only trained ahead of us to the city that lies beyond, we might step in dog poop.

If you’re like me, the idea of stepping in poop is repulsive. In fact, I am scarred from an experience in my childhood when I stepped in still-warm dog poop.

Barefoot.

(It squished between my toes.)

So instead of (only! ever! always!) thinking the best is yet to come, take a moment and look around (and below). Don’t discount the grass you’re standing on just because some other grass looks greener. (And don’t forget: looks can be deceiving. Remember Shakespeare’s famous sonnet about his (kind of ugly, bad-breathed) lover? She didn’t have conventional beauty, and yet he recognized her as being the best.)

Maybe at times my life is ugly. Or has bad breath. But I love it for what it is: mine. And it’s the only one I get (more about “first-and-only drafts” of life here). I’ll be sure to appreciate the grass that I’m on, but I won’t fully discount looking forward as well.

After all, there is joy in the search. I’d venture to say that searching is an essential element in really, truly living. Just because I am continually searching for happiness and meaning doesn’t mean that I don’t experience happiness or feel I have meaning in life in the present. Every year of my life, I think,

“That was the best year!”

And each one is better than the last — I think because I am continually searching. In my dissatisfaction, I’m finding my meaning and living my best life. So maybe I can resonate with Camus’ sentiment about embracing dissatisfaction in that regard. Camus knows — and I agree — that there is authenticity in dissatisfaction.

And dissatisfaction driving meaning? That is authentic living.

Paired with hope, it is a powerful force that can be used for good.

Here are the takeaways:

  • Find happiness in where you are in life.
  • But also find joy in the search for better.

Beyond that, life is going to come at you in ways no one can predict. Do your best. Try your hardest. But allow yourself to rest. Allow dissatisfaction to drive you but never to embitter you.

Above all, don’t waste your life “here, in this small corner.” Because if you do, “you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.”

Happy searching and looking, everyone. But don’t forget to live your life right now.

Authentically.