My two girls are students, so our lives are governed, in a way, by the school calendar. To me, the start of the school year signals new beginnings. No matter what you did last school year, each September you get to start again with new classes and new teachers, and maybe even a new school. You get a fresh start. Because of this, I make resolutions in the fall. Not formal resolutions, but I do decide on general goals for myself. They include the typical ones like eating better and getting more exercise, keeping in touch with friends, controlling my sometimes hot temper, and the like. While I do try to keep my goals pretty open, there is one very specific project that I set my mind on tackling each year. This particular thing has been on my to-do list for a long time, and it had literally been haunting me (I have crazy dreams about all kinds of crap) until I finally attacked it over the weekend.
Last Sunday, my daughters and I finally sorted through and emptied out my (drumroll, please)…self-storage unit.
Okay, you can stop mocking me now! I admit that this task may not seem worthy of the angst that I have ascribed to it. And I will also say that once we got started it wasn’t half as hard as I had made it out to be. So what took me so long? Why did it take years of dropping $41.0o a month (plus late fees), and allowing my possessions to lie dormant in what was essentially a 5×5 walk-in closet, collecting dust (and lots of spiders, eeww) and languishing so long that I basically forgot what was in there?
The easy answer is that I didn’t have room in my apartment for most of that stuff. I’m telling the truth when I say this, because my townhome is over-cluttered and certainly full enough without adding more to the mix. Easy answers, however, hardly ever cover the reality of my deal. I’ve come to realize that the storage compartment was a metaphor for something much bigger than the sum of its contents. It held my life, or more accurately, a past life.
I grew up in the midwest, and still live in my hometown. About 16 years ago, however, I decided I wanted to go on an adventure. It was more than wanting an adventure. I needed it; I almost felt like I would wither and die if I didn’t do something radical. You see, before I had my daughter I had already done a little traveling. I was fortunate to have been an exchange student in Finland during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, and I had also spent a summer in the Basque country of Spain while an undergrad. I had always had the desire to travel, but between finances and the responsibilities of being a single parent, I had to shelve my wanderlust. So I lived at home, worked full-time, and was as responsible a person as I could be–until the travel bug returned (and it returned with a vengeance). At that point I did the most responsible thing I could do for me (though none of my family thought so at the time)– catch a Greyhound bus to Portales, New Mexico with my three-year-old daughter in tow.
We travelled light, as we had very little material possessions (not even furniture). We sent a few boxes ahead with essentials like cooking utensils and bed linens, but that was about it. The bus ride was an adventure in and of itself! When I booked the trip I didn’t know the difference between a “local” or an “express” so we ended up stopping in every Podunk town in Oklahoma and Texas. The bus not only picked up passengers, but all manner of packages and freight, too. The bus ride was so long that the driver would have to make multiple stops along the way so we could get lunch and dinner. One time we stopped at a buffet that specialized in the delicacy “calf fries.” That sounded yummy, but I learned a long time ago that one man’s delicacy is another man’s (or in this case, calf’s) misfortune. When I approached our waiter, I found out that the name “calf fries” is a euphemism for calf testicles. We passed on that one!
Once we arrived in New Mexico I enrolled in the graduate reading program at the local university, and concurrently took courses to earn my teaching certificate. While I was in class, my daughter went to pre-school at the wonderful child development center located on campus.
All I can say is that I felt so alive in Portales. There was a bit of a culture shock to be sure, as so many things were different from what we were accustomed to. But it wasn’t hard to adjust to the food (lots of beans and rice, green chile stew, enchiladas and Frito pie), or topography (flat, dusty, and almost treeless, with prairie dogs and lizards running about) or climate (blindingly bright, hot and dry). And it wasn’t hard to adjust to the changes in me! I felt free. I felt more authentic than I ever had, because I was able to begin anew. Living in my hometown, while often comforting, was limiting, at least for me. I felt boxed in and judged based on the mistakes I had made. Perhaps those were self-imposed limitations, I don’t know. But it was very real, and something I felt I couldn’t overcome. But nobody in Portales had any preconceived notions of who I was supposed to be, and nobody in Portales knew anything of my past. Once I moved to New Mexico, what had become such a burden, no longer existed. I was able to start fresh.
We lived in Portales for over three years. It was a simple, beautiful time. I found that I loved small-town life, and we thrived. After many years of putting off getting my license (and consequently having to take public transportation at home), I even learned to drive while there, and purchased my first vehicle. I also did exceedingly well in school, which led to work as a graduate assistant teaching remedial reading to freshmen students. During that time I met some wonderful friends, and we relied on each other like family. As is the case in most university towns, however, we all eventually moved away, mostly due to out-of-state job opportunities. In my case, I was unable to secure a teaching job in New Mexico, so I reluctantly took a job teaching kindergarten in Odessa, Texas. Believe me, I almost left New Mexico kicking and screaming! I loved it that much. But if I were going to adequately care for my daughter, I knew I had to move on.
They call the state of New Mexico “The Land of Enchantment,” and it certainly was that for me. My time living there, while brief, informed my life in a profound way. It was a time of intense self-actualization. I felt freed to be creative, spontaneous and independent. For the first time, I recognized the strength I possess. When I look back at it, it’s hard to believe that I took that risk to move myself and my child to a place pretty much in the middle of nowhere, where I didn’t know one soul. I had very little money, no car, and no job! What was I thinking? I give God the glory. I listened to my heart, knew this was where I was supposed to be, and also knew that no place was too remote for Him–God would watch over and guide us no matter where we decided to roam.
After New Mexico came Odessa, Texas. A new love relationship ensued, then a wedding (which took place in Portales!), relocation, and a beautiful, new baby girl. Then there was disappointment. Plans changed (not my idea), and life got very complicated. Stuff threatened to take over, as did depression. Happier memories competed with the cacophony my life had become. About the easiest thing to do, the only thing I could do, was put my former life, my beautiful, simpler life, in cardboard boxes and Rubbermaid bins, and place them in a 5×5 walk-in closet for safekeeping.
This brings us back to last Sunday, the day I summoned the courage to deal with storage unit F-19. Both daughters came along, offering not only moral support, but also elbow grease, pulling out boxes, wiping them down, and purging them of their contents. What did I find? I found that with each box that I opened, the task got easier and easier. Of course the excitement of my children buoyed me along (M.’s face lit up when she discovered I owned boxes of classic children’s books, and L. looked like she found a long lost friend when she came upon her school work from 1st grade). When we opened the box that contained a few treasured photos, it was bittersweet, but I handled it.
In the end, I probably only kept about 10 percent of the unit’s contents. What do I feel about that? I must say that I am a little embarrassed that I have been storing and paying for things that I have since deemed disposable. But I now understand why (so I’m going to be oh so gentle with myself). I was afraid that the juxtaposition of those enchanted times with the messiness of my current life would be too much to bear. But guess what? It wasn’t. It wasn’t unbearable at all, as a matter a fact, it gave me more clarity than I’ve had in a long time.
The Bible says “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). I realize that my time in New Mexico was a time of planting and building, and of getting strong. While my life there seemed simpler, there was a lot of internal work going on, work that sustains me to this day. Had it not been for that time, I wouldn’t be as equipped to handle all of my current roles.
What time is it presently? I think it is a time of keeping and embracing the sweetness of then and now, and of getting rid of what is no longer serving me. It’s also a time of loving the person I’ve become, and of embracing my strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, however, I believe it’s time for me to recognize that no matter where I am along this journey, and no matter where I live, I’m still free.
P.S. This post wore me out! It took a long time to write, and it forced me to look at pleasant as well as difficult times in my past. I’m not sure I was able to fully capture what I felt at the time, or what I am feeling now, but I tried.
I have a wonderful friend that I often bounce ideas off of. He is wise beyond his years, and offers great counsel. After giving me advice, he’ll often close with, “I’ll leave the rest for the therapist.” What he doesn’t know (well, maybe he does), is that the therapist is me, and she never has a day off! I think I’ll go take a nap now…