When my first-born son was in fifth grade, he began having major issues with the idea of going to school every day. He made it through that school year which was not coincidentally a time of challenge for our family. His sixth grade year got off to a rocky start and continued along that trajectory for the duration of the school year, and he begged his father and me to leave the Catholic school he had attended since kindergarten. He wanted to move to the much larger public middle-school in our neighborhood. We took him to see the principal of the Catholic school who had by then known him for seven years and had a pretty good idea of who he was. This principal was a wise person and a good leader. Sadly, he died suddenly and unexpectedly a few years later at age 55, and one of the ways I memorialize him in my mind is to reflect back on this meeting with him and the sage words he had for my son. One of the things he said was “Theo, leaving for public school might be a really good choice for you. My son left Catholic school for public and it’s worked out well for him, but I want to remind you that when you leave, you have to take yourself with you.” Those words have echoed in my head ever since.
Theo did leave, and then he left again. He kept leaving for a long time, until he was finally old enough and mature enough to start seeing the value of sticking around. Now he’s 20 and he’s learning how to stay with things, but most importantly he’s learning how to stay with himself.
Our culture promotes the idea of “newness” in an unbalanced way. When I was heading off to college my mother gave me my first leather Coach bag. This was a small handbag, a starter purse if you will, which signified my passage into starter womanhood. I was finally grown-up enough to own something of quality and though small, it would serve me well and last a long time if I took care of it, which I did. Many years later when I was much further along with the unfolding of my womanhood, I purchased a much larger leather Coach bag that was in fact so giant, that along with the real potential of destroying my spine, it became known as “The Mothership”. My car was stolen from me one day while I was on a walk in the city and unfortunately, in it was The Mothership. It was all gone forever. When I had sufficiently recovered from this violation, I went to see about replacing my large leather bag, and was dismayed to find the Coach store was filled with trendy, multi-colored, mostly cloth bags, dripping with Coach logos. I didn’t WANT one of those, I wanted my high quality, simple, last-for-a-million-years, plain leather Coach bag. You know, the kind the company was famous for? Instead of spending $500 that day on a shiny, new, flash in the pan Coach bag , I went to eBay and re-purchased the “vintage” mothership for $60.
I have no problem with the idea that a new handbag or a new pair of boots can help change something for someone. Hell, those leather boots I bought just before my divorce were made for walkin’. Those boots were like in-patient rehab…they got me started on my journey, but eventually I had to leave them behind and keep on walkin’ without them. I’m good with “fake it ’til you make it”, and I’m totally down with a new pair of boots or a handbag. The trick of course is not to over-identify with the external object whether it be a pair of boots, a new school, or a new relationship, and not to see the external as a savior. I am confronted daily with all sorts of images and ideas that would have me believe that in them, I will find the answers to my problems. Depriving myself isn’t the answer either, but at 46, I know that when I buy the new boots, it will still be me that’ll be walking around in them.