Before our last and final trip back to the United States last week from Mexico, I struggled to find the right words in Spanish to describe what we would be doing back in Nebraska. In English, I use the word “get” in conjunction with the word “rid” and the vague preposition “of” to describe the process. How do you “get” rid? You don’t. You “get rid of”. First you “get”. Then you “rid”. And finally, to wrap up the concept into something neat and tidy in the time/space continuum, you have to add the word “of”. Somehow, “to get rid of” makes sense in English. But how to say it in Spanish?
I didn’t know.
Spanish to me, at my current level of proficiency, is still a lot like wandering in the forest. Sometimes I go too far afield and I can’t find my way back. Then the crickets chirp. My conversation partners awkwardly shift about and sigh heavily as they wait silently for me to come up with what I’m actually trying to say. Often, I resort to charades. The flailing is epic, like drowning, usually.
The concept of “getting rid of” things really inspires me to gesticulate wildly for some reason. I need lots of room to tell people in Spanish that I’m getting rid of my stuff. If someone happens to be standing too close to me, I’ll smack them by accident. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time/emotional stability to look up the word(s) for “get rid of” in Spanish until after we got back to Mexico so there were a number of victims/bystanders whenever I talked about our weeklong plans to return to the U.S.
As in English, the Spanish word-phrase for the lightening of one’s load is a little obscure: deshacerse de which could be roughly translated to “to undo onself of”. Of course it would be reflexive (damn it—I hate reflexive verbs). Reflexive verbs usually designate some kind of “inner” process, but I don’t really care so much about those details right now. I look at reflexive verbs with dismay as unfortunate grammatical challenges. I mean, I can appreciate the reflexivity and all that—how useful the built in reflexive-nature of certain words must be in Spanish–but even after memorizing a word like deshacerse de, it still gives me fits. Conjugating and then using a reflexive verb is only for intermediate-level speakers. So still, I flail, even as I use the correct words probably mostly because I still have a lot of emotion attached to what I just “got rid of”. It’s hard to have strong feelings and conjugate reflexive verbs at the same time.
But communicating about the “undoing of myself”, is important because it’s a grieving process. Talking about it helps. And while I feel relieved to have let go of all but the most essential things that we own(ed), I also regularly wake up in the middle of the night right now to mourn for items that had been put to rest months or years ago on shelves or in drawers (metaphorical burial places for things long-forgotten). How could I have sold the sleeping bags? OH MY GOD! I SOLD THE SLEEPING BAGS! (It’s been about 5 years since we’ve used them, by the way).
Yes, you sold the sleeping bags… another voice inside my head says calmly, with resolve.
ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod…. the other voice, unphased, continues to freak out about it.
It’s okay…. The wiser voice says, but then I have to wake myself up formally and talk myself through the sleeping-bag decision again. You could’ve kept your things, I tell myself. You had things before, but now you have freedom.
And then I calm down.
But the problem is, things are easy to see. You can touch things. You can sometimes hear things or “use” things. But freedom is more obscure. You can’t measure freedom. Freedom is more like an emotion than a thing or even a thought. You know it when you feel it. You know you don’t have it when you feel like you don’t have it. So “things” are easier to have than Freedom. Things can be counted. They can be coddled and stored. Freedom, on the other hand, is whimsical. It’s theoretical. Does it really even exist or is it just a myth?
Americans are supposedly icons of Freedom. Ours is “The Land of the Free” after all. It’s sacrilegious if not unpatriotic to say that our land may not be as free as other lands. Myths like America: Land of the Free is a powerful thing. It’s rooted into the spiritual fiber of our make-up as Americans. To some extent, believing our myth of Freedom makes it become true. Not believing makes the myth transparent like glass. Not believing exposes the frailties of our American mythology. Even the brief consideration of American life as something that isn’t as free as it pretends to be brings to light scary thoughts that make the world we once knew crumble like the ashes of a scorched dream. Once you’ve seen through the myth to what’s behind it and what lies beyond it, it’s hard to go back and see it as something solid and real. “Things” are decidedly easier to deal with than the potentially transparent or crumbling nature of the American Mythology of Freedom which is why most of us opt to hold onto our things, believing that in some way, trinkets confer freedom. I mean, they liberate us from our NEEDINESS, don’t they?
Before I “got rid of” the sleeping bags and the pots and pans, the blankets, the souvenirs, and all the other crap
that gathered dust and took up space in my life, these thoughts about Freedom woke me in the middle of the night. For the past 6 months, while living in Mexico, estranged from everything I own(ed), I’ve been nudged awake by the impending sense that I wouldn’t be free to follow my Self where I want to go to do what I want to do. I was confined to the life I had rather than the life I could have. It troubled me deeply. Lydian will be leaving the nest soon. Where will she go? Our small town in Nebraska hasn’t provided an incentive for her to return. And where do young Americans get jobs these days? How long would it take for her to find a way to support herself in the states? Lydian and I are close. And though I want her to find her own path, I want to be nearby because I like being with her. We do stuff together and though I’m open to a lot of different types of change, being reasonably close to Lydian is something I’d like to keep the same. It all seems very simple. Yet it’s so complex. Or at least it was, until we downsized. Now John and I can go live in Spain while Lydian lives in Germany or whatever. Our “things” created a certain type of complexity that hijacked my brain. Why did we let that happen to us?
For about 6 months of every year since 2011, our family has packed up 3 small bags to travel to some far-off place, usually a third-world country to live out the coldest months of the winter and the hottest months of the summer in the U.S. Each time we traveled, our lives were downsized temporarily. And instead of feeling more needy or distracted by the lack of things, the opposite happened. It was liberating to leave it all behind and travel with just the barest essentials. Our humanity would start to emerge after a week or two in a place where people are more connected and less affluent. While traveling, Who I Am becomes more about how I treat others and how they seem to experience ME, as a person. In the states, Who I Am is more about where I live, how big my house is, and what kind of car I drive. Who I Am isn’t actually about ME. It’s just my reputation. But all people are evolving continuously. We have the capacity to change day-to-day and moment-to-moment. Stifling this human urge to grow and to change, to become better people doesn’t make anyone happier. My reputation is a static representation of what I might have been based on what I other people have seen. Who I Am is something much more complicated; a moving target.
Americans as a rule don’t ask “why” and they rarely talk with each other about important or challenging topics. Though John and I worked hard to develop the failing economy in our small town where we lived in Nebraska, hardly anyone knew us. No one tried to get to know us. Mostly, people knew OF us. Personally, I’m curious about everyone. But no one seemed curious about us. Curiosity is a rare gem in the states. I always kept my ears open for teenagers who showed curiosity toward others. These kids have something that the others lack. And I believe that this “something” will be useful, if not essential to them in our rapidly changing world. Usually, the curiosity goes away as they transition to adulthood, but I remain hopeful that some of those kids will continue to ask questions and remain curious and skeptical but also open-minded.
Amercians tend to carefully avoid having conversations partly to protect themselves and partly to avoid the challenge of conversing about things that might involve new information or friendly debate. It’s not a conscious thing. As Americans we’re trained to avoid sensitive topics. We didn’t notice the lack of conversation and the disconnection until we left the states and experienced how people in other countries talk to each other. As Americans, we let the media tell us what to think rather than talking about our thoughts, feelings, and opinions with friends or family. It’s unfortunate. I believe this disconnection will lead to the downfall of the nation. Is that crazy? Maybe. But profound disconnection leads to the downfall of families and communities. Perhaps the cultural tendency toward alienation and isolation (a scathingly purist version of “individualism”) can be reversed. I hope that it can, but I’m not willing to spend 6 months of the year immersed in the culture of disconnection anymore.
In other countries, I’ve had friendly debates with people, we’ve had dinner parties, we’ve congregated with others and had deeply meaningful conversations. People in other countries outside of the U.S. ask us why we do this or that. And we ask them why questions too. I’ve held hands with people and cried with them. But never in America. Even my parents keep their dialectical distance from me. It’s better to be silent than to disagree if you’re an American. But on our last day in the states, as we were leaving, people talked to me more openly. It was nice to see a glimmer of the inner complexity in Americans that I’ve seen in other cultures, but it made me sad. I can’t tell you how sad it made me. I cried and cried about it after the day ended. Why is this human complexity something we can’t reveal to each other when we’re living side-by-side. We have so much as Americans, but there’s something Big and Important that’s missing.
The undoing of myself, as such, was illuminating if not painful and confusing. I don’t miss the things I “got rid of”, but I still feel like I’m abandoning the people—Americans. I’ve spent most of my life trying to understand Americans, but it’s hard to keep up that effort when there are no Americans who are trying to understand me. I still have to try to understand myself. They’re reciprocal processes. But this article isn’t about blame. I’m not angry with Americans. I loved the people we knew in our little town and I felt like those people cared about us too in their own distant way. I know that John and I are intimidating. And I ask a lot of probing questions (I can’t help it, I’m curious). I make my fellow Americans uncomfortable (this is part of my Life Purpose, you see). I’m loud and I tend to say it how it is. I say what I mean and I mean what I say, which is decidedly un-American. But all I ever wanted was to understand, because inside every person is a whole universe. Americans work hard to hide their Inner Universes from each other. Or maybe they’re alienated from themselves and they’ve lost touch with the Inner Universe. I don’t know, but either way, it’s tragic because I can learn so much from a small glimpse into another person’s Universe. As I see it, EVERY SINGLE PERSON I TALK TO IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN SOMETHING NEW. Oh the possibilities! Humans are so much more amazing than things. Why can’t we see the magic of our daily lives? How do we caught up in the acquisition of stuff as the primary thrust of our existence?
Americans are steeped in a culture that encourages focus on things rather than each other. We aren’t taught how to understand each other or why it would be important to develop an understanding of others. We’re taught how to acquire. There are no limits to this obsessive need for acquisition. But meanwhile, most Americans feel empty and disconnected. If you feel disconnected and empty, know that you’re not alone. Nope. Ask any stranger on the street if they think Americans are well-connected (I’ve done this). They say they feel disconnected. They say that Americans are disconnected. But engaging in the disconnection (or in contrast, the potential to connect) is a personal choice. The culture says you’ll die without all your things.
But what if the opposite were true?
What if your things alienate you from yourself and others?
In the middle of the night, when my brain pulls up a new item off the list of things I “got rid of”, I still have to remember that my own humanity was at stake when we left. I’m not my house. I’m not my car. I’m not the things I own. The U.S. is a place that demands my attention to things, but I want to live. I can’t have it both ways. I can’t have a pile of things and expect to be able to walk away and turn my full attention away from the pile to go see what there is to see; to go meet new people. To see the world.
So I choose life. I have this life and I want to live.
It’s crazy, right?
The undoing myself of. The getting of “rid”…