Recently, I woke from a dream. I was a young man, maybe in my early twenties, hanging out at a restaurant with a group of friends, talking and laughing. The woman who is now my wife was with me, and she was young as well – we are about the same age. In the dream, we must not have started dating yet, because at a lull in the conversation, she looked over at me, smiled slowly and beautifully, and asked, “When are you going to take me out?” I felt nervous but happy and excited and…I woke up. As I stumbled out of bed, a restricting feeling shot through my stomach, signaling sadness and loss.
These feelings came from the recognition that I will not experience the thrill of young love again. I will not experience the excitement of finding out that someone in whom I am interested also has an interest in me. These experiences are lost to me, as are so many others. The experience of moving away from home for the first time. The random nature of college friendships where we planned to do one thing and spontaneously switched to something completely different. The unknowns of starting out in the working world and the triumph of getting my first job.
But nostalgia is a tricky companion. We speak of “rose-colored glasses” for a reason. In fact, what in retrospect I imagine as excitement and thrill, I often experienced at a younger age as apprehension and dread. I am an introverted person – I always have been – and so I didn’t date much as a young man. I didn’t often work up the courage to ask out the girl or woman in whom I was interested. When I asked out the woman who is now my wife, I was terrified to hear her response. And those young relationships were not always what I now recollect them to be. I was immature, and so were my few girlfriends, and as a result I experienced a lot of mistrust and jealousy in those relationships, wondering if my girlfriend at the time really cared for me, or cared for me enough. The spontaneity of college plans meant I could be left in the lurch with nothing to do, and the triumph of getting that first job was preceded by a lot of tension over whether I would.
Unfortunately, it is easy to compare positive memories of younger days with the challenging realities of the present. I think that comparison was at the root of my dream and the feelings I had upon waking. Today, I am 45. The woman who was asking me to take her out in my dream is now my wife. We have been married for 19 years, and we have a child together. We both face health concerns we did not when we met as 23-year-olds. We have the challenges of raising a child, worrying about whether she is developing her skills in school at an “appropriate rate”, concern about caring for her when she is sick. We have the tensions that come with jobs and day-to-day life and concerns over aging parents. The comparison between the rose-colored version of my early 20s with this picture of my mid-40s is certainly not a positive one.
But I have to remember that this is not the only comparison I could make. In fact, it is helpful for me to remember that I do not need to compare at all. That was my life then, in all its glories and worries. This is my life now, in all its joys and sadnesses. I know that my wife and I have a deep love and solid partnership that has lasted for nearly half our lives. I know that our child is joyful and spontaneous and creative and makes us tear our hair out all at the same time. I know I have a career and job I love supporting schools to become spaces that recognize the brilliance of the Black and Brown young people they serve.
It is natural to compare what we have to what we had, or what we have to what others have. And it can also be a poison to our happiness. What matters most now is laughter with my wife, a spontaneous dance with our daughter, listening to a cherished song, a visit with my parents, talking with my sister, reading a transporting book, joining with colleagues to plan for school transformation. And yes, what matters are the challenges I am facing now, too.
The experience of the dream hung with me for several days. It floated in and out of my awareness, always somewhere in the back of my mind. Over time and with gratitude for my life now, it has faded away. I know it is not gone – the temptation to compare, the pull of memory. What happened in the past matters, because it has shaped my present. But I cannot live there. What matters most is not what was. What matters is what is.
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