To Carry the Fire

All of my dreams were being fulfilled, but my wife’s had been lost along the way.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
—Phil. 2:3-4 (NIV)

•••

Late one night, I dropped my luggage on the bedroom floor, crawled into bed, kissed my wife on the cheek, and fell asleep. I can’t remember where I was returning from—Istanbul or Iraq or Nashville, or some other place the work I loved took me. But the next morning, I grabbed a shower and gathered my things, about to head out to a coffee shop and write. Before leaving, I made my way back to the bedroom through the chaos of our house—our six children, our daily routine—and I found my wife Maile making the bed. I could tell something was wrong.

Nearing 40, she didn’t know the person in the mirror, or where the last 15 years had gone, or if she’d ever be able to find herself.

We stood there in the midst of this life we had created together. And that’s when Maile told me for the first time she was flat-out gone—flat-out not someone she recognized anymore. Nearing 40, she didn’t know the person in the mirror, or where the last 15 years had gone, or if she’d ever be able to find herself, the self she loved. The self who had written beautiful words and stories when she had been a girl.

She wondered, she doubted, if she could ever find that girl.

It was a hard thing to hear. In the last decade, I had found myself, my purpose—had spent so many years focused on making my way that this person I had been traveling with, my greatest supporter and cheerleader, had followed me onto a trail that no longer worked for her.

That difficult conversation was followed by long, sleepless nights. How can two people find their way after so many years of wandering?

 

Let’s back up a little. This is how our story began:

Once upon a time, two writers fell in love, got married, and lived a quiet life in Florida, where they spent entire Saturdays reading on the couch, or traveling up and down the East Coast. For two years they had their little routines, which included milkshakes every night over Scrabble, always counting their pennies so they could occasionally go out to eat.

 

It was such a simple life.

Then a kind of craziness took over, and a kind of eternal crisis mode set in. They moved every two years. They had their first four children. It was the kind of life that arose out of huge debt and disappointment and struggling to keep their heads above water, the kind of life where everyone did what was needed to keep the house together and bills paid.

Looking back now, I can see how at some point looking to “our” interests became looking to “my” interests. What had begun with excitement led to 15 years of discombobulation, searching for direction and, eventually, falling into a life that worked. For me, anyway.

And somewhere along the way, Maile lost herself.

 

After a lot of follow-up conversations, Maile was able to talk with other moms doing what they love, and we identified a few things I could do to support her. For us, it came down to setting aside time for her to pursue what she loved—writing it on our schedule at the beginning of the week, blocking time off the same way I’d block off a meeting or one of our kids’ sports practices.

They had absorbed this image of Dad chasing his dreams, while Mom held down the fort without any thought to her interests, her own desires.

But it wasn’t enough. We realized our children had been watching, too. That they had absorbed this image of Dad chasing his dreams, while Mom held down the fort without any thought to her interests, her own desires. We had a long conversation with them about all of this. We talked about how, if we’re not watchful, this is the way it can be. We looked our little girls in the face and told them they in particular need to be careful about losing themselves. We talked about how, in a family, it’s important that all of us get to follow our dreams. We told them that this is one of the ways we care for each other—by gently and faithfully tending the fire each of us carries. We explained this is the kind of caring that families have to do for one another, because often no one else will do it.

 

One Tuesday night in April, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., the children chose to make Caribbean Pineapple Quinoa while—for the first time in years—their mother wrote. The kids did an amazing job. Then we played video games for an hour, because that’s what happens when I’m in charge. And a little before 6 p.m. Maile came down and we gathered around our table together, everyone sensing that something new was happening in our midst—something beautiful.

It was a kind of happy communion. Maile sat at the end of the dining table, and the kids watched her eagerly as she tried the food they had made. Her loud oohs! and aahs! made them giggle with delight, laugh with relief, and we all helped ourselves. I felt it then, a realization setting in, a wordless commitment. That life is better this way. That we would help one another carry the fire each of us had been given.

 

Illustration by Matteo Berton

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