Not sleep filled mash-ups of our daily events, subconscious desires, greatest fears and endless staircases causing us to get lost on our way to an exam we forgot to study for anyway, but those deep seeded desires that buoy us on our dark days, fill us with hope, flight, anxiety and illusions of fulfillment.
As children we have them. We live in them. We see no reason why we can’t be firefighting astronauts who invent ice cream sandwiches that don’t melt and then become president. We are taught there are boundaries to our homes. Boundaries to our playgrounds. Boundaries to our conduct. But we have yet to learn that there are boundaries to our dreams.
Somewhere, during our schooling and our day-to-day experiences with adults, we find a different reality. Someone says, “you can’t do that!” Or asks “Why would you want to do that?” Or indicates that we’re simply doing it “wrong” that there are better, righter ways to do that picture, dance, math problem, outfit selection, game. We are subjected to tests and regulations that are meant to homogenize the educational output of schools, not celebrate the diversity and uniqueness of its students.
Some escape. Or slip through the cracks. Or simply endure until they are on their own and can choose freely.
Others are simply so used to living up to a standard expectation that they forget to exceed it. I was one of those.
I dreamt of becoming a writer. I found the spot on the library or book store shelf where my book would reside. And yet, somehow, I knew that writing a book wasn’t an occupation. At least not a realistic one for me. It was compartmentalized as a dream. I was a practical thinker. An oldest child full of responsibility and rule following. I figured out the school formula. The way to write an essay that pleased a teacher then relearned the next year how to please the next one. I checked the required courses off my list and moved from high school to degree to job. Then, I moved from job to job to promotion to promotion to job to motherhood. A dream is something I’d be allowed to get to after success. Success as determined by the standard.
And so I worked. Always working. Always searching for happiness, fulfillment, gratification. And oftentimes I found it. I found it in jobs, in relationships, in moves, in travel and in challenges.
When I suddenly found myself pushed off my path, a termination rather than my personal propulsion to the next step in my career, I woke up a bit. I stopped. I considered. I thought. I started to imagine, then to visualize before finally dreaming again. What was my dream? What could I accomplish? Not because it was next, but because I chose it? What should have been next was another PR job. I “should” have engaged in a furious networking with contacts to seek out new job opportunities. And some came anyway, nudges from former colleagues or neighbors or friends who knew of something or offered to put in a word. As much as I love PR, as much as I believe I am good at it, it isn’t a dream. I don’t dream of big media hits or starting my own firm or launching the next big thing.
I dream of words. Lots of words. Words that make sentences that make paragraphs printed on pages that fill the space between two hard covers bound with glue and reside on the shelf in a library or book store and then a night stand or suitcase or bus stop or vacation as those words are read and ingested by others, by readers.
This past weekend’s episode of Mad Men made me pause: I have been Don.
In the episode, Don is tasked with writing a speech about what the future holds for the agency. The man who can paint a picture of emotional depth about a slide projector is suddenly unable to conjure up any sort of potential plan for the future of his business. He soon realizes he has little capacity to imagine his own future as well. He’s lived his life in the present in order to outrun his past. He’s apparently forgotten there is a future. A next. And that he can control that. For him, the catalyst was divorce, the selling of his apartment (ironically, he was able to dream up a future for potential residents to his realtor, just not himself), the systematic dismantling of that piece of his life. He’s now faced with choices, making the remainder of this final season so captivating to audiences. Will he simply continue on the same path: womanizing, marrying, drinking, doing enough work to solidify his place in the ad world? Or will he dream? Will he act? With purpose? When asked in the episode if he’d wanted to be in advertising as a youth by one of his daughter’s flirtatious friends, he said, no he’d just wanted to be in New York. Since being there, he’d ticked off all the boxes: the wife, the family, the suburban home, the mistresses, the career, the new wife, the city penthouse. What will he do next now that the boxes are emptying?
While my life has never been dismantled to this extent nor been fraught with the drama or debauchery of Don’s, I have had many moments in life where someone asked what I wanted, what was next and I felt paralyzed with a lack of answers. It can be difficult to dream. We forget how to in the midst of the mundane, the drudgery of maintaining what we already have. I watch my children and listen to their far fetched dreams of where they will live or what their lives will be like or even just what they will do tomorrow. It’s brilliant and glossy and surreal and I bite my tongue to never tell them no. Because why not? Who am I to say they won’t be the first or best or only? Who am I to say their dreams should be bigger or smaller or perhaps a different shade of green? Who am I?
I have often doubted my dream in the last year as I have committed to pursuing it. Luckily, I have family and friends who dream with me and keep me moving, seeking, reaching. I talk to my boys about it. I try to show them by example that dreams are fragile, to be protected, cradled in the nests of our hands, fed and nurtured and loved until they are ready to fly on their own.They get excited about my word count. They ask how many pages I’m up to, what my book is about or if it will be like the particular book they are reading at the moment. Their excitement rubs off and I feel myself trying harder, if not always completely believing. But I’ve tasted it now. I run towards it. Eyes wide, hands open and follow where it leads. There is a lightness to my spirit now that I have let the dreams back in, a giddiness, an excitement. There, too, is a heaviness to the guilt, sometimes, of pursuing it at the expense of a vacation or summer camps or new furniture that a regular salary could have provided, but those are not dreams. Those are temporal and temporary.
Langston Hughes asked what happens to a dream deferred. His images are stark and graphic and entirely too true. But a dream deferred is preferable to a dream ignored. It’s never too late. Imagine a future. Take a step. Make a mistake. Find your spot on your own metaphorical book shelf. Dust off the dream you put down for later and see if later is now. Dream small. Dream big. Either way, the answer is simple.