Of Dreams Deferred

Dreams.

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.

Dreams.

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.

And yet…

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?

A dreamer.

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.

Dream.

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Action Plans

Maybe it’s the springtime feeling in the air. Maybe it’s the knowledge that I need to be bathing suit ready for our beach vacation in less than two months. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m two-thirds of the way done with the work in progress. Maybe it’s the fact that in five weeks (FIVE!!!!!!) the kids will officially be on summer vacation thereby making my time for writing and exercise a bit more complicated than it already is.

Whatever the reason, I’ve decided to full on challenge myself both mentally and physically for the next month.

Call me crazy, because, well, I probably am.

In the last two years, I’ve let my exercise habits dwindle down to barely there behind work and family commitments. Where working out was built in to my weekly routines a few years ago, I fell out of a regular habit. Sure, I try to stay active during my day (I have two boys, it’s hard not to be), we enjoy an occasional family hike, I go to a weekly yoga class, but I know I could be doing a whole lot better, feeling better, feeling stronger. I want to instill healthy habits in my children by setting strong examples. And, let’s be honest, there is a level of vanity in missing a more toned arm in a tank top.

In the last year, I’ve also committed to writing a book. Last summer, I was still adjusting to not having a job and I had no clue what I was doing. I started in earnest in September, hit my stride around Christmas time (finally!) and the last three months have boasted some hopeful results. I see the light at the end of the rough draft tunnel and already have a growing list of things I know I want to tackle in the revision process. But with summer and no camps quickly approaching, I know I need to spend some quality time with my work in progress in order to stay on track with my revision goals and timeline.

My health and my dream are two major things I shouldn’t compromise on, and yet I do. All the time. The amazing thing is that focusing on my health and my dream spills over positively to the rest of my life: being healthy and creatively fulfilled makes me a much better mom, wife and citizen. And yet I daily downgrade time for activity and writing in order to accommodate other people and responsibilities. I talk a lot about putting myself first. I complain a lot about not being able to. But the fact remains that I’m the only one that can do that. And so I am. I’m putting myself all in. I’m setting some goals and recruiting the family to help in concrete ways, not the usual hands thrown in the air, exasperated exclamation “I could use some help around here” while storming off way.

For the past week, I’ve been reflecting on my goals and doing a lot of thinking on how best to achieve them. I need structure and accountability. Without them, “increased exercise” or “weekend writing time” becomes just another vague item on the to-do list that moves from day to day then week to week then month to month then, well, you get the picture.

First, I’ve decided to create a schedule of daily physical activity. It’s flexible enough to accommodate scheduling snags, tired days and weather. I’ve done the legwork and researched classes at my gym that can help me when I’m feeling lazy. I’m posting my tactics publicly in the house so that the family can keep me accountable each week. We are also instituting a formal family activity day. We do a lot of informal family activities, but putting a family hike or basketball game or tennis match on the schedule each weekend allows for us all to help plan and facilitate fun new adventures for the family. The kids are psyched by the challenge and I’m eager to get out and explore more with them. Bottom line, for the next 30 days, I will do at least a half hour of dedicated physical activity for myself. EVERY. DAY.

Structuring the writing has been a tougher challenge for me. Currently, I do my writing exclusively when the boys are both at school – a small three hour period between 9:15 and 12:15 until August when the little guy joins the big kid at elementary school. I’ve tried writing at night and don’t always meet with great results. I’m tired in the evenings and enjoy just plopping down on the sofa with my DVR and Netflix and turning my brain off for awhile. I also tend to ignore the work in progress on the weekends, focusing on our family time and errands and chores I can accomplish while the hubby hangs with the kiddos. BUT. Neither of those things are getting me any closer to my goal of finishing a novel, revising a novel, shopping the novel, starting the next novel.

I’m taking a hard look at my schedule and habits and adding in some additional forced writing time. Yes. Inspiration is good, however, the fact of the matter is writing is all about getting your butt in the chair and fingers to the keys or pen to the paper, not about waiting for some divine flash of brilliance. I think we can all agree that a flash of brilliance is certainly not going to be coming in the middle of a Real Housewives marathon. I’m committing to at least two evenings of writing a week and two hours of dedicated weekend time. This will need to be scheduled. This will need to be prioritized. This will require the buy-in of the hubby and the boys. This may force me out of my comfortable office chair and into a local coffee shop or book store in order to avoid the pull of the pajamas and Apple TV. But I think it’s doable. I think it’s necessary. I think it might even create a change of pace that will provide its own kind of inspiration.

The great thing about both of these challenges is that I benefit from any new habits I create. I also benefit from any failures. If something isn’t working, I can use that to learn about what will. Learning how I work, both physically and mentally, only helps me move forward towards finding the things that do.

Sometimes we need to force ourselves out of our comfort zones. We need to cross the street to see something new. We need to watch a sunset or get up for a sunrise. We need to meet new people. We need to see new perspectives. We need to shake up routines and ditch old habits and find new ones.

I’ve created an action plan. It’s time for action.

What do you need to create an action plan to accomplish?

High Heeled Mama Reads: Before I Go by Colleen Oakley

Colleen Oakley is an Atlanta-based journalist. I came across some local writers I stalk follow promoting the debut of her first novel, Before I Go and was intrigued. The book is currently only $1.99 for Kindle on Amazon (not an endorsement, just a fact), so I picked it up.

It’s a solid debut novel about a young woman, Daisy, diagnosed with terminal cancer. This Type A gal lives, and apparently plans to die, by her to-do lists. She throws herself into finding her husband a replacement wife for when she’s gone, feeling that the poor guy will be lost without someone to pick up his stinky socks and force him to eat more than cereal. While it gives her a purpose and structure to her suddenly aimless days as she faces the reality of life on a deadline that doesn’t include finishing her graduate degree, launching a career, fixing up her old home or having a family, she soon learns she might not be able to live with the repercussions of this decision.

It was a sad, oftentimes funny, interesting read and I enjoyed it.

Until the day after I finished it.

That following day, a former colleague announced that her breast cancer had returned. To her brain, lungs, liver, lymph nodes. She’s the same age as me. She has two young boys. She’s already endured this fight once before. And it all sounded too familiar to the book (relapse, spread) and sucked the air out of my “enjoyment” of it. Cancer is all too real. All too present in the lives of loved ones that I just couldn’t truly process my feelings about this story anymore. Particularly when her announcement came the same day another friend got the good news that her 8 year old’s routine MRI came back clean after fighting brain cancer multiple times in his short life.

Cancer is evil and random and cruel. It gives and it takes. It shape shifts and challenges and terrifies.

And, unfortunately, cancer is a reality that we all live with. No one is untouched. We all know someone. Lost someone. There’s no escaping it. Even in the pages of a book.

But in the pages of a book is where we deal. And sometimes laughing and crying about the lack of control we have on our lives as we live them not to mention our lives after we leave them behind through the eyes of a non-real-life person is just what the doctor ordered.

Bottom line? I think the book is a good read, I’d even go so far as recommend it as a good beach read (as strange as that feels to type). It just happened that the timing was off for me, souring my endorsement, censoring my pithy review. It’s one thing to read a book about a woman dying from cancer and “like” it, and another to turn around and see a real, flesh and blood woman announce to the world that she is reentering the ring for another fight.

Cancer sucks.

I’d give this one a 3.5 out of 5.

Next up, At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen.

High Heeled Mama Reads: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah is a story of a young Nigerian girl emigrating to the United States for a university education and the promise of a better life.

Americanah is a love story of two young lovers separated by distance, pursuing their dreams however they can until disillusionment with the results brings them face-to-face again to face their old and future feelings.

Americanah is a story about race in America. In Britain. In Nigeria.

Americanah is a Wizard of Oz story about how you don’t always need to go over the rainbow to find what you want, sometimes you need to simply recognize the desires inside you and have the strength to make them so despite the cultural, familial and familiar obligations that surround you.

Americanah is a story about place. A story where place is more a character than a setting.

Americanah is the type of story that you can’t put in a box. The book’s brilliance lies in its ability to tell a story about race, globalization, global tensions, discrimination, immigration, academic life, materialism as success and self discovery through the story of two young Nigerians. At the outset, they are young and in love and hungry for life beyond their school and family. But somewhere along the lines, their actions to seek out a better future, still put them on paths to adult mediocrity. Dreams are muddled, confused, waylaid. Ethics are compromised in order to stay the course. Their love for each other becomes just another part of a past that must be compartmentalized, packed away, in order to focus on the more urgent needs of the now.

Americanah is about voice. Reading this novel this winter while the country seems to be shining a light on the fact that the Civil Rights Movement and the election of the first black president did not solve all the country’s institutionalized racism, not to mention the personalized racism, was particularly poignant. Ifemelu, the young woman in the story, starts a blog to comment on race in America. I found her posts to be fascinating, eye opening and brilliant. I found myself wishing it were real so I could hop online and read them all up. Alas, fiction.

What I loved nearly as much as the book was finding Adiche’s TED talk afterwards about the danger of single story. The point being that her work no more defines Nigeria or Nigerians as American Psycho defines all young adult males (her example). Just as her fictional character’s experiences and blog are only an individual’s perspective, we must open our eyes to all that we can to find empathy and understanding.

I found this idea of a single story to be so personally relevant – we are all more than mothers or wives or sisters or workers. We are a culmination of roles and passions and cultures and childhood experiences and tastes. I think this single story concept defines the very reason why the mommy wars perpetuate – the word mother means something to me and something different to you and something absolutely opposite to that lady over there. Yet, for some reason, many of us seek to put motherhood in a box that means all one thing or another and any mother not fitting in the box provided is therefore doing it wrong. We can’t fall prey to the single story. There are many stories, many experiences, many challenges all leading to truths. Yes. Plural. My truth and your truth are both valid even if sometimes contradictory. Accepting the multitude of truths and stories is the only way we can all move forward to improve our communities, families and selves.

In a nutshell: Read the book. Listen to the talk. Then, go forth and find more stories.

I give this book 4.5 out of 5.

 

Have you read Americanah? What were your thoughts? Share them in the comments.

Coming up, Before I Go by Colleen Oakley and At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen.

Faces of a Child

When the first born, T, was an infant, I stared at his little mug for hours. Nursing. Napping. Strolling. Playing. Really. Whatever he was doing, I was watching. That smile? Total gas. That perplexed look? Definitely spit up coming. That adorable pensive face? Oh, well, that’s his little boy face.

Every so often, T would give us this look that I would gasp at and clutch my metaphorical pearls. I just knew that was what my baby, my darling, chunky-cheeked, goofy-smiled baby would look like as a little boy when he’d shucked the chubby skin of infancy and toddlerhood. I would point at pictures and label them to the hubby: “There. Little boy face.”

And damn if I wasn’t right. Because here he is. In front of me now. All boy. All that look.

Part of me was pleased as punch to be right about something. To have that motherly instinct so early prove correct. And not about the bad feeling in the pit of my stomach as they cruised along the coffee table only to bash their face into the corner of the sofa and bawl for the next 15 minutes. But about something good. Something sweet. Something I just felt in my bones was right.

Then today. Oh, today. Today, I took my 8 year old big boy shopping for a suit for his upcoming First Communion. Buttering him up with frozen yogurt, off we went to take advantage of the season’s Easter dress-up sales. And he was surprisingly helpful at picking out what he wanted and then I forced him into the fitting room to ensure a good fit on my skinny minny little man. And there it was. In a tie and glasses and the pull of a cuff as he shrugged on that jacket. A face. Not the little boy face anymore, but the grown-up man face. In the mirror of a department store, in pants that need a belt to stay on his nonexistent hips, in a tie he picked by himself, I saw a new future.

I wasn’t ready. I’m still not ready as I type this, acknowledging the momentousness that occurred in between scuffed walls, on well worn brown carpet strewn with the detritus of dress shirt packaging. I know it’s a long way off. I know I have no reason to worry and every fart joke to still look forward to. But glimpses of the future. This big, independent future where I am probably not solving problems with frozen yogurt or needed to help prepare for anything? Not ready for it.

And so I become the keeper of the faces. The serious baby face. The joy filled toddler face. The no teeth first grade face. The awkward big toothed second grader face. The sad faces. The excited faces. The relieved faces. The I’m-so-glad-you’re-here faces. And every face that is in between. Someday my son will gaze at his own little one’s face with wonder and name what he sees in this new little being. I will join him and smile, knowing that I, too, see faces. Faces of the past. Faces of babies and toddlers and little boys and men-to-be that have become.

Maybe then I will be ready to accept the future faces. But I doubt it.