The Joy Menu #24: Dreams

Your author explores the nature of dreams — fulfilled, deferred, and otherwise.

Dear Creators,

How are dreams doled out? Are they decided, or are they discovered?

Do they come in middle school, along with acne and the first midnight urges? Or earlier, planted like spores which, with light seen and air breathed, expand and express when the conditions are right?

Or are dreams collected, like images on a vision board? A snip of what we’re good at, a cut of what we’ve done, a patch of what we like to do, a triangle of what our parents have said, a rind of what we’ve seen on TV or in the movies or read in the books we love.

And later: how many of us cling to these images like calling cards? How many let them fly up like balloons (always more fun in theory) to land, deflated, in someone else’s backyard? How many of us grab them, and spin triumphant like a dog with a tooth in his tail? How many chase and chase and chase, nipping?

How many achieve in reality the chimera we spoke out loud as we tossed stray cents into the Trevi Fountain?

And then: are dreams even meant to make us happy? Or do they serve some other, more evolutionary purpose: like getting us out of bed? Are they the rumbling in our bellies, which tells us to eat, but not what to eat (well or healthfully)? Or the ache in our groins, which screams “progeny,” but can easily be otherwise deferred?

When, I ask, are dreams a gift — driving us toward a calling which facilitates our fullest expression of self?

And when are they nothing but a taunt, the Sirens’ call, a promise which — in its exquisite intangibility — can never truly be fulfilled?

(What is your dream? Have you achieved it? Did achieving it require a shift in its essence, its nature, its trajectory, or a definition of what it even means to achieve?)

Sometimes, when a week gets away from me, and rather than feeling like I’ve lived in progress toward meaning but have wandered some distance away, I get angry.

I think of my father: coming home in the evening dressed in uncomfortable clothes, the soft his dress shirts pressed against the tight bulge of his belly, his necktie unlooped and hung on a chair by the door, the grey slacks removed and folded poorly over the same chair.

I think of how he smelled: his cologne long worn off, the musk of sweat dried from his long drive, and something else — fatigue? grasping? ache?

At the dinner table, over bland chicken baked in supermarket salsa, he recounts each indignity, each incremental success, every event of the workday, small or large, mysterious or concrete.

At six, at nine, at twelve, we knew the name of every one of his bosses, each colleague, every secretary who smiled and asked after his kids.

Who, growing up at such dinners, would also want such a life?

It can feel like a personal failure to be angry.

Rage expressed is an ally of weakness — an unhealthy use of pain generated by a perception that in not adjusting to discomfort, not overcoming disappointment, not swallowing bile, not accepting reduction, in not navigating your limits with grace you’ve shown yourself to be something less.

Less than strong. Less than calm. Less than holy. Less than your dreamed-of self.

I am not the first to say that under capitalism, life requires an amount of self-renunciation. An amount of repression (for most) in order to balance what we want from what we have to do to get by.

My therapist would say: “Yes, the world doesn’t have to be this way, but it is. Are you going to rail against it, or live within it well?”

The greeting cards say: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Instagram (today) says: “When communication is reframed as ‘complaining’, the opportunity to understand is lost.”

Am I: just complaining? or am I raging against some humming machine? an inevitable spectacle of this specific life?

What if what we love is not to do? What if it is to dream? or to cogitate? or to rest?

Must we always find a place within the market where such activity can be capitalized on, so that we’re to be allowed to live with it, and live well?

Johannesburg, ~1955-1965.

My grandmother’s dance studio, a rectangular room on the side of the house. A wooden floor, a bar along a long mirrored wall. All day, women arrive for classes — retired women, and teenagers, and groups of wives, those seeking rehabilitation or looking for a healthy outlet, a workout, or both.

When the group is too large, the furniture in the living room is pushed aside (the living room is deeper, with more floor space, more reach); every winter there’s a recital, in summer it’s outdoors. When there are no classes, she spreads out on a table to work on choreography, or dances alone, developing routines, learning new styles, stretching, choosing music, watching great performances, reading about the lives of the admired.

My father tells me this. I’ve hit “record;” he’s seated on the bench in our backyard, where the background noise is swirling heat and soft suburban bird-car-kid sounds. We’re under the late winter sun, beneath trees he planted when we moved into the house twenty years before. (When we sell the house, months later, the family who buys it tell us that they’ll be taking out all the trees — my father and I retreat from the news, queasy, and filled with silent rage.)

He finishes the story: the house on Barry Herzog with the studio is sold in anticipation of their emmigration, and they move into an apartment, a rental, and then later another house (my father says, “because we terrorized the landlord until they asked us to leave”). Then they stay with their grandfather in the building he owns in Hillsboro. Then they go — and it’s twenty years before they come back.

A dream realized; a dream deferred.

I may have the order wrong. It’s hard, now, to listen to the recordings. My father’s voice is cut-up and tired; a side effect of one medication or another, or just exhaustion from the drawn-out prospect of his own death.

No regrets, he says often. I have no regrets.

Yours in living onward

toward creative joy,