Where Are All the Dreamers that I Used to Know?

(Written for SWAPA 6/93; Webified 4/00.)

Patience Carpe Diem
Sonny's dreams can't be real—
they're just stories he's read;
They're just stars in his eyes;
they're just dreams in his head
Where he sees all the places
that he'd like to roam—
But he hears Mama's voice
and it's calling him home....
—Ron Hynes, "Sonny's Dream," plus the folk process

I don't know; maybe it's just laziness that keeps me from going out and living my dreams. Or maybe it's fear; the fear of doing something new, of people looking at me funny; the fear of trying something and failing. I don't like failure, and I don't like to be wrong.

But I don't think that's all of it, and I don't think I should require of myself that I rush madly off in all directions, trying to do everything but accomplishing nothing. I think that quiet waiting, patience, slow planning, acceptance of the way things are (with the awareness that this, too, shall pass)—I think that all of these things are, or can be, virtues.

Like a child in a car, I'm inclined to whine, "Am I there yet?" Well, no, I'm not. And I won't be for quite a while. But why am I in such a hurry to get there? The journey is as important as the destination. Patience. All things come to those who wait.

Dreams are all very well and good; a person's reach should exceed ta's grasp (or what's a meta for?) and all that. But ... it's important to recognize your own limitations. It's important to know that some things just aren't feasible. Not to be defeatist; but to be realistic.

I want to be a famous writer—and a good one. I want to write intelligent, literate science fiction and fantasy stories (and in other genres as the mood strikes me), with good characterization, stories that will reach deep into people's psyches and tear their guts out (to mix metaphors rather unpleasantly). I want people to laugh and cry at my work. I want them to say, "It was better than Cats."

But I don't know whether I'm capable of that. And if I rush off half-cocked, trying to be the best, and I fail, what will I be left with?

The advice that most experienced writers give to young wannabe writers in high school is this: write, but don't make writing all of your life. Go to college if you want to—but major in something other than creative writing. Broaden your experience. Learn about people, learn about life; and write what you've learned. Because fiction (at least, fiction of the kind that I want to read and write) is about life, is about people, and the more the writer knows about people and the way they are, the better ta can portray them, and thereby speak to them through writing. It's a lot harder to write a novel that will enthrall people if you've never interacted with real people; your fictional people won't act or sound or look like real people. Write what you know; but learn enough first to make what you know worthwhile.

In other words, be patient. Relax. There's no need to do it all now. The young writers (and for that matter, young people in all fields of human activity) who blaze the brightest, it's said, tend to burn the fastest. Some write one brilliant novel and then never write anything worthwhile again, afraid to be daring in case they fall short of the expectations they've raised for themselves. Isn't it better to take things slowly, build up, and not reach your zenith before you start your journey?

If you demand that the universe bend to your will, immediately, you'll spend your life frustrated by reality, always searching, never content. You can afford to wait for the right thing to come along. Be receptive; be aware of your opportunities; and eventually way will open.

My father went to grad school at age fifty, like his father before him. Fifty is not old in modern America—there's time at that age to launch a completely new career. So twenty-five is definitely young; there's no need to grab for the gold ring just yet. Live happily and comfortably; live well and wisely.

Why go out and try new things that you suspect you won't like when there already isn't time to do the things you know you do like? Travel is broadening, true; but it can also be uncomfortable, damp, and altogether unpleasant. I live right now in the place where I most want to live in the world—of all the places I've been (not even close to everywhere, not by a long shot, but across the USA and a few parts of the Soviet Union), this place has the weather, the food, the culture that I like best. I make no claim that this is objectively the best place in the world; that would be ludicrous. I'm just saying that I like it an awful lot. Of course there are lots of other great places to live—but once I've found a good place, why move? I moved around a lot while I was growing up; maybe now it's time for a little stability. I like my life the way it is. If you're on a mountaintop, every direction is down. There are other mountaintops, but you can't live on all of them, so why not stick with the one you've got?

There's an enormous range of human experience; no one human can live it all. Yet people look at me oddly, or actively object, when I suggest that going out and doing new things is not necessarily good, that there's something to be said for being happy with the status quo. (If I sound a little overly defensive here, that's probably why.) I'm not someone who acquires tastes easily; usually I like something either at first or never, and it's more often never. Why not, then, remain within my comfort zone, stay firmly ensconced in my (relatively) safe and sane life?

Which is not to say that my life is perfect by any means, but it is pretty nice. And I'm being practical (for once in my life)—I'm making money and saving it for the first time ever, and getting good solid background experience in the computer industry, so that I can do what I want to do later. I can afford the time to do something not-bad until something great comes along—the alternative is to insist on something great right now and maybe end up forced into something awful.

Then, too, as we get older our goals and our ideals change. Why do something now that I'll regret later? I'm sure there are a lot of people who now say, "Ah, I remember when I was young and brash—good thing I'm wiser now." Or as Joan Baez puts it in one of my favorite songs, "There'll be new dreams, maybe better dreams, and plenty / Before the last revolving year is through." I can afford to wait for those dreams to come along; and in the mean time, my life is pretty good as it is. I can live with that. And speaking of people whose dreams change, Cat Stevens once sang, rather self-prophetically, "You may still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not." If you outlive your dreams, what's left? If you build your life around your dreams and then your plans gang agly, you have no recourse, no backup. Better to build your dreams around the solid foundation of your life.

He used to say that life's too short
To never take a chance
Yet he was over sixty when
He finally learned to dance.
—Robbie O'Connell, "Turning of the Tide"

I don't need to learn to dance right now. I can do that when I'm sixty.

Sonny's dreams can't be real—
they're just stories he's read;
They're just stars in his eyes;
they're just dreams in his head.
And he's hungry inside
for the wide world outside;
And I know I can't hold him,
though I've tried and I've tried....
—Ron Hynes, "Sonny's Dream," original version

In high school English, I read a story by Henry James called "The Beast in the Jungle." As I remember it, it's about a man who's utterly convinced that he has some cosmic Destiny. He's so convinced of this idea, in fact, that he passes up every chance he has to build a destiny for himself—he never does anything but bide his time, waiting for the right thing to come along, until, old and weary, he realizes that life has passed him by.

On Star Trek: The Next Generation, in an episode that disturbed me for a lot of reasons but made some thought-provoking points, Jean-Luc Picard discovered that if he hadn't been motivated to be daring, to take risks, when he was young, his life would have turned out very differently.

It seems so obvious when put that way: if you never risk anything, if you just sit under the tree and let the apples fall into your lap, at best you'll be content. Not enthusiastic, not overjoyed, not heartbroken; just ... content. You won't accomplish the great deeds you dream about; you won't inspire anyone to anything. You can't get an adrenalin rush just lying in the sun—and that nagging voice asking, "What are you doing with your life? When will you do something worthwhile? What have you accomplished so far?" probably won't even let you be content.

Fear of failure, of ridicule, of people laughing at you, can be a powerful thing. It can keep people quiet when they want to speak out; it can keep them trapped on the ground when they want to soar. Daring something new and different will always earn distrust and suspicion from the narrow-minded. But check the scales—is it worth leaving behind all you hope and wish for, just from fear that someone might laugh? I don't like to be wrong; it makes me embarrassed and angry. But isn't it better, doesn't it show more integrity and strength, to stand up for what you believe, to speak out even if you're unsure, than to hide quietly in a corner just in case you're wrong?

Why compromise? I've seen time and again that it is possible for people to live their dreams, to do what they want to do and to hell with those who tell them it's impossible. Don't settle for a mediocre job; you won't have time or energy to look for that great job that you really want (or for that matter that great alternative lifestyle; the Protestant work ethic isn't for everyone) while you're tied down, day after day, doing something that's just all right (or, even worse, something that you hate). Don't settle for second-best; don't give in to lowered expectations. If you don't strive, you can't succeed; and even failure can be sweet if you fight against it every inch of the way. At least that way you can know you did your best; you don't have to worry about how things might have been, if only....

If you wait, and compromise, and give in, you'll slowly take on more responsibilities, even as you remind yourself that they're only temporary, only until the right thing comes along. "When I've got enough money" becomes "after I buy that car" and "after I buy that house"; becomes "when I've got enough vacation saved up" and "when my sabbatical comes along"; becomes "after I've settled down," and "after we get married" and "after I'm retired," and "after the kids are grown up," and ... and "after I'm dead." (I stole that bit from someone, but life's too short to take the time to look up all my sources.) It's all too easy to lose track of your goals, to get lost in living everyday life until you no longer remember, except with a tiny part of your heart that you keep locked up and never look at, what it was you were living for, what it was you wanted to do when you finally got the chance.

In It's a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart's character keeps giving in, keeps compromising, keeps putting off his own goals. He never does any of the things he wanted to do, never goes anywhere or achieves anything beyond his own local world. He's steady and responsible, and everyone loves him for it—but I always hated the ending to that movie, because he sells out. He gives up on his dreams, decides in the end that settling for what he's got really isn't that bad, considering the alternative.

There's a Judy Small song about a girl who gets married ("She married him because he was a young man on the rise / or at least, she thought, a young man on the level"), has kids, becomes pretty much nothing more than a wife and mother—all the while believing that she's "planning for her future," "waiting for the day to come when time will be her own." I got news for you, lady: it'll never happen. Not to say that being a wife and a mother is bad; but (in the words of yet another song) is that all there is? No, it isn't. Or at least, it doesn't have to be, if it's not what you want.

Looking back on my life in sixty years, I suspect I'll wish that I'd taken more chances, done more and seen more, gone to foreign lands and met new and exciting people. There are new and exciting people everywhere, I firmly believe, if you know how and where to look for them. Everyone's got a story. There are too many, far too many, for me to hear in one lifetime; but at least I can try. Wouldn't it be nice to be asked at age eighty, or ninety, or a hundred and twenty, "Do you have any regrets? Would you do things differently if you could?"—and to be able to truthfully say No; no, I have no regrets. I lived every day to the fullest, I loved life until (as Bradbury probably says somewhere in a different context) the juice of it ran down my chin.

The death over the past few years of some of the people who shared their dreams with us drives that point home. What if Theodor Seuss Geisel had stuck with doing ads for Flit bug spray? What if Robert Anson Heinlein hadn't left the military? What if Jim Henson got discouraged by people's lack of appreciation for his weird puppets? What if Gene Roddenberry had told himself, "Nah, the world isn't ready for a TV show about a bunch of people in the future getting along together"? They all had their own visions of the world, and they each shaped the vision of all (or most) of us, directly or indirectly. And when they died, thousands of people the world over mourned for them. They left legacies that will not soon be forgotten. And yes, they were human like the rest of us, and they all had their flaws. But that didn't stop them from dreaming great dreams.

"But all too many adolescents in all too many cultures never passed through Chaos at all. They were born, they were acculturated, they were schooled, they took up their adult stations in life, passed through an ill-defined period of mid-life angst, resigned themselves to old age, and died, without ever walking the Yellow Brick Road, indeed without ever understanding what it was that they had missed in their lives."

—Norman Spinrad, Child of Fortune

I want to walk that Yellow Brick Road. I want magic, I want life—I want it all. And it's not all going to fall into my lap if I sit around and wait for it. Life just doesn't work that way.

 


Notes

Even though this was written seven years ago, the conflicting impulses are still there, though not as strong. I hope the two-column format doesn't make it impossibly annoying to read.

In retrospect, both pieces are a little heavy on the quotes and references. But I think most of those quotes are relevant, and I do tend to think a lot in terms of things I've heard and read and seen, so these are fairly accurate as reflections of my internal dialogue on this topic.

Apologies to my friends who are parents, especially stay-at-home moms, for the embarrassing-in-retrospect somewhat disparaging tone of my comment about being a wife and mother. I contemplated changing that bit, but decided to leave it up for historical accuracy.

The title at the top is from a Nanci Griffith song, "A Wing and a Wheel":

Where are all the dreamers that I used to know?
They all live out in the suburbs,
...and their dreams are in their children at play.


Jed Hartman <logos@kith.org>