I’m giving up too easily on friendship, on dancing, on writing, on my so-called dreams. The word “dreams” never used to bother me as much as “goals.” Goals sounded so corporate, even in 4th grade when my teacher who told us she was 28 (only twenty-fucking-eight!) asked us to write our goals down for reasons that still remain mysterious. Dreams were like asking what you wanted to be when you grew up. They would happen in the future when I would be as tall and as smart as my parents. Dreams and growing up would take care of themselves. But goals? It sounded like sports or business. “Goals” was a term for the News and the school psychologist, like “self-esteem” or “believing in yourself.”
I had good self-esteem as a kid. It didn’t occur to me to dislike myself or compare myself to others or focus on outer beauty instead of inner beauty. I was good at school, I had friends, I lived in a world of dolls and books and stories. I felt that way for a long time, even when most middle school girls were falling apart, changing everything about themselves to fit in with other girls who were equally inventing & altering themselves. The emphasis on self-esteem and goals and believing seemed babyish, a lesson we were supposed to have learned a long time ago from Disney films and picture books: be true to yourself, what’s inside is what really counts, judge not by outward appearances, everyone is special.
What were goals when we had dreams to follow? Dreams were magic carpet rides, astronauts, becoming the First Woman President. What goals did I have at 9? I’m not sure. To be a published author was surely one. It was nebulous but inevitable in my mind. I would write stories and people would read them. That would be my career, my life, my calling. It wasn’t about being famous. Being famous was cool to daydream about, but was never my motivation. I just wanted to share all the stories that came from inside. I assumed the general public would read them with the same rapture and pride that my dad showed. I wanted to live in words and in worlds wholly invented by me. I wanted to be able to write a great sentence, a great paragraph, a great chapter.
But writing wasn’t “where I saw myself in 10 years” (another inane exercise my 4th grade teacher made us do, because I guess it’s never too early to start training elementary schoolers for corporate job interviews). Writing was not a goal. It was simply who I was. What I did. I took for granted that growing up was a process of unlocking one’s inner, truest self and actualizing it. I didn’t think it in these terms, of course. But I knew that I was a writer and would grow up to be a writer, and if I wasn’t a very good writer yet, that was because I was only in 4th grade. Growing up would take care of learning to write, getting smarter, knowing what to do. Just like my parents were much taller than me, they were much smarter than me. Brains, like height, logically came from age and experience.
I’m not going to end this by saying how I’m no longer so innocent. How I realized grown-ups were just figuring things out as they went along. How I learned that my parents became so smart from deeply reading books, most of which I have still only read about. I’m not going to write about the compromises of adulthood, the concessions to stability and money. Money, that whore. I won’t share my private excuse that I pursued the more stable profession of librarianship because I needed predictable health insurance.
I’ll just say that I know there is still a writer locked inside. (Just west of the duodenum perhaps? East of the pancreas?). I can feel it lodged there. That writer-tumor. My own beating soul. That’s who I am, who I was, who I was meant to be. I was right about that in 4th grade. I was wrong about growing up being a key to unlocking it. Instead, growing up has been a series of lessons in constructing padlocks and locking up my talent in a safe, only showing it to a select, trusted few. Safety is overrated, so all the great artists say. But safety is so hard to let go. You think, “Maybe I can just hide the key, misplace it for a while.” Maybe I can bury the nagging urge to be this thing I always wanted to be, but that seems so impossible, so ineffable now. But then I’m stuck with a keyless box locked away in my heart. The truth is still the truth. Talent can whither away, languish like an abandoned weed, but it cannot disappear entirely. There is still a bone inside that atrophied limb.
In his melancholic years, Dad called writing his “phantom limb.” He tried to amputate that part of himself but he could still feel the missing arm tingling, throbbing, from time to time. Must I emulate this too? I’d have given him my arm to see him write again. Maybe I did. Maybe this locked up dream is all I have left of him, and that’s why it hurts so much to open it up again. And that’s why I cannot let it go.