26. (I’m Still a Dreamer)

I had a conversation on a plane last week with a woman who lamented, “I just feel like I haven’t accomplished anything and I’m 65 years old.” This woman, mind you, runs her own business, volunteers with her Church, has raised 3 daughters, is active in the lives of her grandkids, and has poured out her painful experience of divorce to support other friends who’ve walked the same crestfallen lines.

“I thought I’d be married by now,” I heard another friend say.

“I thought I would have been more successful at this point in my life.”

“I thought I would have accomplished more by now.”

Do you hear voices you know in those sentiments? Have you ever felt that way?

I turned 26 a few weeks ago. From the get go, I knew it would be a hard number for me. Throughout college, I talked non-stop of serving in the Peace Corps in Africa post-college and then attending grad school immediately after. “I kinda know what I’m doing with the next four years, or so, at least,” I shared with a friend a few weeks out from college graduation. “I’ll spend two years overseas and then two years in grad school, and by that time, gosh, I’ll be 26!” I remember exclaiming, and wow, did 26 seem much older then.

Peace Corps was my dream. My passion. The thing that drove me to put all my energy into swimming Division 1 athletics now, because one day I would be on a plane headed off to Africa. I saw the faces of women and girls I met on a short term trip back when I was 20 in Botswana. I dreamed of meeting more of those animated smiles. I scribbled “Peace Corps” all over notebooks, especially my senior year, when I was tired of learning about people and just wanted to be out in the vast, wide open world with people. I’d dream about which country I’d get selected for. I poured over University of Denver’s Masters in International Human Rights program with vigor, glancing on their website when I should have been writing papers. Life seemed big, seemed open, seemed exciting and filled with possibilities and wonder.

Until that stopped.

It was January 20, 2010, 10 minutes before the close of business on the day before I was supposed to leave for South Africa with Peace Corps. I had knots in my throat all day and stared at the phone until 4:50 PM, pacing my room with trepidation, sadness, loss, fear, and most notably, uncertainty. My mental health had taken a downward turn. During my sophomore year of college, I developed anxiety for the first time in my life. I began to withdraw from my daily activities, including friendships, then entered in anxiety’s menace counterpart: depression. Throughout college, I attended a couple of clinical counseling sessions (but couldn’t afford to do a series of consecutive sessions that would have enabled me to really address my issues) and relied on my anxiety/depression medication and prescription sleeping pills. It was something I hoped would get better, would go away. I didn’t think it would turn into something that would take me away from the dream I’d been building.

But it did, and I made that painful phone call to say I wasn’t going to be leaving tomorrow. After receiving a few minutes of condolences and logistical instructions (“You can expect your passport to be mailed back to you in approximately 4-6 weeks”), I bawled my eyes out. My dream lie crushed, broken, smashed on the floor, like a million photographs shredded into one thousand pieces, all within a matter of a 5 minute phone call.

Now what?

First thing was to schedule an appointment to see a psychiatrist. It was the best gift I ever spent on myself. Through medication and  counseling, I began to gain new footing and spent my days writing cover letter after cover letter, wondering if anyone would even read the text over which I labored.

But sure enough, I had a job interview one long month later, and within two weeks, was hired as an HIV research assistant for a start date in April, giving me one whole month to re-focus, re-gain strength, and most importantly, breathe in the beauty of the spring air around me underneath the solace of Magnolia trees.

So many wonderful things have happened over the past four years; things I could have never foreseen at 22 when I said “no” to my Peace Corps dream. I spent 10 days in Cambodia with a women’s advocacy group. I began weekly therapy sessions, finally able to crawl out from underneath the rubble I felt like I created. I began writing and even got a few articles published. My family celebrated my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, bringing together all of my cousins who are scattered across the US.

But I knew 26 would still bring back memories of realizing that I never accomplished the life goals I had for myself at 22.

Which begs the question…

What do we do when our dreams get smashed? When your dreams are taken from you? When your dreams become trampled upon, left for dead? When that gaping whole in your heart where your dream once was pangs with emptiness and longing for the dream to return?

To find that out, I went back to water, my first love.

I headed out to a reservoir with one of my best friends on my birthday, gathering small rocks and stones scattered along the shoreline. We wrote each of our regrets, fears, worries, and uncertainties on the rocks with a sharpie. All of the things we needed to make peace with. The things we thought we would have done by now- the way it was “supposed” to turn out– and we tossed each and every one in the water. Sunk them. Skipped them. Hurled them like a shotput, letting all of the shame, disappointment, and fear of the future go with the rocks we now released into the water.

It was a holy moment.

A freeing moment.

To acknowledge crushed dreams and to affirm that my dreaming spirit never died; it just got revamped.

The thing I’m learning about dreams is that they are changeable, moldable, adaptable. They are resilient, yet flexible. True dreams offer life, not shame. They guide you but don’t harness you in. True dreams don’t immobilize. They recognize the wind and waves, and move with you, not against you. A passionate current that allows you to be washed over and over again with hope.

It’s that hope I think about when the Bible talks about “turning swords into ploughshares.” I’ve always been fascinated by the symbolism of taking something negative and turning it into something positive, useful, something better and more beautiful. I think that’s what God longs to do with dreams that never came into fruition. To take our crushed spirit and set us on a new trajectory, one that is more open, and free, and ever-passionate. One that accepts that things change, and don’t turn out the way we think they are “supposed to.” Ones that don’t feel too heavy because we can hold onto them tightly enough to put in our blood, sweat, and tears, but loosely enough to let the light in, let in air, let in matter, creativity, open-mindedness, and acceptance.

Right now, I say I want to get married sometime in my 30s and adopt a child in my 40s. But I hear a little bit of my obstinate, so-sure 22 year old self in there. I’m learning that dreams change, including timelines, and to not get so hell-bent on insisting things turn out the way I want them to right now, because who knows, that 22 year old girl who was sooo sure of the future has learned a thing or two now.

And so what about you?

It doesn’t matter if you’re 26 or 36 or 96 or too afraid or too scared.
Your dream is still there.

Oh sure, it may have changed shape since you first dreamed it up, but there’s still something tugging at your heart, calling you into life each day.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve said “no” to opportunities that you just weren’t ready for.

You still have the heart of a dreamer and that can never be taken from you.

May we have the fortitude to express our disappointment in not accomplishing what we thought we would, without shaming ourselves.

May you have eyes to see the amazing things you have done, though perhaps not your main dreams, the things that have shaped and molded you, and given meaning to your life.

May we come to understand that dreams shift, dreams change, and may our hearts be open to new directions, confident that there is something bigger going on here, things that if we were to see ahead of time, all at once, we could hardly contain ourselves in joy.

I’m 26 today…
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… and I’m still a dreamer.

                                  

   

     

          Have you ever lost a dream? What was that process like?
             How did you gain a new vision for your life?

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Here, now.

6.12.11

I was about to start a run yesterday, when I noticed the most beautiful, free-fluttering, yellow butterfly. I peered closer, lifting my leg towards my back to stretch, and pause long enough to notice the black and fellow fur, completely covering what used to be caterpillar, but now has blossomed into this spotted-winged creature.

Being still, like I was in that moment, is hard for me. I don’t know very often how to be present. It’s something that I talk about- being passionate, being fully alive, not missing your life. Maybe I should stick to following my own advice. Nevertheless, it’s something I’m working on and something God is trying to teach me, through many experiences and people.

One of them is my youth pastor, whom I met with last week, and I bought a copy of her beautiful new book, “Unhaling.” The last chapter is titled, “be here now.”

Be here now. Be here now.

The words mull over and over and swirl around my brain, as my feet take to the pebbled trail. “BUT I DON’T KNOW HOW TO BE HERE NOW!!!” I shout out to God, tears mingling with sweat. “My grant position ends in April; I have no idea where my career is going; I don’t know exactly which grad program I should go into… everything feels like it’s changing…… And why, God, WHY, for the life of me can’t I stop thinking about Africa, I trip I’ve been on nearly FOUR years ago?! And why can’t a day go by without me thinking of HIV, and images of orphans, and girls being trafficked and sold into sex slavery, and unbearable poverty. WHY ARE YOU BOTHERING ME WITH THIS STUFF, GOD!!!?” I shout indignantly as my feet hit the pavement harder.

Be here now.
Be here now.

I pick up my pace. Bikers, runners, joggers, and walkers smile at me. But I can’t smile back. My 19-year-old self would have gladly smiled at a fly, but I didn’t feel like smiling at anyone in that moment. And I feared depression has awakened from its nap and once again reared its ugly head, like a hissing snake, slithering in the darkness through a crack in an unlocked door. I quickly slam the door shut, but fear its hissing, mocking voice will come out again.

Be here now.
Be here now.

A red, red cardinal stretches its wings, moving from the path into the shaded branches of the trees.

Be here now.
Be here now.

Squirrels hang upside-down above me, tip-toeing along tree branches, exposing their white bellies.

Be here now.
Be here now.

Bono whispers, then SHOUTS through my headphones, of a journey of running, crawling, scaling these city walls… when, “DAMN IT!!” I mutter out loud. My iPod died, battery gone. Embarrassed, I pray no one has heard me, as I notice little kids with training wheels biking around me. I fear their parents are secretly glaring at me, wondering what my problem is, and successfully avoid eye contact with anyone.

Be here now.
Be here now.

Now that silence has officially overtaken my headphones, I can hear birds chattering to each other in trees along the path, like neighbors across the street catching up over gardening and trash day.

I can now hear cyclers’ dinging bike bells, warning me that they’re about to pass and I envision myself on my next triathlon. This one will be a half ironman and I visualize myself swimming, biking, and running my way through those 70.3 miles.

Be here now.
Be here now.

I watch as a young girl feels the peddling sensation of her knees going up, down, up, down, her dad smiling behind her, as she tries to bike without training wheels for the first time. They’re smiling and laughing and he is not letting go.

Be here now.
Be here now.

My feet hit the pavement harder. I look ahead. About 20 feet in front of me to my left is a deer trotting merrily along the path. “Bambi?” I think out loud, as it leaps over the grass down to the water for a cool drink.

Be here now.
Be here now.

My feet are moving faster now and my tears have stopped and sweat is pouring down my face.

Be here now.
Be here now.

My finish line is getting closer. My chest is pounding. My toenail, bruised and falling off, screams at me.

Be here now.
Be here now.

I lengthen my stride, pumping my arms as swiftly as I can and cross my finish line. Overcome with a mix of sheer exhaustion and endorphins, I pause to catch my breath. I look up to the sky and feel sunlight touch my face, knowing, deep in my heart, that I have just spent the past seven miles with my wonderful Father in Heaven. My spirit, enmeshed with His, in an intimate holy embrace.

Be here now.
Be here now.

I stretch my hands out to my Maker, and, for the first time, I smile.

“You are here now,” says God. “You are my child.

And,

I

LOVE

YOU.”

And I walk to the car, heart rate now steady, smiling, here now.