Pick yourself a road. Get to know the countryside. Soon enough you’re merrily, merrily practicing dreams.
I’m sitting in Oak Park, IL in an artistic haze, with Jessie across from me eating a muffin she was given for free. This day feels out of time, like a whole different life could grow out of this day if I let it, all the while knowing it won’t. Isaiah is far away, across the ocean (in Rwanda of all places, which is a whole story in itself), so I am alone in a way that makes me pay more attention to myself differently than I am used to. I feel exposed, vulnerable, like my skin has been peeled away and I’m supposed to account for how pink I am, how raw, how soft.
When was the moment?
Last night, Jessie, Margaret and I saw Merrily We Roll Along at a small theater in Chicago. If you don’t know about it already, it’s a musical by Stephen Sondheim, a true patron saint to both myself and Jessie, that moves backward in time through the lives of three friends. At the beginning of the play, they are in their forties, successful, sort of not friends anymore, and wildly unhappy. At the end of the play, they are eighteen or so on a rooftop with their eyes wide open and the whole world stretched out in front of them, everything just beginning. So much happens in between, so many choices made, so many feelings both expressed and not. At intermission I crumbled into a little turtle of a person, folding into myself, bent from experiencing the heartbreak of a skewed dream, friendship marred, what could happen. And also crumbled in the dreams, for the dreams, knowing what was to come at the end of the play, knowing where I am standing in myself right this second. There’s a song, the second-to-last, called “Opening Doors,” which is essentially about being a young artist with a thousand dayjobs and a ton of hope. Here are some of the lyrics:
We’re opening doors,
Singing, “Here we are!”
We’re filling up days
On a dime.
That faraway shore’s
Looking not too far.
We’re following every star.
There’s not enough time!
At intermission, I couldn’t help but remark, “What a show to see with your friends!” with a sort of wild and terrified look in my eye. And it’s true. It’s a musical that has within it the dissolution of some beautiful friendships. It is a cautionary tale, but there is much more to it than that. When you really look at it, it is an ode to youthful hope, which is really one of the only things that is nourishing us right now in these strange days of unsuccess and endless ambition. The play isn’t about the fact that things didn’t turn out well in the end, it’s about the origin, the purity of the original intent, the way that life gets in the way. It didn’t have to happen how it did, but it did nonetheless.
It doesn’t have to happen that way.
I’m not intending to be successful and deeply unhappy in my forties. I’m not intending or expecting for my life to bear a resemblance to Merrily We Roll Along, and that’s not why it’s affecting me so much. For the whole play, I was bracing myself for the hope part, the way the musical ends and the story starts, hearing it echoed lyrically and musically throughout the meandering way to there, waiting for it, craving it. The last song of the musical, where the lyrics are quite literally, “Feel the flow, / Hear what’s happening: / We’re what’s happening. / Don’t you know? / We’re the movers and we’re the shapers. / We’re the names in tomorrow’s papers. / Up to us, man, to show ’em ?
It’s our time.” It’s hope, clear and true, and that’s where I’m stuck. I’m stuck in the hope part. I’ve been stuck in the hope part for SO LONG, and in some ways it feels like I’m almost about to step out of it, like things may start to happen for me, like success may start rolling my way, and then where will I be? Where will I be when there’s less to hope for and more to do? I’ve been stuck in “Opening Doors” for, it feels, forever, but what will I do when the next thing happens? What will I do when the song changes?
Right now, I’m back in a city that was my home for six years up until a mere six months ago, so it feels like an optimal or even necessary moment for reflection. Things are hinging. In May, I’m moving away, far away, in a more permanent way than any other move has felt. I’m starting to make choices with my work that feel like actual “career choices” whatever that means. I think more clearly now. I have a point-of-view, things to say. My “yeses and no’s” fly out of me more easily than they ever have before. I hope I am growing into the sort of person I hoped I’d be when I was eighteen, the sort of person I promised my friends I’d be. I’m growing up, that’s what’s happening. And I want, somehow, to hold onto the hope, to keep living there even when there’s a lot piled on top of it.
Despite the hinging, I still feel a little like a broken record. I am a broken record. The thing is that things don’t change as quickly as you expect them to, even when they’re changing all the time. Your brain gets stuck, caught in a groove. As much as things are changing, or seem to be changing, I’ve also been in the same phase for a while, a long time, sometimes feeling on fire with nowhere for the fire to spread, sometimes feeling stuck in the ice. Moving endlessly forward while also feeling utterly stuck in the mud, waxing and waning, the paradox of this season. You start to feel like maybe nothing will ever change. You start to feel like maybe you’re crazy, you were crazy to dream and hope and think of what could be. You consider quieting down. You question all that you thought might happen.
But then you’re sitting in a theater in Chicago watching a musical written by a genius about the very problem you’re trying to work out, the very dreams you hold in your gut, the way it feels to be eighteen or twenty or twenty-four on a rooftop or in a crummy apartment or in the woods or in a small carpeted room with windows in the west suburbs talking about what you will do, what you must do, quite literally dreaming. Someone is standing in front of you singing, singing! “It’s our time.” And your eyes are full of tears and you have to keep yourself from standing up and singing too, and you know that there is truth in the room, the gigantic presence of it, the way it makes your chest tight and your heart so full it might pop. You sit in that room knowing you have to grow up, knowing you will do things, great things, that some of the things you hope may come to pass, knowing that things will change, friends will change, I will change, our dreams will change, and it may not always be so pretty, but maybe it also will. The possibilities, endless, with the work as the only real thing. But for now, you’re just in a room where someone is singing. For now, you get to be back on the rooftop.
In the room where we met to practice life and theater in college, “Setzuan”, we called it, there was a plaque on the wall with lyrics from the last song in Merrily We Roll Along. “This is where we began being what we can.” That is what it said, and that was all I could think of during the curtain call last night, when the singing had stopped. That room, my own rooftop, the place where I got to dream with other people, the way those dreams have been carried with us down the road a little way. No matter what happens, no matter what success or unsuccess comes to me and my friends, I will always be thankful to have been in that room, to have dreams that don’t just leave me alone within myself. Things will not always be wonderful. I know this. I know that life is endlessly complicated, that hope in its pure-ness is not all. I know that growing up is what is happening and what must happen, and I am okay with all of this. No matter what is to come, I know where I’ve been and I know that I’ve been hopeful for a long, long time, and that is something to sing about.