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30×30: Lesson 9: Dreams deferred

1980

Our Farmhouse, 1980?

Growing up, I knew that my mother didn’t like three things: Brussels sprouts, centipedes in the downstairs bathtub, and our farmhouse. The first I couldn’t judge (I didn’t taste them until after I was twenty); the second made perfect sense; but the third I didn’t understand, for the house seemed just fine to me.

Build in 1855, our farmhouse was sturdy with tall ceilings, standing proudly on a gentle hill rimmed in by cornfields. As a child, I loved our wide green lawn with the mint tea that grew wild by the road and the pasture behind the wagon shed that rolled on as endlessly as a prairie.

But whenever I asked my mom if I could have friends over, she would sigh before saying yes. Maybe it was the ketchup-red paint that covered the farmhouse’s exterior brick. Maybe it was the cracked concrete sidewalk that ran along the front of the house and down to the road. Our hall entryway was lined with carpet the color of mold, and the plastic blinds in my bedroom sucked in and out with the winter wind, but I did not feel that any of this mattered. (A sleepover was a sleepover.)

I was maybe ten when the paint came off. A handful of years later, green shutters appeared on either side of the first floor windows. Slowly, there was a new garage, a new porch, and some landscaping, for I remember the blueprints. I was in grad school when my parents ordered kitchen cabinetry off of Craigslist, and suddenly — the day my mom called me to blurt out how, after 36 years of living in our farmhouse, she finally enjoyed cooking — I began to see.

What happens to a dream deferred? opens the famous poem by Langston Hughes. His point is that endlessly-postponed fulfillment (due to racism, in his case), doesn’t — and won’t ever — disappear. Sometimes I too find myself standing with my eyes fixed on the horizon, wondering when I’ll see glimpses of the dreams I’ve delayed, but in the case of my parents’ farmhouse and their wait for a home to be proud of, there was growth. And there was patience. And there is now joy.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

2014

Our Farmhouse, 2014

 

30×30: Lesson 30: Conclusion: Always keep learning

The illusion of these blog posts is their finality. Here, as in all areas of my life, if I am capable of writing a problem down, it already feels halfway concluded. When numbered, written, and entitled, each lesson on this blog seems to indicate that it is a problem that has already been fixed.

The final lesson to this series is that this is not the case.

When I was a teenager, I thought I would know (most) everything I needed to know by the time that I left college. (I also thought I would stop needing to write because there’d be nothing left to figure out.) Not so.

Instead, the questions I’ve had about life have multiplied, flowered out. Some aspects of my life have become a lot more clear, but other areas of my life have simply become more humbling. I love academia because it reminds me daily to not settle into familiar paths (Lesson 10): there are so many more places to travel (Lesson 25), so many more books to read, so many more languages to learn. I cannot get through a day in grad school without being inspired by people, globally and locally (Lesson 26); when I teach, I am reminded daily that I’m only as old as I believe I am (Lesson 22).

I was disappointed this summer in Nantes because I thought that, after fifteen years of studying French, I would probably stop feeling occasionally out of place due to my language (wrong). But my French, like everything written here, are works in progress.

The reoccurring themes about control — learning to let go (Lesson 1), learning to wait (Lesson 9) — reveal my weakness for wanting to know the end of the story when in reality it is I who will write it. It’s taken me an incredibly long time to find myself — my voice (Lesson 8), my path (Lesson 7), and my self confidence (Lesson 28) — and I sense that this process has only just started. Breaking down barriers and blurring categories (Lesson 24) brings me incredible freedom (on the days that I can remember to think this way). And above all, the loyalty and love of my family and friends — and even strangers — are gifts that carry me forward, gifts that I desire to pass on.

But this is just the beginning.

What is life, in the end, other than a series of endlessly-moving destinations?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 25: The world is big, and life is long

From the airplane, 2014

Leaving Pennsylvania, 2014

Every time I climb into a plane to leave Europe, I’m filled not with regret but with longing. I was abroad last summer for seven weeks, but I did not manage to see my friend Abdel in Metz nor my former roommate Tobias who just had a baby. I had tried to go to Morocco to see my friend Jen but didn’t make it — too expensive, not enough time. I’ve never seen Rome, never been to Spain, never made it to Berlin. I just backed out on an opportunity to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro (again, finances, time) despite my extremely strong belief in the importance of spending time in a place that’s neither Western nor developed.

When I first began to travel, I was told, “Life is short. Go now, or else you never will.” On some level, this is true. Traveling is aided by the certain freedom that comes from not having a mortgage or a typical job, by the open mentality that is most often cultivated when the soil of your day is never packed and firm. One never knows, either, at what point his access to travel will close, or if/when his body will fail.

But as I kissed my teary-eyed host mom goodbye in Nantes, when I think about the book that I want to write, when I imagine owning a piano in a house in which I live for more than two weeks at a time, I have to believe that life is also long. This is not an excuse to endlessly defer dreams but simply to admit that no one can have it all — at least, not at the same time.

Believing that life is long requires a different type of openness than does taking the plunge. A belief that life is long is a subdued pressing-back against time, a stubborn belief that many things remain possible if you don’t stand in your own way, a gracious placement of faith beyond yourself.

Believing that life is long is a patient bravery that discerns between which choices are not in your power — as well as which choices are.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 22: Age of the heart

Loire Valley, France, 2014

Château de Chenonceau, France, 2014

A long time ago I vowed never to be someone who would wince when asked how old she was. When I was younger, I often asked people their age out of pure curiosity, and I found it troubling when I hit a nerve. Maybe because I didn’t like to feel guilty for a question that I had so innocently posed. Maybe because I didn’t like seeing people cringe about a detail that didn’t matter to me.

As I’ve grown older, I have lied about my age — once. I was barely 23 and teaching in Talange, France, for students with a range of ages that could have matched mine. On the first day of class, terrified, I told them in English that I was 54, which turned out to be a great lesson about numbers.

But in general, why be ashamed of what you’ve earned?

On some levels, it’s not that simple, but on other levels, it is.

*

“Quel âge avez-vous?” How old are you?

The question had sprung up as I plunged into an introduction dialogue with my French 2 students at the University of Pittsburgh. Despite my resolutions, I had to will myself not to hesitate.

“J’ai vingt-neuf ans,” I responded: I’m twenty-nine. I smiled, but the dialogue continued in my mind: I’m, like, a decade older than you. Please don’t reject me.

An advanced student named Haby (age 19) burst out laughing. “Ah bon?” she said. “You can’t at all tell.

I grinned nervously and gave her a high-five. “Merci?” I answered.

What it is that makes age a shaming tool in our culture? It’s got to be just more than fine lines and going gray. For the younger generation, is aging a negative process due to the belief that added years force you to no longer be interesting, creative, engaging, and fun? For the aging generation, is age painful when you look in the mirror and think about all the opportunities you have lost? Is my own hopefulness about turning 30 just blind optimism that all I still wish for will be able to happen?

I like to think of age as a muscle. As long as I am still willing to climb trees at sunset by the Susquehanna River when my siblings Andrea and Jordan kidnap me from my apartment in Harrisburg (true story), I will be able to climb trees (until my hips fall off). As long as I am still willing to listen to hear out my students about the joys and concerns that are unique to them, I will still be able to connect to them.

And equally — as long as I am still able to laugh with those both older and younger than me and to find common ground among us; as long as I refuse to take myself too seriously; as long as my life decisions are made sincerely enough that I don’t regret them; as long as I am still willing to take the risks to maybe gain the reward — I think I will be able to remain the best version of myself.

Or at least, I plan to try.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

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