“I slept, and dreamed that Life was Beauty; 1
I woke, and found that life was Duty.
Was my dream, then, a shadowy lie?
Toil on, sad heart, courageously,-
And thou shalt find thy dream shall be
A noon-day light and truth to thee.”
~ James Freeman Clarke, Self Culture.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about regathering, and the term implies that of spirit, strength, and wit. And there is more to this necessity than constructively responding to societal currents. The need to personally recalibrate reaches to and through the core of being. Deep in the protracted trenches of seeking and weighing opportunities, I’ve arrived at yet another costly pause. The proximate past has been spent on mere sustenance far more than on creative productivity. Solvency tamps down sentimentality, and suddenly taste buds become dulled. When old, long-bolstered sentiments and ambitions lose their fortifications, they enter the crosshairs of questioning. I’d worked through graduate school to begin a second career, while watching my first one dissolve. I can identify the symptoms, and have been seeing them again. The labyrinth has so many barricades and blind alleys. Are there too many to be realistically hopeful? The days descend into winter darkness, and it’s time to find new dreams. New dreams and aspirations, to replace what now look like outdated notions, are not materializing fast enough.
Alas, as with all too many matters of personal urgency, needs are delayed, time is passing, and grace looks deferred once again. There are too many rehearsals and not enough performances. It is as though invisible root networks below ground exponentially outpace humble shoots that may see light of day. “What’s the new dream?”- has become something of an obsession. The sentence appears daily in my journal entries. The idea visits conversations I have with close friends- especially those I trust for advice. This gives me a chance to listen to how others navigate their own scrapyards. Nobody really has an answer for me, but I don’t expect more than good exchanges of ideas and stories. Indeed, I’d love a crisp and unambiguous directive. It would surely save time.
And taking time into account intensifies the unrest. The passage of time tells us there really is no sitting still: treading water is like falling backwards, and both are inferior to progressing ahead. During a recent lunch hour, an elder friend of many years told me, “I know it’s painful to stay put, but you’re wise in doing so.” Of course, the next step must be an upward step, but will that happen, and how much longer the wait? Patience is an honorable trait, yet by definition it means unhurried. The line dividing patience and impatience is wavering and not always defined. Imaginably, one could impatiently want to know the limits of patience. The popular idea of “buying time” smacks of something more like a costly rental. My thoughts turn to recalling times when patience has benefitted, and times when rashness piled on to existing setbacks. Lengthened journeys provide troves of anecdotes.
As with writing and reading, mulling and musing can only happen between obligations. Daily slices of time- early mornings, late nights, and lunch breaks- provide chances to reflect and make notes for me to subsequently stitch together. Quite like cooking a rich soup, thoughts are as spices and morsels added and changed over a span of time- not all at once. Soups and stews are best when they simmer, rather than rapidly boil. With time, the tastes of the different ingredients affect each other, and the whole mixture develops a texture. The depths of contemplation simmer, rather than flash in pans. While intensely impatient to see improvement and achievement, it is taking additional effort to stir and simmer all the ingredients. They have been seasoning for a very long time. Perhaps it is that new dreams cannot instantly manifest by just adding hot water. Watching for pots to boil is the opposite of simmering.
With any dilemma, great or small, the light of experience is among the first navigational tools to reach for. At my intersection with How Shall I Do This, there’s a tattered road atlas called What Worked Before. A creased, stained artifact, but still somewhat useful. My sense of direction becomes more vital, and I can effectively improvise. But I know not to stand still and wait for boiling water; it serves me better to keep going. Observations are simmering and there are opportunities for helpful distractions. Long walks and road trips allow for some reflective solitude, and certainly writing outdoors as well. As with listening to friends, I’m able to see more of the breadth of this world. Travelling provides some freedom both to confront and deflect the unknown.
Recently, within the space of two weeks, I made two road trips- the first for a professional conference at which I lectured, and the second was a 2200-mile Thanksgiving round-trip to and from the Midwest. The shorter trip had the melancholia of closed ends, but when I drove a stretch of 1100 miles only five days later, I did so with the eagerness of seeing loved ones. Although being en route to a specific location demands exact turns at crossroads and certain lanes at interchanges, there are tastes and views that rise above the quotidian labyrinth. The open road provides thought-provoking adventures. Changes of scenery, weather, and sound to add spice to that simmering soup. This may also be true for others. While refueling my vehicle in a faraway state, a man asked me, “Are you really from Maine? I used to know someone from there.” At a diner, a waitress asked me where my accent is from. Evidently, I am part of that change of scenery and sound, too. The road is also an interior adventure, and while reconciling with detours and delays, reminders surface about past dreams that fell by the wayside. Looking across the windshield, What’s the new dream? It simmers yet, and there are immediate urgencies such as keeping an alert eye on the road.
The urgency for a new dream coincides with obsolescence of the outmoded. Old, long-held hopes are not necessarily “bad.” Ambitions can be time-honored; they can be sculpted out of otherwise useless heaps. But, on the other hand, releasing expired aspirations is an unburdening action. Even after many years of hard work and investment, the way forward implies cutting losses. It makes for a raw liminality: the process of shedding invalid notions is one that runs parallel to testing spirits and discerning new dreams. Paring down, building up, and simmering something fresh amounts to a reformation. For me, it must take shape in midstream- without the luxury of stopping. Prayer on the go. Highways with a commuter mug and finger food. Beneath the rapid paces is that imposed simmer. It can’t be microwaved. How infuriating. Still more mystifying are my ungranted, relentless petitionary prayers. I’m reminded how the transit of letters to me have nothing to do with how often I look in my mailbox. Such things, alas, have their own simmered timing. I’m left simply to hold course and redeem the time.
Awareness of my unsuccess is counteracted by taking stock of the good that is in my midst and that which I create. Fortune may yet tilt in my favor, and the response will be that of the immense gratitude of a lifetime’s worth of honest effort. There still seems to be time. Well, there will have to be, and while held off by simmering, my end of the bargain is constructive productivity. An admirable mind, named Charles Henry Brent, once expounded upon the words of Zechariah the Prophet who said, “Turn ye to the strongholds, ye prisoners of hope.” To this, Brent observed, “You can win your humanity only by finding your highest opportunity in your more evil days. We are prisoners of hope.” With faith comes strength, and from there follows longing. In this context, longing refers to a fuelled aspiration that drives and strives and pushes ahead for a better life. Longings have goals, as well as sources; discerning new dreams implies evaluating both. Indeed, there are expectations, and that’s a risk in itself. Perhaps this is a test of undefined extremity. But even now, rather than grouse about dashed dreams and enumerating the graphic details, my thoughts must point toward new ambitions. The simmer of the dark ages has got to boil over into renaissance. For the moment, the taste of the new has yet to manifest. It’s still simmering.