I recently asked my grandchildren, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Walker, 8, said, “An engineer.”
I said, “Great. Engineers use a lot of math and you’re good at math.”
He brushed his chin, “Hmm. I’m good at math, but I don’t like math. I’ll have to think of something else.”
Walker’s twin Taylor is, in his words, “skinny as a piece of paper but really tough.” He answered, “Navy Seal.”
Given his skinniness. I said, “A Seal? Wow.”
He wiggled a little. “Well, maybe not Seal. But Navy for sure. If that doesn’t work, a veterinarian. I can do lots of things.”
Lawson, 6, said, “I’m the best artist in my class. I want to be an artist. Not a mom and an artist. Being a mom is too complicated. Just an artist.”
Brooke, 3, bounced over to me, leaned in to my ear, raised her eyebrows and whispered, “A princess or a butterfly.”
Early in life all possibilities exist, even becoming butterflies. Then something happens.
My fifth-grade piano teacher taps me on the shoulder, after five years of lessons, and tsk-tsks that I have no musical talent. My high school coach, with the whole team outside the locker room, says I’m too short and fat to play basketball. My doubles tennis partner yells that I’ll never win if I can’t anticipate the ball. My college counselor warns, “you’ll never get into that school.”
Something happens. Oh, we change our minds, for sure. If not Seal, maybe Navy or veterinarian. But I wonder about the impact of “you can’t, no don’t, you shouldn’t, it’ll never happen.”
I wonder if we ever forget the naysayers or if we install them in our heads and repeat their messages until we believe them. Maybe we rehearse and learn those lines, then act on them as truth. These voices press us down, de-press us. We lose ourselves or distance ourselves from our gifts, once we know those gifts for real, after we outgrow princess and butterfly. Unlike Walker, one of my narratives is, “I can’t do math,” ever since Algebra II.
How do we recover, uncover, discover ourselves? How do we return to “I’m good at math. I can do lots of things. I’m the best artist in my class?”
Cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien poses an answer: “In many shamanic societies, if you came to a shaman or medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask you one of four questions: When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence? … Dancing, singing, storytelling, and silence are the four universal healing salves.”
At 6 a.m, after a “bad dream,” Lawson sneaks into my bedroom and proposes that she, her siblings and I sit in a circle and tell our dreams.
As adults and as a New Year’s Resolution, let’s do that. Let’s sit together and tell the stories of our nocturnal dreams, light-filled or nightmarish, and then share our dreams for living our wide-awake lives. Why? Because, as Mary Oliver asks in her poem, “The Summer Day,” “Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?”
Then the poet challenges us to step into who we want to be when we grow up, or in 2019: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”