May 2, 2014
10:00 am European Time
Butterflies tumbled over each other in her stomach, racing to get out of the plane as it landed, unsure of what to expect but anxious to arrive nevertheless. All the sounds hit her at once, swirling streams of French flowing about her head like a swarm of gnats, dodging smells of croissants, sweat and coffee, each new sensation swallowing her whole, and suddenly she felt like she was drowning or floating, she couldn’t tell which. Bumping into and off of travelers like one in a thousand inside a pinball machine, the weight of her backpack controlling her movements, swaying her into and away from those she passed. Heart racing and hands sweating, she raced to the closest bathroom, dropped her bag and sat on the covered toilet. Head in hands and two deep breaths, she let herself accept what she had just done. She had left. Escaped. She was alone. This was happening. A woman knocked on the bathroom door but she didn’t answer, she just let the stranger keep fumbling with the locked door. One more moment of peace before she entered the chaos and the unknown. Breathe. 1,2,3 … she was gone.
There are a thousand moments in life whizzing by you, missed opportunities, mistakes, chances … they fly past you at the speed of light like a galaxy of unrecognized stars, blurring into background noise. One can grasp them, take hold and take flight, or ignore them all together. Some are monumental and some insignificant, but moments all the same, choices to be taken or passed up. But some moments change the course of a life. Some stars, previously seeming so far from reach, are only caught with a massive leap, without knowing for certain if you’ll catch them at all, and even if you do, whether you’ll be able to hold on through the ride. Those are the chances that most of the world passes by, the stars too fast, too bright, too high and too far to grab hold of. Most of the people stop recognizing them all together. But those are the stars that can change everything. And this was one of those moments.
Something happened with mankind between the time civilians built pyramids and towers to reach the gods in the sky, and the place where they unknowingly put a ceiling in that sky, masked as the “American Dream,” a way to reach the top. Somewhere between 5 and 10 years old, I realized that the “you can be anyone or anything you want to be,” motto of our culture was a scam. What they really meant was, be anything you want to be within this box that we have defined as America, reach for the stars, but wait … no, not that star … these stars, down here. Follow the sequence, fall in line, be a productive member of society, but dream big.
And by 10 years old, the facade began to crumble already, and my tiny prepubescent brain found the first holes in this lie that I had been told. By 17, the amount of reachable stars became even smaller, and by 21, they were borderline chosen for you. Here are 5 stars you can ride; here are the steps to get there. An artist? That’s interesting, but what’s your real job? How are you advancing? How will you reach the top. Art could never get you the American Dream. An actress, a musician, a writer … they got you a pat on the head and a sympathetic, patronizing smile - that’s a nice hobby, keep it up, but don’t quit your day job.
It was early on that I felt jipped, betrayed and lied to by all those encouraging adults and parents who had raised me. How dare they tell me to dream big and then box me into confines once I did? This is not what I was promised. This was not freedom. This was not the land of the free that I had been taught, where possibilities were endless. It was a billion tiny ants racing and climbing atop and smothering one another up the mountain to reach the peak first. Each of them knew there wasn’t enough room there on top for all of us. But if you “dreamt big” and “worked hard” and “played by the rules,” maybe you’d be one of the lucky few who surpassed the rest. This, is by no means, any dream at all.
I have a hard time believing our forefathers foresaw this when empty land and unchartered possibilities were vast. But there was no more room for everyone to profit, no more room for artists and dreamers who sought beyond what was put in front of them. Money. Money got you the American Dream. And what sort of dream was it anyhow? Get good grades in school, do extracurricular activities not for the joy of them, but for what they will get you in the next stage, get into an elite college, make connections, score a coveted internship, go to graduate school, get your masters, get in with a good company, hospital or firm, marry the person who comes at that precise stage where society has told you that you should be married, but make sure you’ve accomplished the aforementioned tasks beforehand, God forbid you don’t have a secure career and a comfy nest egg before you bring life into this world. Plan out the lives that you will bring in and how many according to your income, abort the lives that do not coincide with this plan or may cause it to fail. Throw yourself into your job until you’ve reached the top, and then climb higher. It doesn’t matter if you enjoy what you're doing - you’ll have time to enjoy life later- when your money and your children have grown. Retire comfortably and then seek out your heart’s desires. At this point, the sky is the limit- whatever your 70 year old bones could want. Look back on your life and know that you’ve have done well.
Something about the whole script just didn’t sit well with me. It never had but I couldn’t figure out why I seemed to be the only one who realized this flaw, this grotesque injustice, the only one who felt betrayed and lied to - told to dream as big and far as I could fathom, and then told to reign it back in with a pitying and condescending smile. And as much as I tried at times to mainstream myself into accepting it, into following the steps I was meant to take, achieve the milestones at the precise times laid out for me, tick off the boxes, complete the checklist, I just couldn’t accept that this was the “Dream,” that this is what people fled from countries across the sea to obtain. It wasn’t a dream, it was a paint-by-number staircase with footprints to follow. It wasn’t big, or bold; it wasn’t limitless or life-giving. It was calculated, planned, all lined up for you. A “How-To-Guide” to life, an all-you-can-eat buffet with 3 options, a beautiful brochure with fine print. You can have anything you want. You can do anything, be anyone. The sky is the limit. Your life is yours to create (*Please see fine print for details: You're choices range from A-Z but please choose one of the following options- A, B, or C. We are currently out of stock on D-Z.)
Now, wait a second … this is not what I signed up for. This is not what I was promised. Why didn’t anyone read me the fine print when I was 5 years old on Daddy’s knee listening to him tell me to be all that I could be. I felt crazy, like the only one who had found the holes in this blueprint. Everyone else went along, filing in two by two, ready to take the next step. And that's when I knew. I had to go. At 25, the only thing I was entirely sure of in my small life was that I would regret it forever if I did not at least find out. And the only thing I feared more than leaving itself, was never leaving at all.