Monday, January 27, 2014

What happens to a dream deferred?

An iconic opening line from an iconic poem. I appreciate poetry, admire it, maybe even envy it, because I cannot write it, and do not try. Although writing is, among infinite other things, freedom of expression, it is also sometimes a matter of finding your niche. Poetry is most assuredly not mine but it is to Hughes’ credit that his talent and ethos resonates even with non-aficionados such as myself.

And resonate it does. In 7th-grade I was blessed to have the most amazing English teacher. She was—and is—a very successful poet, and her gentle nature belied her infectious passion for all things literary. Hopefully each of us has had at least one of those transcendent mentors in our lives—the kind of person that helps us feel transcendent ourselves, helps us find and believe in the best of us, helps us find and believe in and pursue our dreams. I was indeed fortunate enough to have a few of those type of educators, but Marjorie Stelmach was the one for me,  the one who helped stir the embers of literary passion and ability which she sensed smoldered inside me. You knew she loved good writing and good reading and she understood it, was good at it, and helped her students love it too. And she did what the very best teachers, or even parents do when their student or child displays a talent or passion for something--she pointed it out, encouraged it, reinforced it, challenged it, and supported it, supported you. Three decades later I remember getting back some of the writing I had submitted to her, which unfortunately had been riddled with a lazy litany of “he then,” “she then,” and “they then,” phrases. “You are,” my favorite teacher wrote in the margins, “far too good a writer for that.”

When I was six years old my father asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. “Batter,” was my immediate and unequivocal reply. (Not “baseball player”—batter—because I loved hitting, though I must proffer the caveat here and now that I loathe the designated hitter and am inordinately distressed at its apparent inevitable arrival in the National League.)  By 7th-grade, even though I was a pretty good ballplayer, I had begun to realize the unlikelihood of a major league career. But I was starting to discover I had a bit of a knack for this writing thing, and when Mrs. Stelmach told me she expected to see my name on book covers one day, I wondered if I just might be able to go pro with this other passion of mine.

And now, if you’ll indulge me, let’s fast-forward oh, say, thirty years. For the better part of each of them, that dream rattled around within me, myriad story ideas rattling around along with it. I began some, got fairly far with a few, less so with others. (Around twenty years ago when I taught pre-kindergarten children I wrote a few stories and read them to the kiddos. I was flattered when one of the moms told me she had gone to the bookstore and asked if they had one of the stories—it was called Ishkabibil Likes to Dribble—alas, I had not endeavored to get it published. And that kind of writing was not, I knew, my ultimate calling, though I am reminded here of that Steven Wright quip—“I’ve written several children’s books, but not on purpose.”) But I guess the main story lining those three decades was that life basically happened. And that of course is a good thing, though certainly not proffered as an excuse for not exhibiting the discipline to pursue my dream. Other dreams happened. I got married, had children, devoted my career to working with kids, which was a passion of mine too. But about a year ago I looked up one Marjorie Stelmach and she remembered me and was kind enough to meet me for coffee. She was every bit as I’d remembered--wonderful, kind, brilliant. She was publishing her fourth volume of poetry, I believe, and seemed very pleased about my chosen field, but also that I had retained my love of the written word (and this was typical Stelmach—I went to that coffee mildly embarrassed I had not more actively pursued my writing, but left feeling only encouraged).She let me send her some samples of my work, and her feedback was, of course, prescient, simultaneously challenging and encouraging, absolutely spot-on and invaluable. I am fortunate—as every writer needs to be—to have some wonderful and incisive friends and readers who offer indispensable feedback, but the chapter’s worth of line-editing from my 7th-grade teacher is a stand-alone sage treasure to which I frequently return for inspiration and wisdom.
For my dream, after all, has been deferred, not lost. Life continues to happen and I am at long-last weaving my dream into that life, taking the steps to transform dream into reality. Sometimes the steps come in exhilarating leaps and bounds; other times they are more sluggish, sometimes maddeningly so, but I am finding more and more that there is magic even in these gritty, frustrating moments. In his excellent book on writing (called, On Writing) Stephen King said, “Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art.” And if you are a writer, you know he’s right. And life is happening and some of the pieces are starting to enjoin and it’s a beautiful thing. As I write this I sit across from my eight-year-old daughter Rachel at the bookstore, as we spend the afternoon reading and writing together. (Ask her what she most enjoys writing—fiction, perhaps?—and she will tell you, “No, at this point I am more into personal narrative.”) Her passion has flared earlier than did mine, and it is my hope that I may properly encourage her as others did me—support, but not push her. Francois Rabelais said, “A child is not a vase to be filled, but a fire to be lit.” Indeed. May we kindle those fires within the ones we love, and within ourselves, no matter where our particular passions may reside. I still intend to validate your faith in me, Mrs. Stelmach, three decades later or not. You are the poet, but I dare say my dream deferred is evolving to one now lived..