I remember the exact moment I gave up on my dream. It was cold and I was wearing an old hoodie I had left at a friend’s house the spring prior. It was May when I abandoned it, nearly December when it was remembered and retrieved. I hadn’t been back to Albuquerque since then and as such, this was the first I had seen of it in nearly six months. To say I’ve become skilled in the art of only returning home biannually would be an understatement. Even so, it generally took a lot to keep me home for more than two weeks. In May I stayed only six days despite having another week before I had to be back to work in San Diego. I was good at leaving and even better at staying gone.
This time however, my return was a bit more indefinite. It was two days before Thanksgiving and with my dream quickly escaping, I was stuck staring at my reflection as it bounced off the screen of my laptop near the door of a local coffee shop.
I always sat near the door. It was half subconscious and half because I had seen an episode of Seinfeld once where George pushed his way through women and children after a fire broke out at a birthday party. Everyone called him a coward and rightly so. I would hold the door open if that ever happened, I decided — joking and serious at the same time. After that, sitting by the door seemed natural.
I glanced up from my combined self-indulgent and self-deprecating gaze as a rush of bitter wind came in directly behind a somewhat attractive young woman. She’s cute, I thought as she made her way past me. But she lives in Albuquerque, I silently rebutted as if to squash romance before it could blossom. I brushed her off and pulled my hoodie closer around my neck. The drawstring was missing so I couldn’t tighten it as snug as I would like. I never kept the drawstrings. One wrong pull and they became forever uneven; a trait I despised. Perhaps it was telling of my constant search for balance in life, but mostly it was because it looked tacky.
As the wind faded, I looked back down at my computer. The screen had gone black from lack of use, and my face shown brightly against it. I tapped the mouse gently and awoke the over-priced status symbol from its slumber. Staring back at me was another rejection email from a job that I had hoped would be the one to fill the void of whatever was missing in my life. They dug wells in Africa and I had applied to join their writing team. Wanting to stand out, I strayed from the traditional cover letter route and created a 90-second video resume — complete with the organization’s signature font and color scheme, and several highly-emotional shots of the their beneficiaries pumping water somewhere far away in a village whose name I couldn’t correctly pronounce. My valiant attempt didn’t work. “We regret to inform you that we have selected another candidate.” I mouthed the words silently, but apparently my lips met and separated loudly enough that the older woman at the table next to me noticed. She looked me up and down and glanced at my screen, before returning her line of sight to my smacking, wordless lips. She cleared her throat and then her table and left. I rolled one eye at her and one at the email.
I had three goals and one dream leading up to that day. The goals, in order of necessity were; 1) Become the first of my siblings to graduate college. 2) Attain a Master’s degree in Journalism from a top tier graduate program. 3) Write for The New York Times. My dream was the best-case sum of these goals; win a Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps I would be the youngest to do so, perhaps not. But either way, I would achieve my ultimate goal of breaking the cycle of poverty that my family has been trapped in for countless generations, while simultaneously telling stories that matter. But alas, my dream was fading nearly as fast as the steam from the lukewarm cup of coffee in front of me.
I moved back to Albuquerque a week before I gave up on my dream. Before that I had lived and worked in San Diego, writing for a nonprofit that received a substantial amount of backlash for a video they uploaded to YouTube in 2012. I had been there for nearly a year and half, living in community, loving the work I was doing and the impact it was making. Despite the criticism the organization had received (99% of which was unwarranted) I knew that what they were doing mattered, even if it didn’t matter to the academics and media types from the generation before mine. The same generation that saw us as lazy, entitled, and narcissistic. Yet, during my time with this organization I saw over a hundred men, women, and children rescued from the throngs of captivity, war, and violence. That in itself, was what mattered. Not YouTube views, or naked meltdowns, or right-wing conservatives calling it a misuse of American troops, or left-wing liberals calling it slacktivism.
My contract expired a month before I sat near the door of that coffee shop. It wasn’t extended. I knew it was coming and in an attempt to avoid unemployment, I began job searching. By my eighth week of endless autofills and redundant cover letters, I was unemployed and discouraged. But hey, at least the well-digging, well-intentioned Americans from a trendy neighborhood in New York City responded to me. Most of the others never bothered to reply. I let the screen dim and go black again.
There are certain things that happen in swift succession when one gives up on their dream. First comes a feeling of emptiness in your gut. It starts slowly and then builds to full crescendo just before moving into your heart. There, it sits and pounds louder than your life source, almost overpowering it. You can’t breath and because you can’t breath you can’t think. As this is happening you begin to shiver. You are cold and you don’t know why. And even though you’re shivering, you are also perspiring. Cold sweat drips heavily down your temples and you feel like every pair of eyes in the room is on you and suddenly you’re glad you’re sitting by the door. But as much as you want to get up and leave, you can’t. You are frozen in place, shivering and sweating, your chest pounding and mind fogging. So you close your eyes and take several deep breathes. But that doesn’t help. Nothing helps and so you wait. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. It feels like an eternity, but when you open them you realize that only a few seconds have passed and no one is staring at you. It is in that moment, your dream, which was replaced with anxiety, is now replaced with apathy. Suddenly and unexplainably you don’t care. You begin to justify your current situation and find comfort in its monotony. Working in a kitchen wouldn’t be so bad, at least it would pay the bills. Your breathing returns to normal as you accept the quietness of life. Albuquerque can’t be as terrible as I think it is, more than half a million people live here. The pounding ceases, the fog clears, and as quickly as it came it is gone. Your dream vanishes somewhere beyond you and you forget you ever had it to begin with.
Logic would state that we were never meant to remember our dreams. It’s the reason we wake in the morning and forget what our minds told us as we slept. Because we don’t dream in wake, we consume. It’s the closest thing to dreaming we can create and manipulate. I gave up on my dream two days before Thanksgiving and replaced it with monotony and mindless consumption — a hibernation of sorts. I stopped looking for dream jobs and started looking for practical jobs. I began working in a bakery, waking up at ungodly hours because it was given to me and because I didn’t feel like fighting for something better. On average, I slept less than five hours a night, and as a result I dreamed less. And for a while I was okay with that.
My parents were okay with not dreaming their entire lives. At least that’s my assumption. Maybe they hated monotony as much as I do, but let it go on so long that they forgot they ever dreamed at all. I had this realization and it terrified me. They were more than twice my age and no closer to achieving what I would define as success. It could happen to anyone. You wake up at 4:30 every morning to work a job you hate for six months and before you realize it those six months turn into six years. Maybe after that you get a new job but your mentality and sense of self-worth stay the same. Six years turn into thirty and suddenly you’re sitting where your parents sat, hoping your children don’t make the same mistakes you did. This is the true cycle of poverty. It’s the stripping of dreams for the padding of complacency. Why fight to live when you can simply live to exist? It’s easier that way — but it’s not better that way.
Thankfully, my dream came back to me. In a moment of clarity, it occurred to me that maybe we do remember dreams after all. Not all of them, but we remember the ones that matter, the ones that infect us like a virus, the ones that refuse to let go. And when we fight to remember the dreams that are important to us, we empower others to do the same. I realized that if I spent as much time on my dreams as I did on Netflix or Facebook, I could stop entertaining the idea of a life well lived and begin actually living one. As winter gave way to spring I turned my aching into action and moved back to San Diego. Back to the community that changed me and the sea that gave me life — something the desert could never provide. I’m choosing to chase after my dreams with the belief that I’m worth more than the sum of my mistakes, and the hope that maybe, just maybe, dreams become reality if we refuse let them go.