When I was in the 8th grade, I saw Dead Poets’ Society for the first time, and I felt like I knew who I was supposed to be. I felt completely validated. I had been right all along about the power and importance of books and plays and poetry and following your dreams. I already had friends who wanted to become pharmacists or dentists, because they said that those jobs made a lot of money. I couldn’t comprehend that viewpoint at all. What was the point of living if you couldn’t follow your dream?
Carpe diem hangs over my head every second of every day. I did follow my dreams, I think. I let some ill-advised romantic side quests steer me off course for a while, but I found myself back to the place that I very literally wanted to arrive at as a 13-year-old. It was on an 8th grade field trip that I first stepped inside the building where I now work as a full-time employee. As an artist. I made it. I MADE IT.
When do I start feeling like I’ve made it?
I’m an actor. I’ve played famous roles at a professional theatre in a large city. That’s super cool. 13-year-old me would have thought that was super cool. But I’ve only worked at just the one theatre, I tell myself. No one else wants me. I’ve never tried to submit to an agency, because I know that they would tell me “no,” and I don’t want to hear it. 28-year-old me says that I’m not doing enough. I’m not hustling enough. I’m not trying hard enough.
I’m a writer. I have an essay that was published in a book. I’ve performed in really wonderful live lit shows in my city. I have this blog that sometimes gets read by people who I don’t even know in real life! That’s also super cool. 13-year-old me who wrote poems about grass and boys from summer camp would have thought that was super cool. But I only have 27 blog followers, I tell myself. That’s not very many. I didn’t win at the last show, so my piece was bad. I haven’t gone to see a show in a while, because I’m lazy. Because I’m a coward.
When I was in 8th grade, all I wanted to do was act and write. And I am. I do. So, why do I still feel so bad?
I go to therapy, and I take my meds, and I do a lot of yoga, and I write this blog all in an effort to free myself from this thought cycle. To be healthy. But what is healthy-me decides that our dreams aren’t worth the negative self-talk anymore? What if a healthier me decides that this career path is ultimately too destructive? What if I’m too weak to do what it takes? What if I’m too scared, and what if a healthier version of me decides that I shouldn’t have to be scared all the time? Is “getting better” giving up?
When I was little, I was playing a silly game with my dad. I don’t know what happened, but I told my dad: “I quit.” My dad responded:
“Well, I don’t talk to quitters.”
And he didn’t talk to me until I played the game again. So, I don’t quit. I wait for things to quit me. I expect things to quit me.
“THIS IS YOUR ONLY OPTION,” my brain screams. There is following my dreams, and there is giving up, and there is nothing in between. Finding a new dream is just a fancier way of giving up. A day will come when I have to do something else. I know that. Maybe it will be something vastly different, or maybe it will be something just a little different. Maybe it will just be a new thing to add on to the other things. And I logically know that I didn’t fail, but it doesn’t feel like that.
I am not beholden to my 8th grade self. I know that. But I also feel like I owe her. I feel like there are ways in which I have failed that buck-toothed marshmallow dork, and those are the things that I don’t know if I can ever forgive. I cannot un-fail me, so I have to remix my brain and decide that I never failed in the first place. I don’t know how that’s going to go.
Each year I usually end up watching Dead Poets’ Society around my birthday. And I think about Shakespeare, and I think about my dad, and I think about Robin Williams, and I think about suicide, and I think about gathering my rosebuds while I may, and I think about my 8th grade self, and I promise her that we won’t give up. This year, I have to gently say to her that we won’t give up, but that we have to really re-examine what giving up looks like. And maybe we’ll need to do it over pizza, because it is going to feel like a break-up and a stomachache and a sunburn and a really shitty audition all at the same time.
I’ll also think about Walt Whitman. I first heard Uncle Walt’s words in DPS, and they’ve been my favorite ever since. We have the same birthday: May 31. I keep bits of Leaves of Grass tacked up at my desk inside the building that I fell in love with when I was 13-years-old.
I don’t know how you’re doing. If you’re struggling, I hope you know that it’s okay. This is really hard. So, here’s the Whitman poem I read most days when I’m not feeling all right. It is to be read with gentleness only.
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.