If you asked a young girl in 1986 what she wanted to be when she grew up, the answer was invariably astronaut.
It was the year of Christa McAuliffe, the midwestern schoolteacher and mother who was cherry-picked to be a crew member aboard the Challenger space shuttle. While girls of previous generations had to settle for Cinderella and her glass slipper, we had a heroine who wore a space suit and drove a rocket.
We all know what happened to Christa and her space shuttle (if you don’t, for Shiva’s sake look it up). After the shuttle exploded, a moment all American children witnessed via a live television broadcast, we girls modified out career plans. Mary Lou Retton and her box of Wheaties seemed like a safer bet. So when adults asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, we girls collectively responded with gold-medal gymnast.
Some of us actually attempted this and lost hours of sleep being shuttled to and from practice. Some of us slept in and happily accepted our sub-bronze status. The overachievers of the bunch collected ribbons and trophies, rocking adolescence the way Keith Richards rocks old. The slackers made do with cartoons and General Hospital and fat, chapter books. Though we chose vastly different paths, we girls all ended up in the same place.
That place is adulthood. It is a magical land where you can do whatever the hell you want as long as you don’t get arrested and pay your bills and show up to work on time and survive on four hours of sleep a night. Where a former ace gymnast becomes just another card in the deck because she has aged out of her gig. It’s a land where so many of us gymnasts and future astronauts and future doctors become the women serving you your mocha latte with a forced smile.
Even in Adultland, so many of us are still trying to answer the what do you want to be when you grow up question.
I’m 34 years old, and not a day goes by that I don’t consider going to massage school or selling my poorly made crafts on Etsy. One day I believe that mortuary assistant might be a stable and fulfilling career choice. The next day I wake up and remember that I have a stifling fear of dead bodies, but I would make a fantastic wedding DJ.
Amidst all these dreams there is the very real fact that I have to pay the rent and the car insurance and the cell phone bill. That going to massage school or buying a sub-woofer just isn’t in the budget. In order to survive in this economy, I’m going to have to hot glue my dreams to a vision board and get a job. Not a career—a job.
Actually, I do have a career. If you count yoga instructor, I have several, all of which are fulfilling and artistic and make me feel like a square peg in a square hole. Writing, filming, teaching—all these roles provide my life with meaning and substance. All well and good. However, my passion and creativity aren’t the kind of currency my landlord accepts. But I’m doing what I love isn’t a valid argument to a gas pump.
This is how I ended up in a small office at the back of a movie theatre being interviewed by a boy who couldn’t have possibly remembered the Challenger explosion. A boy so young I wondered if it was bring your son to work day. He sat behind his desk and grilled me for all of ten minutes on my work history. He wondered why there were so many gaps during my twenties.
“You have nothing for 2003,” he said.
“I was getting my master’s that year.”
“No. Creative writing.”
“I wanted to.”
“Guess that didn’t work out so well for you.”
I am a yogi and non-violent by nature, but I wanted kick this kid’s ass and bury him at the greasy bottom of a popcorn bucket. Yes, it did work out for me, I wanted to say. I can read Faulkner and you can barely read the questions on my application. I can write a sonnet and a sestina and an essay that would make your mother cry. If your mother can read, that is. That’s right. I’m calling your mama stupid. Oh—and your mother’s so fat…
Yes, this is how I found myself making mental your mama’s so fat jokes about the person who could possibly provide me with the means to support myself. Not really support (living wage my ass), but give self-support the old college try. I’d believed that I was demeaning myself by even applying for this job. I felt that I’d accomplished a lot, learned a lot, lived a lot. That must count for something, right?
Reality is a tough pill to swallow.
If you’re looking for easy, there are a lot of pain killers out there that some smarmy doctor might prescribe for you so that you can remain blissfully unaware. But the real shit is this: doing what you love, doing what you thought you were put on this earth to do, almost never pays the bills. There are some super lucky people who get to do what they love and afford a comfortable existence. The reason most of these people are famous is because they get to live their dreams and have a proper meal that doesn’t include ramen noodles or quick sale meat. This position is so rare that we must celebrate it in Us Weekly.
The rest of us must settle for a sort of hybrid existence. We do what we love in the few precious hours when we aren’t working. We fit it in; our passions, our goals, our reasons for living. We fit all that soul force into an hour in the evening after the kids go to bed. We make it work when we have an entire Saturday to ourselves. We paint like mad until the sun rises and we have to iron our work shirts.
For so many people that I know, this is the case. I know them as artists and yogis and poets and dancers and actors. You might know them as that girl who works behind the counter at the gym or the waitress or the stay-at-home-mom.
All of these friends are amazingly talented people who’ve had to adjust their dreams and fantasies to fit into the real world. They didn’t swallow their dreams as much as hide them under their tongues to relish the taste.
I am still that little girl who watched the Challenger burst to bits on the classroom television.
I still struggle with the idea that reaching for the stars may leave me bitter and burned out. In the aftermath of so much disappointment and perceived failure, it’s tempting to think that an easy answer awaits, but I’m too old to believe that I’m the next Mary Lou Retton or mortuary assistant of the year. No job is going to give me the fulfillment I’m craving. No title can sum up how expansive my mind and heart are.
The universe really doesn’t care about your dreams. It has too many dreams for itself. You are the one who can protect and preserve them. Don’t wait for a sign—make your own sign. Then go to work.
Surviving reality with your soul intact is your full time job. Namaste.
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger