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The neighbors downstairs are shouting again, banging doors, their muffled voices rising through the floor. You shuffle through the stack of books by your bed, reach for your laptop and the audio book you downloaded to break up the stillness of your solitary evening. “Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner. The man’s voice is rich, soothing, filling your ear with images that move you beyond the moldy walls and matted brown carpet of this dingy apartment.
This is just another transition, you think, and tell yourself it’s going to be okay.
But it’s no use. Night is the worst. After you brush your teeth, turn off the lights, and lock the door, you drop down onto your mattress, hug your notebook against your chest, and let your exhaustion hit you all at once, breathing deeply to ease the dull ache of the coiled muscles tightening along your spine. The streetlight filters in through the blinds. The kids next door are having a party again. Snippets cut through the buzz of conversation — someone’s summer plans, a rehashing of a drunken evening, a crescendo of laughter, the slam of the back door. You’re too tired to be angry at the noise erupting from the old Victorian house. Its overgrown avocado trees leaning over the fence, dropping fruit on unsuspecting pedestrians. Bedraggled chickens scratch at the porch, pecking at bottle caps while students stomp up and down the stairs, shouting at each other from the second-story balcony. You lie awake listening, wrestling with doubt as you piece together an answer to the question Langston Hughes posed over 60 years ago.
A dream deferred does not dry up and blow away, it does not evaporate into the vanished years of your youth. It latches onto your ribcage, swells with each passing day, pushing apart your ribs, a tumor of discontent. A dream deferred takes on a life of its own. You can learn to live with this benign growth hanging heavily at your side, you can alter your movements to accommodate its swing, but it does not go away.
You lean out the window in your underwear and tell them the only thing you know.
When you fall back against the mattress, stare up at the ceiling, you feel the weight of your discontent and shift uncomfortably, trying to trace your leaps and bounds of the past few years until you are back at Humboldt State University standing on the steps of Founders Hall, inflating your lungs with deep draughts of air tinged with the scent of the Pacific. The sun glints off the sloping red-tiled roof, a brief respite from the heavy fog that normally blankets the redwood forests, encircling the shrubs and strips of manicured lawn on Preston Hill. Pacific rhododendron and red-flowering currant droop heavily against the arched white corridors. The afternoon sun has left the place thick with the honeyed fragrance of the Pacific madrone, its red papery bark sloughing off in delicate curls.
He lights a cigarette. You wrinkle your nose and step back. “You could be a great writer if you wanted,” he says, flicking ash onto the grass. “You need some work, a few years, a good editor, but you could do it.”
A sliver of the Arcata Marsh is visible, a stretch of smooth water peeking from between the native grasses. You shake your head at his words, dismissing the dream you’ve had your fist clenched around since the day you learned to read. “It doesn’t feel like enough,” you say before trailing off, hoping he’ll know what you mean.
You try again. “There’s so much wrong with the world. I’d feel guilty if I wasn’t actively doing something to change things. I couldn’t be a good enough writer to reach people. Not like Barbara Kingsolver or Toni Morrison or someone like that.”
He shrugs, walks away. You sit there for another hour, trying to justify the words that came out of your mouth. Something you do so successfully that you spend the next few years pursuing a graduate degree in environmental policy, skipping from continent to continent, working as a research assistant, pushing hard against social and environmental injustice. You stop writing.
Now, alone on a mattress in a dark room, you wonder how you became so adept at cutting out the floor from underneath your feet. How did you become so quick to deny yourself everything you’ve ever wanted, so quick to call it a noble cause, necessity bathed in unselfishness.
“Jesus.” You let the word hiss out of your mouth, taking guilty pleasure in what your religious upbringing still insists is a swear word. It was fear. You were afraid to fail, afraid you would pour out your soul only to have the world dismiss it. A rejection you could not bear.
Disgusted with this realization, you throw your notebook across the room, let the old doubts close in, cold words tightening around your neck. “You will never be good enough. Just give up.”
But you already tried that. You already tried to be something else and it left you slumped against a dead-end. You rub your naked arm across your face, turn to the wall, listening to the sounds of college students congregating around buckets of Dos Equis and PBR, the bass thudding against your bones. Some nights, you toss heavily, grumbling at the noise like a cantankerous old woman, but tonight you feel like leaning out the window, dropping a hundred copies of “A Dream Deferred” over the fence and onto their heads. Their surprise caught in the flicker of the porch light as you hang out the window in your underwear and tell them the only thing you know.
You have to beat like hell against the doors of your life, live deliberately, go into the woods of your desires and stay there. You cannot guarantee against failure, you cannot guarantee that the world won’t reject you, but do not defer your dreams for anything, do not let fear dictate the terms of your life. Embrace the message Thoreau carved out in the forest of Walden Pond — set fire to the lingering scraps of doubt, let them blaze into an inferno, ward off the chill that settles into the corners of a heart unfulfilled, and never be afraid to make your life your own.
If you want to travel, go. If you want to write, pick up your pen. If you want to live in a cabin in the woods, start hammering together planks. Whatever it is that you want, go, do it now. Because that dream will not go away, it will not slip back into the recesses of your mind to be remembered at leisure, a pleasant nostalgia, something beloved from your childhood.
It will fester. It will explode.