on (not) living the dream

10 May

The other day, the phone rang every thirty seconds with someone else’s phone calls. When it wasn’t ringing, I was opening, stamping, delivering someone’s mail.

Sometimes I would catch a glance of the mug that sports my seminary’s logo. Right by the telephone in the office where I work as a temp secretary and have for nearly a year.

It was one of those days where all I could think was this: This is not where I was supposed to be.I should be past this by now. One of those days where I talk to myself and ask, “Is this what you took out these student loans for? That you got that Duke education for? That you studied and wrote papers and learned Greek and Hebrew for? To answer somebody else’s calls?”

These moments have come occasionally over the past year. When someone that I went to school with comes into the office and looks quizzically at me, wondering what I’m doing there. On my worse days, I cover up the logo on my coffee mug so that no one will see and ask me questions. It’s one thing to be a temp secretary. It’s another thing to be a temp secretary with a Duke degree.

A few months ago, I was talking to a friend on the phone. She has finished a memoir, a collection of essays that she is submitting for publication. “You’re living the dream,” I told her, only half-joking. And I felt a pang of longing, to be living that dream, too.

Last summer, while my husband was working late, I wandered around downtown. It was hot, and I was hungry, and I wanted an air-conditioned place to sit, but I was broke. I wandered around for a few minutes, calculating where I could get some food for the cheapest price. And so, in a brief moment of insanity, I hopped into a discount sushi restaurant.

I sat in a booth in the middle of the restaurant, as $3 sushi went around and around on a tiny sushi conveyor belt, like abandoned suitcases at an airport. How long had they been there? Hours? Would I get food poisoning and be rushed to the hospital?

It was right about when I started thinking about how to explain to my loved ones why I was dying from from eating cut-rate sushi that I started to laugh. Everyone assumed I was rich with my Duke degree, and here I was, eating $3 sushi, with about negative five dollars to my name.

It was not where I was “supposed” to be. I was not living the dream.

It’s easy to wish for something else. To wish you were living the dream instead of living what is right here. And sometimes, the dream is simply a collage of the best parts of everyone else’s lives.

A friend’s book. Another friend’s thick, silky hair. Another’s penchant for being poetic and prophetic all at once. Another’s beautifully decorated house, with colored accent walls and framed photo groupings and brushed steel faucets. Another’s programs that she is starting at her church, curriculum that she is writing, small groups she is leading, teenagers she is mentoring. Another’s regular volunteering with the ESL class, the prison, the after-school program. And the jobs–the social workers, the nonprofit managers, the pastors, the people who don’t answer somebody else’s phone calls for an hourly wage.

But I am here, with the telephone switchboard and a pile of someone else’s mail. I don’t have a book. I don’t have a curriculum I’ve written or teenagers I’ve mentored. I am not spending my days doing advocacy or community organizing or ministry with the poor. I don’t have a church to pastor.

But this is what I do have:

A pan of baked ziti, cooked by my husband, despite the fact that every dish in the kitchen needed to be washed.

Old episodes of Star Trek on Netflix and a couch big enough for two.

A freezer and a pantry that Katniss would envy.

A basil plant, back from the dead after a spring rain, and pots full of butter lettuce, mache, arugula that continue to grow.

A plate full of potluck food and a living room full of friends, kindred spirits, and conversation every Thursday.

A passport with stamps from China, Thailand, the UK, Ireland, Mexico, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Greece.

A free cupcake, chocolate and caramel and fleur de sel, on a rainy day.

Forests to walk in, stars to gaze at, thunderstorms to listen to, birds to watch, rivers to wade in.

A few people who read some words of mine.

The promise of California–mountains and beach and desert and finally, finally my husband’s chance to start the doctorate and do what he loves.

And stories. Always stories.

And right beside the phone, from 8 to 5, that seminary mug brimming with good tea.

This is what I’m living. I am not living the dream. This mundane, shallow pockets, 8 to 5 life is not forever. It is only for a time.

But it is still life. Life to be lived, dream or not.

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