DIGGING IT UP
When I was little, an older kid in my neighborhood said that it if you dug deep enough into the earth from our block, you’d eventually get to China. I hadn’t been anywhere but South America because my dad’s side of the family lived there, and China seemed infinitely more exotic and otherworldly. I was desperate to go. And so, I set out with a shovel into my backyard and began digging. It was hard work for an 11-year old, yet rewarding in a sweaty, finger-blistered way. I had a dream, the start of a plan. Since I wasn’t ready to share it, I found a piece of plywood from the shed to cover the inches of disturbed soil on the side of our yard. My parents weren’t so tidy that they’d notice it — or so I thought.
Two weeks into the dig, my father found the hole. He stepped on the plywood while smoking a cigarette and heard the hollow space beneath him. By that time, the space was big enough for a terrier. I had been busy.
“What is this?” He called me into the backyard with an accusatory tone. I explained, nervously, that I was planning to visit China.
“It’s a saying,” my dad explained, shaking his head. “You can’t actually get there from here.” Then he kicked some dirt back into the hole and made me fill up the rest before dinner.
There’s rarely a warning when our dreams are about to get crushed. It might feel like a dropped anvil or cardiac arrest, but our response is usually both emotional and physical. I remember my stomach in knots as my dad put the shovel in my hand. It was like I was being forced to bury my dream itself. I went to bed hungry that night, and defeated. The dig unearthed my sadness, but couldn’t provide a passport to a different life.
In my mind, there’s a chaser to that memory, something that happened years later but is tied to my Chinese burial. I’m fourteen and all kinds of ambitious. I had cut a singing demo with a producer and was excited to share the finished product with my family. Only my dad was home when I arrived. High on hope and adrenaline, I giddily announced, “You’ve got to hear this,” and clicked the cassette tape into the living room player.
The voice that came through the speakers was filtered through my father’s ears. I despised the sound and hated myself for playing the tape in the first place. My pitch was off, vibrato forced, nasal. But I pushed these thoughts away, knowing I was my own worst critic. The song ended and I looked to my dad whose eyes remained on the cassette silently spinning in the player. “You might want to try something else,” he said to me. Suspicions confirmed: I was no good.
If I could reach back in time, I’d do everything to protect that little girl from believing other people’s ideas of who or what or how she was supposed to be. The Talmud says that every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it, and whispers “Grow, grow.” If I could rewind the cassette tape of my life, I’d wrap my arms around the little girl me, loosely though, and invite her to see the world through her own eyes. If I had a superpower, it would be to free ALL of us from caring so much about what other people think — especially when it comes to our dreams. We are born innocent to the customs of this world, never expecting anything less than appreciation, tenderness. Our limits are learned, placed upon us by people with disappointments and limitations of their own. They may say they’re just trying to keep us safe, prevent us from heartbreak. They probably mean it. But that doesn’t mean that what they say or think is true.
We can’t control how much dad likes our singing voice. As children, we can’t even fathom that other people’s reactions might not have anything to do with us at all. But as bona fide grown ups, we have this beautiful opportunity to rewrite our story. It doesn’t have to end with keeping your dreams inside.
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” — Chinese proverb
Creativity isn’t some luxury. It’s your birthright. Listening in to those crazy, amazing, seemingly impossible ideas inside you — the ones you had when you were a kid — are clues to what’s often missing in our lives as adults. Remember? What happens when you remember?
It’s not easy to summon the courage to be the hero of your own story. I’m here in the trenches too, falling over myself, breaking down, rising up new. Coming back to the page. Thing is, if it were easy, everyone would do it. But you aren’t everyone. You are living, breathing imagination incarnate. You are filled with earthly and otherworldly power to create whatever it is you want to create — if you believe that you are. And I want you to know, it’s not too late. Maybe you’ve been singing along to someone else’s melody of your life. Or digging in the wrong places for approval. Maybe you’ve been fooling yourself or standing in your own way and stopping your flow. But you’re here now, reading this, remembering, and that is how it starts. And I am the stranger whispering to you,“Go, go.”