Before my father renamed me a ‘Fire Dragon,’ I was a ‘dreamer whose feet rarely reached the ground.’ “Where are you now?” he’d snap me out of a moment of reverie and pull me back to the reality I was trying to escape. He’d shake his head disapprovingly and say encouraging things like his only hope for me was that I would marry a rich man, and add, pleased with his own joke, that he feels sorry for that man, but at least life with me would never be boring.
I was already in my thirties when on my annual visits back to Budapest I had to endure meeting him in restaurants reeking of cigarettes, alcohol and paprika, where caressing his stiff drink, he’d either cry about his ‘genius plans’ he never got to do, or tell me (yet again) about his recent genius plan to commit suicide by throwing himself in an active volcano. Five years ago, I finally decided to cut ties with him and love him from afar. Clearly, I have failed him on an epic scale. I never married a rich man and I continue to dream.
My father may have been the first, but he was certainly not the last to call me a dreamer. There has never been a shortage of good friends and kind strangers who felt that they should help my dreamer feet reach a more realistic ground. What was I thinking when I flew to New Zealand with the first draft of my first screenplay in the hope to find a producer? Who did I think I was to be writing plays in English, in London? Did I really think I could live in New York, and what was I doing in India, alone?
More recently, I received a long text from a friend who was made “a little uncomfortable” by my sharing with her a writing project on Patreon that required a membership of $5 a month. Did I now expect her to support me with money? I didn’t. I wanted to create a community and share my work with those who were interested in reading it. But her text made me feel ashamed and dirty, as if I was asking for something that I didn’t earn, didn’t work hard for, trying to bypass some accepted rule. “I’m sure that you know that [writing] usually takes years of dedication and sustained effort,” she reminded me, and wrote that “yes, you should dream, but also remain realistic when it comes to the earning potential of [your] writing.” The word ‘realistic’ was echoed by another well-meaning friend who recited a résumé of all the hard work that the women in the same group had done, before they married their husbands who are now supporting them and their families. Although these close friends followed my divorce, saw me renovate two run-down apartments with my bare hands, design a website, run a yoga business and paint walls, in their lecturing me about the value of hard work it felt like they imagined me reclining ruminatively on my sofa all day, dream of being a writer and be indignant when writing grants didn’t land in my lap. They encouraged me to get a ‘proper job’ and didn’t understand why I refused a teacher’s assistant position in a private Westmount school for $15 an hour that would have allowed me to climb the ladder and have a career in teaching. “But what was I (realistically) expecting without a Master’s degree?”
I chose to paint and plaster walls for $40-$45 an hour instead. The uniform is a lot less glamorous, but the pay is better, and most importantly, it leaves me with more time to do what gives meaning to my life: writing. This is “the shit sandwich” that Elizabeth Gilbert talkes about in her book on the creative life Big Magic. Everything worthwhile has a price, and a certain amount of pain involved. The question is, what is it that you care about enough, so that you can endure the pain and the most inconvenient aspects of your pursuit?
For me, the joy of stringing words together outweighs the inconvenience of having to work less glamorous jobs. I spent most of my twenties working as a live-in au-pair while I was writing my plays. In Montréal I have worked as a yoga teacher, interpreter, painter and decluttering expert. These may not have been my dream jobs, but they have brought countless joyful moments (and writing inspirations!) into my life. The families I worked for in London became my adoptive families who have taught me valuable lessons about family life and raising children. I still get high after teaching a yoga class, seeing the serene faces of my students rising up from savasana. Painting, plastering, and scrubbing rust off an emergency staircase is physically demanding, but in the process, I have seen places being transformed and clients settle in a new home after a painful divorce. I take pride in my work and put a lot of love into my paint brush. I may be a dreamer whose feet never reach the ground, but I have managed to somehow put myself through schools, finance my trips and pay my bills without a penny from mommy or daddy, and without getting into a debt. I may be a dreamer, but I have also some principles and know my self-worth. In the case of that Westmount school, I felt very strongly that a private school that charges $14,600 tuition fees could afford to pay more than 0.75 cents above minimum wage to their teachers who are expected to be fluent in Hebrew, English and French, even if they don’t have a Master’s degree. I also knew that I would go above and beyond what was required, as I always do, but not for an establishment that devalued my work. I guess I am a hopeless dreamer who dreams of a world where teachers are valued and paid fairly.
When people call you ‘a dreamer,’ they don’t mean it as a compliment. I have yet to hear someone exclaim in excitement, “Wow, you’re such a dreamer! Good for you!” No, being a dreamer is usually contrasted with a superior state of being: ‘a realist.’ To be a dreamer therefore is an insult that implies that you are infantile, out of touch with reality, and foolish. It is a derogatory word deployed by people who consider themselves intellectually superior, but whose eyes are drained of the light fuelled by the pursuit of a worthwhile cause, a meaning, a purpose; people who have stopped dreaming and accepted a ‘reality’ that might be cozy in its predictability, but not necessarily inspiring. Because to dream is to aspire for something better, believe that it is possible, and dare to work hard for it.
To commit to a dream is an act of faith, and the courage to risk a terrible failure. The dreamer is the one “in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly” (Theodore Roosevelt). The critics who proudly call themselves ‘realists’ sit in the comfortable seats in the same arena that is life. They are not cheering for the dreamer, but secretly hoping for her failure. Her blood and sweat justify their inertia, their fears. As long as she’s down, her fall serves a proof that they have made the right choice to stick to the comfortable seats rather than join the dreamer in the arena and risk the same blows.
In her bloodiest moments, the dreamer herself will be gazing up towards those comfortable seats in envy, tempted to give up the fight, if only for a sip of water. “What am I doing here?” she’d ask herself. “Why am I doing this?” she’d wonder, and then remember. It is for that ‘why’ that she will dust herself off, and try again and again different strategies – some practical, some riskier – to fight for her dream. Because the why behind her dream is bigger than one bloody moment, and bigger even than herself. And to surrender her why, would be to surrender her last breath.
I dream of a more compassionate world where people who claim to have nothing in common with another can find a common ground, or at least a respectful understanding. I dream of cooperation, and of meaningful connections. Writing is not my dream. Writing is what I do in the hope to help realize this dream.
Being in the arena of life is not pure joy; often it is excruciatingly painful; sometimes even deadly. But I prefer to be down here in the arena, despite the enticing appeal of the comfortable seats. Because sweat, tears and blood are still better than finding myself one day in my father’s place – mourning the dreams (‘genius plans’) I didn’t dare to pursue. I know I can’t hope for a handkerchief from those critics who pride themselves as realists, but luckily, I am not alone. I have my clan of dreamers who continue to cheer me on, as we sweat and bleed together towards the same unrealistic, outrageous dream.