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New Years Dreams

By Catherine Pavia

I love to plan—events, birthdays, holidays, vacations, weekends. You name it and I like to plan it. Thanks to my penchant for planning, a new year, with its accompanying push for goal-setting and resolutions, is a fun time for me. I plan what I want to learn this year, what I want to accomplish, where we should go as a family, and how I/we will try to bring about these things. In addition to New Years’ resolutions, this planning personality trait has also tended to serve me well in life: I have diapers, sippy cups, and emergency-lollipops with me when needed; my pantry is usually full; I often find good deals on clothes, toys, hotel rooms, and so on; and I graduated early from college, to name a few.

However, this year as I’ve been thinking about my goals and my hopes for 2011, I have also been remembering times in the past when my big plans crashed and burned, times when what I had envisioned for my life was not happening, times when my tendency to plan and dream big has led to big heartache and deep loss. Langston Hughes calls these experiences “dreams deferred” in the following poem:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

I think maybe dreams deferred (or even smashed to pieces) are the common denominator of human experience: no matter who you are or where you live, you have experienced shattered or deferred dreams. Perhaps your financial situation or living situation or your health is not what you had envisioned it would be, perhaps the timing of marriage or children was not as you planned for, or perhaps the relationships in your life—with spouse, children, parents, siblings, friends—are not those you had hoped for. Everyone at some time in life, and usually more than one time in life, will struggle with the loss of dreams and the loss of whatever we imagined would be our own “normal.”

So my question is how do you handle deferred dreams? How do you cope with the failure of plans or the loss of hopes? I certainly don’t like the outcomes suggested in Hughes’s poem—deferred dreams can be dried up and hard so that they’re no longer juicy or valuable or have purpose; they can fester and refuse to heal, thereby becoming constant sources of dissatisfaction and reminders of the dream deferred; they can become rotten and ugly; they can harden and separate themselves from others until they are no longer what they were initially; they can weigh you down; or, as a destructive force, they can explode. Hopefully, we can isolate these kinds of outcomes to individual days of festering or weighing down. But that is oh so hard when we’re in the thick of things. So, what have you done with your own dreams deferred? How have you handled New Years’ hopes and resolutions that have not come to pass?
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About Catherine Pavia

(Prose Board) has worked as a cherry sorter, file girl, piano teacher, writer, editor, and college professor. She currently works full-time as the art director, events planner, chauffeur, and referee for her four children. She spends a good deal of her time running—be it down the supermarket aisle after an escaped child, around the living room in a heated game of flag football, or on early-morning runs/therapy sessions with her neighborhood friends. She earned her BA and MA in English from BYU and her PhD in English from UMass Amherst.

14 thoughts on “New Years Dreams”

  1. When I was five I got all excited about a tumbling event my mom was taking me to. I'd never been to one before so I imagined all about it. I don't remember it at all now except that it was a big disapointment and from that point on I grew very cautious about getting my hopes up about anything. I'm lots older than five now but I am still really careful about the expectations I set for stuff (or people). I suppose this could be taken to the extreme and become a bad thing if it were to keep me from ANY kind of excitement or hope or planning but when it works it saves me from bitterness and resentment. I have been blessed to be able to adjust fairly easily to setbacks or delays most times. Not always, but often. A by-product of this philosophy is that I feel lots of gratitude for lots of little (and big) things b/c I wasn't expecting them.

  2. I love that poem. It's just so real. I get my hopes up a lot. Right when it's happening, I don't always deal with it so well. I usually can learn a lesson from it, though, or even better I decide to try again or end up with a new dream.

  3. I like to put my "deferred dreams" into different categories too, but not in such a negative light as Hughes might suggest. Some dreams are better "dried up" because they may have held you back or interfered with something better. Then there are those deferred dreams we all have that I think deserve careful tending while waiting for their day in the sun, regardless of when that might be. We had a long-awaited-for vacation cancelled this fall due to a child's poor choices. The money had to be spent on other serious things, but the prognosis is good for a family recovery, and may have been a blessing in disguise. I'm learning to roll with the punches a bit more – but there are those dreams I'll never give up on.

  4. With regard to particular unfulfilled expectations or dreams, I think I have gone through the 5 stages of grief:

    1. Denial
    2. Anger
    3. Bargaining
    4. Depression
    5. Acceptance

    I think I've finally reached acceptance. I am not sure what is next. I wouldn't say I am particularly hopeful – more like resigned. I guess after acceptance comes learning to be happy with the way things are.

  5. I've always liked the Langston Hughes poem. It works for me!

    My sister and I conjecture that a person hasn't begun the real business of life until he or she is embroiled in that first (what we like to call) "death of the dream" experience. We theorize that it's moving through these little deaths with faith and grace that makes of us the people the Lord has in mind.

    My personal philosophy on the subject is simple. When a dream doesn't work out for me, I have four choices: Let it lie; resurrect it; improve upon it, or come up with an entirely new one. The trick is to make those choices prayerfully.

    Here's the good news: As I get older, the "death" (or as you more euphemistically put it, "deferment") of dreams becomes less painful. Why? Because I know what steps to take to ensure that my dream grief is only temporary.

    My job is to keep on dreaming up those dreams and finding out if I can (or should) make them come to pass.

    I would even say that, for me, it's more about the dreaming than it is about the fulfillment.

    But I like the fulfillment, too.


  6. Ana–Loved what you said about gratitude as a by-product of realistic expectations. I usually am glad to be a dreamer, but sometimes I wish I could stop myself from dreaming big.

    Stacey–Great point about careful tending of deferred dreams, something Hughes's poem doesn't account for.

    Stephanie2–yes, I think peace comes with acceptance and happiness comes after.

    Sue–Love your insights. Thank you!

  7. I like Sue's thoughts. Depending on the dream, and what direction you get from those important to you (including God), you could choose many courses to follow after a dream withers.

    Usually I leave dead dreams in the past or resurrect them in a new form.

    Letting it lie around and fester happened to my goal of graduating from college. It festered enough to motivate me to go back. Sometimes I worry that the dream will die another death if I can't raise 4 children and do my coursework!

    Plan for the best, expect the worse is my general attitude towards goals. We've had more go wrong than right so I'd rather be surprised by fulfillment that smacked to the floor by disappointment.

  8. Maybe it just sags
    Like a heavy load.

    This is typically how it feels for me – like something I still lug around that leaves me a bit unsettled. And I have to work at letting it go, or as Hughes describes… explode – do away with it entirely. And wait for the new plan or dream to present itself.

    I feel okay with shelving dreams for a time and hoping in a better season, they can still happen. Thanks for this post Catherine and the poem. Loved it.

  9. For me, it's the smaller goals that weigh me down, things I have to put aside for a time or be content with small progress towards instead of the huge leaps I know I could make if I had the time — things like improving my photography, losing weight, writing that book, blogging more, etc.

    Usually, I handle these pretty well, figuring that as long as I'm doing the most important things — raising good kids, FHE, chores, scriptures, etc. — things will work out in time.

    When I'm exhausted, though, those deferred dreams come and beat me down and leave me in a battered heap of discouragement.

  10. I think that's what parenting teaches us…to let go of our plans at times. We have to. Kids get sick, we get tired, our husband needs us, and on it goes. We either learn to bend and flow with it all, or we get depressed or frustrated.

    Like my niece use to say before dying of leukemia, "A day is a day, and every day counts."
    Whether it turns out the way we wanted it to, there is joy in every day.

  11. Grandma Honey, your niece's wise words made me tear up. Sorry for your loss.

    Catherine-Thanks for this insightful and well-written post. Just yesterday I was thinking about whether I ever had figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up (I'm 43). I did the most important thing I wanted to do–be a wife and mother. But even at 18 I knew that fulfilling my other desires would be important for my happiness and that of my family.

    My baby happened to pull my 18-yr old self's journal out of the book case yesterday and I read an entry listing all the things I'd ever wanted to be-from doctor to photgrapher and so many in between! But mostly I wanted to be a writer, an artist, a dancer and a teacher. (see how I couldn't even narrow it down smaller than that!)

    I feel like my dreams are still in the future, that I'm still trying to learn what I need to learn to fulfill these dreams. I do think my dancer days are past, but I've had the privelege of taking classes in NYC a few times between babies.

    I am happy now with just a little showing of success at the fulfillment of these dreams. Taking classes at the Alvin Ailey Extension is enough to fulfill my dancer dream. Having a little art show at my library (where no paintings sold, but none had sold before at that library) was enough, kind of. Teaching Activity Days at church and RS is enough to fulfill my teacher dream. And writing my blog is a start toward my dream of being a writer one day!

    I hope I'm like the other commenters and can accept where I'm at–past the grief of a life as it is rather than as I dreamed it.

  12. I deal with dreams deferred by acknowledging that it's gone, dead, and mourn the passing. Every significant dream deferred is a loss, be it emotional, physical, mental, whichever, and deserves some notice at its passing.

    "The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly one you can never have." – Soren Kierkegaard

    For me, that's the hardest part about dreams being deferred.

    Then, as others have said, it's time to refocus, or regroup, or just keep going until you can dream again. Thanks for the post and poem!

  13. There are dreams for me that can be let go–that in fact I have let go for better dreams, such as giving up being a veterinarian and living in the country the rest of my life for becoming an editor and having to live in cities forever, despite having no desire to live here.

    Then there are other dreams that the Langston Hughes poem is particularly poignant about: dreams that are the most important in our lives, but that we have no control over. I don't have any control over whether or not I'll get to be a wife or a mom someday, so it's a dream deferred (and deferred and deferred) while I chase other dreams I can control, hoping that they'll be enough.

    So I guess that's how I deal with my dream deferred: get my master's, get a great career, move to a city I'd never intended to live in, try to do some good in the world.


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