I recently went home to DC to visit my parents for Thanksgiving. It had only been a year since my last visit but overall my trips back to DC have grown infrequent in the last few years. For some reason, this visit felt different. Everything FELT different. And everywhere that I turned I not only saw what was in front of me coupled with visions from memory, but visions of what could have been. Visions from my past dreams of what I thought my future would look like overlaid on the reality of that now-future.
My dad and I rode bikes down to the Potomac River and stopped off at a stark wintery sight at Fletcher’s Boathouse. The boarded up rental house. The beached row boats. All useless and waiting to be used. Hibernating but empty. And this metal ball chained to a tree. Everything felt like a metaphor.
Maybe this is what a mid-life crisis looks like for a writer/filmmaker? I’m constantly envisioning lives, characters, scenarios. Everywhere I look is a possible story or scene. As I walked past the Smithsonian castle on the way to the Hirshhorn, I looked down the walkway with all the flowers and vaguely remembered a time I had walked through and sat there and that merged with a dream/thought I had had years ago when I envisioned what my life would be like to live and work in DC. In my younger years, I had done research work down at the Library of Congress and I used to think about what life would be like to live on Capitol Hill and go to the Eastern Market. And suddenly, I was seeing the future that never was, like my own Sliding Doors movie.
I’ve had the benefit of living and visiting in many different places all over the country and abroad and each has a multitude of dream-mes walking around somewhere in the ether, but the emotional impact felt different in the place where I grew up. The sense of loss greater, and I’ve been thinking about what that actually means to me.
I’m starting to understand what people mean when they say it all goes by so fast. I’m hitting those markers – my kids are no longer in elementary school, I will most likely never have a baby again so those “child-rearing” years are over. My body hasn’t “bounced back” in years. My career is doing well, certainly not where I thought I’d be at this age, but I can’t complain. And while I know I have (or hope to have) decades before me, those milestones of life that we think about when we’re younger – jobs, relationships, kids, where we live, travel, friends, hobbies – I hit them somewhat early and I’m realizing I never really thought about life past the age of 40. At least not until now. Now, I start dreaming about what I’m gonna be like with a walker and white hair and how I’m really going to be a terror because no one can tell me what do to as a 90 year old.
Growing up, I’d been desperate to leave DC. The elitism. The hypocrisy. The difficulties I had with my family. The difficulties I had with myself that I thought a change in location would fix. I hated the bulky white architecture on the Mall. I didn’t feel like I belonged. And yet the city was central to my identity. Outside of DC, I embraced my hometown with pride. It’s a place everyone has some idea about, it’s an interesting place to talk about, and the confusing and convoluted feelings I had about it were easier to deal with elsewhere. Still, it was always “home.”
I married my high school sweetheart. We’d been dating since we were 16. So every time we visited our families, we also got to visit all the places where we first fell in love. All our favorite places that we shared. So much history.
And when I had my first kid, I started to see what DC had to offer. It’s not a towering urban landscape like New York City. It’s not a sprawling one like Los Angeles. The museums are all free. There are trees and rivers and bike paths and public transportation. There are 4 seasons, none of which are that extreme. There are so many good schools, it’s one of the most educated areas in the nation. It’s not densely packed. Good food, interesting people, diversity. It’s easy to travel to other cities and states – mountains and fields and beaches. These are all the best parts of a complicated city and I was lucky to be able to experience those good parts because DC also has a lot of bad.
But when we dream, we dream about the good. We romanticize the ideal. And as a new mom, thinking about all the best things for their kid for the future, I saw what I hadn’t seen before.
And then my marriage fell apart and that link to all those feel-good memories, that person I got to share all that history with, was gone. Going home felt different. Not necessarily less-than. But all the things I looked forward to doing, I didn’t need to do anymore and I didn’t WANT to do them anymore because so much of what I enjoyed doing was wrapped up in what I had enjoyed doing with that other person. And as I moved on with a new relationship, I didn’t want to do those same things with a new partner. Sometimes in my wonderings, I wonder about a world where people date and date, how a visit home and the nostalgic tour of all the favorite places might not bring the same set of conflicted emotions. I don’t want to reminisce about making out with my high school boyfriend when showing my new husband my high school because – oh yeah – that’s my ex we’ll be seeing next week when he picks up the kids. Maybe I just need to get over it, but it’s almost 17 years worth of getting over so forgive me if 8 years on I still feel weird about it. It’s actually easier to do it with the kids because I want them to know there was love that they came from.
And then my parents started getting older and decided to renovate the house in the hopes of getting things “in order.” The only thing that really looks different is the basement because it’s now actually finished and furnished and not used as a dumping ground for everything they don’t know what to do with. And maybe I’ve lived in Texas too long with my enormous square footage, and I’m certainly carrying more weight around so yes my perspective might be off, but my parents’ house feels tiny. Going up and down the stairs I worried.
And while my parents do love to do the nostalgia tour and reminisce, that’s a minefield of potential trauma for me. And while there’s the hope that maybe we’ll come to a new understanding and growth, acknowledgment and healing, I had to give that up a long time ago in order to function and be healthy because all of that was just a dream that is never going to be reality.
But maybe I thought, maybe I still hoped, that it could be. A dream deferred. Is that where I am at this point in life?
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?