I finally watched Eat, Pray, Love. And I didn’t get depressed at all. Which is saying something. You see, I was afraid I’d awaken Dining Room Table Woman.
Years ago, I moved to Washington, D.C., to work for Special Olympics International. I had fallen in love with the city on an earlier visit and made it my mission to find a job there. I found one and set off on what I hoped would be the first in a long line of adventures.
But even adventurers need a place to set their plates and so I found myself in Price Club one day looking at a dining room table. Tim, whom I had met on my third day in the city, was with me. The table was perfectly fine and in my price range but I didn’t want to buy it. I’m pretty sure I broke out in a cold sweat. It seemed so heavy and permanent, that table; surely it would weigh me down. But then Tim said, “You can always have a garage sale.” Of course! As if a piece of furniture could put an end to an adventurous life.
Well. After the table came a sofa and a loveseat and a car and a marriage. And a house and four kids. And a dog and cats and hamsters. You get the picture.
So back to Eat, Pray, Love.
In the movie, Liz (played by Julia Roberts) says that even though she participated fully in creating a life with her husband that included buying the big house with lots of room for children, she can’t see herself in any of it. She has no desire to have children and feels like an imposter in her own life. So she leaves her husband and sets off to spend a year in Italy, India, and Bali searching for answers to who she is and what she wants. Along the way she eats lots of great food, builds close friendships, and gets to know God. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
But the difference between me and Liz is that I always wanted the house and four kids and all that came with it. I just never thought about how expensive plane tickets are and how much more luggage there would be and that you can’t just up and move to France if you feel like it. Because it turns out that your kids create lives of their own that they’re not terribly keen to leave.
So what’s an adventurer to do? First, and this is important, you need to understand the difference between a real dream and a pipe dream. A real dream is essential to who you are. If you’re not sure what yours is, imagine yourself on your death bed. As you look back over your life, what would you truly regret not having done? Getting your college degree? Starting your own business? Traveling to Australia? One of mine was adopting a child. Done. I also want to publish my own work rather than just writing for everyone else, which I’ve done for more than twenty years. It’s nice and safe and pays the bills, but at the end of the day it’s not enough. Another real dream is to live in a flat in Paris long enough to get to know the city. London would be nice, too.
A pipe dream, according to Wikipedia, is a “fantastic hope or plan that is generally regarded as being nearly impossible to achieve, originating in the 19th century as an allusion to the dreams experienced by smokers of opium pipes.”
[I think there’s a third type of dream: the Bonus Dream. For me, this would be having a movie made out of one of my books or playing the part of Third Nun From the Left in a production of The Sound of Music. Either one is possible if I try hard enough, but I won’t feel that I’ve let myself down if neither happens. It’s just fun to think about.]
There’s a real danger in not knowing the difference between real dreams and pipe dreams. You might become like the woman I read about who resented her family because she stayed home to raise her boys and didn’t pursue her dream of having a Ph.D. Hmm. Could it be that the Ph.D. was a pipe dream and she was using her family as an excuse not to go for it? Maybe she didn’t believe she was smart enough. Or maybe she didn’t want to get up early or stay up late to write her papers or work a job at odd hours to pay for it.
Pursuing our dreams can make us deeply uncomfortable, but let’s not be cruel enough to make it someone else’s fault if we can’t handle the discomfort. And for heaven’s sake let’s be careful about what we agree to do. Just ask Liz Gilbert. She put herself and her husband through terrible suffering because she didn’t understand what she really wanted.
The final piece here is understanding that just because you can do anything doesn’t mean you can do everything. At least not all at once. I don’t want to wish these amazing years with my children away, so I’ve had to come up with ways to keep Dining Room Table Woman happy. When properly managed, she’s one of my best parts. She was elated when we spent three weeks in China bringing Lily home. She loves tap dancing. Yesterday, I threw away three garbage bags full of clutter. I could hear her sigh of relief.
And I have a little Eiffel Tower charm on my keychain. Just to let her know I haven’t forgotten she’s in there and that I’ll get her to Paris someday.
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
—J. R. R. Tolkien