Carving Poetry out of Life

When kids pack up their backpacks, it’s time to get serious about life again.

No matter how hard we think we’re working during summer, we’re really not. There’s something about “school’s out” that makes us think that “work’s out.” Friday begins on Thursday, the pool is preferable to perspiration, and there’s not a reason to pick up the house because the kids will just track in mud, anyway. And then, after the appropriately named “Labor Day,” we grit our teeth, surrender our freedom, and prepare to trudge.

This year, I’m treating September like it’s January, in that I’m setting a new set of goals for the “school year.” I’m deciding to stop treating work like it’s something to “grin and bear” and do what I enjoy.

As a preamble, I have to warn you that I’m writing this column in Roatan, Honduras. I’m on a vacation of my dreams—actually my son Gabriel’s dreams, since the singular reason I signed up for this week away was to indulge him in dolphin camp. Every day, he dons a backpack stuffed with a bathing suit, sun lotion, fins and goggles and a now always-wet-and-moldy towel, and off he goes, to learn about and swim with the dolphins.

There’s learning involved. In they go, six young children, into a classroom full of dolphin and marine life paraphernalia, to study the habitats and needs of our friends, the dolphins. And after acquiring enough knowledge to convince the trainers that the dolphins won’t be prey to little boy’s chewing gum or girl’s Barbie doll dresses or the accidental swing-and-miss fist fights that occur (and are always “the other guy’s fault”), the children get to interact with their sea-friends. They feed them, play with them, and even dance on their backs. This then is their “work;” to become proficient enough at something interesting to do something interesting and eventually, become interesting people.

I already like my work. But I know I hold back. There’s an edge I don’t lean over, creative inspirations I don’t indulge, books I don’t read, and wild ideas I don’t follow, because I’ve been trained to believe that work is only ABOUT work, defined as labor, toil, and effort, and the place where somebody is employed.

Will you look at that definition? No wonder some adults prefer to permanently affiliate themselves with their teen years by over-doing the bars, nip-and-tucking away every wrinkle, or re-running scenes from their younger days on their inner mind-screens. Why would we want to work if it’s defined as one “laborious day” after another?

What if work were more like a dolphin camp, where we learned what we needed to know and gained the necessary skills to do something we’ve always dreamed of doing?

Would it still be work, if it were more like a way to fulfill our dreams?

A while ago, one of my client pointed out that there are two types of people. There are those who dream, and those who don’t. I have to agree—to a point. This definition brings us to the edge of a precipice, but there, we linger. To dream without doing is to live without accountability. We feel smugly comforted, for we haven’t totally “sold out,” but our self-concept or worldly reputation are not endangered. You can’t fail at something you never try. Without putting pen to paper, you can’t be a writer. Neither will you ever be able to paper your bathroom with rejection letters. If you never take painting lessons, you can’t be an artist. Neither can you be informed that you’d be better off staying with paint-by-numbers and selling at roadside stands. If you never study the knowledge that applies to your goal, whether it be anatomy, accounting, astronomy, or frogs (okay, I’ve stretched the point, but somewhere in the world is someone who wants to be a frog expert), you can never be told that you don’t have what it takes to make it.

The truth is that dreams without pursuit—wild, abandoning, excited, fear-full, committed, all-out pursuit, will never be met. To simply dream isn’t costly enough. Dreaming without doing doesn’t force us to step off the ledge to see if the world will rise to support us. It doesn’t make us open our own wings to fly.

How would I live my life—my actually daily life—if I were willing to live my dreams, not only squander them in notebooks that list my wishes? Well for one thing, I’d keep doing what I’m doing, because I like it and it works for me. But there are a lot of other activities that I would—and now will—pursue. I’d follow my quest for the Holy Grail, perhaps literally, actually, and write about it. I’d start yet another business. I’d buy land in another country. I’d stop worrying so much about what others might think of me, for the truth is that they probably don’t think about me very often. Nor should they; it’s not their job.

It’s our job to think about ourselves, to put our dreams front and center, to square our shoulders and walk forward into the future that we desire. There is a lot of labor and effort involved. In order to play with the dolphins, Gabe has to study their eating habits and hold a smelly fish just so. I think he would say that it’s all been worth it, however, for that single moment in which the dolphin transformed into an angel with wings, and on the water, they skimmed over the seas, carving poetry in the waves. Life involves hard work, but we get to choose to pursue what’s worth our life energy, rather than what wastes it. We get to carve poetry out of our lives.