BY LANGSTON HUGHES
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?
My dreams have exploded. As life is a vapor, so are some of the dreams that de-materialized in front of my eyes. I used to try and make excuses for why my goals have changed so many times, but I'm living in authenticity now and that requires the transparency of facing my hardest truth: all is not what I thought I'd become.
Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun, a pivotal play about a black family "moving on up" into a white neighborhood in 1950s Chicago and all of the crazy that came with it. (Hint: It's not called "gentrification" when we do it.) She opened the book with the poem by Langston Hughes, by which the title for her classic work was inspired.
I first read A Raisin in the Sun in 8th grade; brought into my life by my pretty progressive English teacher, a white Jewish woman named Ms. Klein who also exposed us to August Wilson's "Fences", Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire", John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men", and lots of classes spent drilling us on grammar: I vividly remember a week where she spent teaching us how to properly conjugate lay vs. lie. I still use google to this day, but I digress.
Since I read the book so early and so young, and I didn't have the historical context to truly understand the fulness of Lorraine's work, I just saw it as another book about former slaves and how much racism sucks. My 13 year-old brain only absorbed the normal "Wow white people really go out of their way to make it hard to be black in America, the end."
While that is part of the story (see background on Chicago's historical redlining and housing segregation via Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations"), the message I believe Lorraine was trying to send us all was a picture of what can happen when your dream doesn't turn out the way you imagined it would be. What will you do when the picture you drew of your future gets completely obliterated for a life you do not recognize? What if what you desired all these years, actually doesn't turn out the way you envisioned?
That's my story...
I spent 7 years of my life trying to become an engineer, or what I thought an engineer was supposed to be. Then I became one for a little over 3 years, realized being an engineer was nothing like I imagined, tried to prove myself that I could still do it, and then learned the hard way that was an exercise in futility. I also had dreams that I would one day go on and get my PhD in engineering by age 30, become a professor at some dope university and get more black women across the stage and into the STEM world. That was THE GOAL.
But I'm 29 today and living in Ecuador, working in Community Health sooooo.... something changed.
The PhD dream didn't die altogether, but certainly the rest festered like a sore, ran outside, then self-combusted on the front lawn of my make-believe 5 bedroom mansion where I lived with my husband and our 3 High IQ kids (& OMG, twins on the way!).
The problem was my response:
I tried to put that dream in vegetative state on life-support, knowing full well it had a DNR request because I was afraid to admit that I was not going "confidently in the direction of my dreams" or "living the life I'd always imagined." And when I walked away from my career this year, I didn't want anyone to look at my credentials and think I was giving up; that I had fallen victim to the system that keeps women and black engineers running for the exits, becoming a statistic on another Harvard Business Review case study. Nope. My pride would not let me free.
Even as I started to pull myself away from the idea that I would go any further in my engineering career at this point in my life, I wrapped all of my decisions in trying to make sure that I could return to engineering if the new dream didn't work out either. I created escape buttons by only applying for engineering jobs with the Peace Corps itself, which didn't work out because I ended up being moved to Ecuador last minute where no engineering program exists. "(Wo)man plans, God laughs."
Accepting this drastic change at the tail end of so much transition in 2017 is when the dream & my ego rapidly increased in volume and released all the potential energy from 11 years of trying to be worthy of the "OMG I've never met a black woman engineer before, you must be so smart!" line I used to get pretty much once a month. Needless to say, I don't get that much anymore.
These past 7 months have been hard trying to re-define myself as I am no longer an engineer in function. It took me a while to change my LinkedIn job title from Improvement Engineer at Dow Chemical to Peace Corps Volunteer at Peace Corps. Removing the "E" word felt like a self-inflicted demotion, so in order to hang on to my flailing pride by a thread, my byline still says "Experienced Engineer at the Corner of STEM and Social Responsibility" -- I'm hard wired, guys. Bear with me. That will change in 2018.
There is a difference between what your degrees are in and who you are.
What you chose 5/10/15/20 years ago doesn't necessarily have to be what you do now. If so, keep going, we need you! All of the life skills along with the formal knowledge you've earned is the person you are today, and no matter what you're doing with all of it, if you are walking in your purpose, the whole journey is worth it.
I am re-writing my purpose in 2018. It will be difficult, because I have no idea where I am going; I am back to a new drawing board. I might even come back to engineering, that's how big the ocean is that I am wandering! But I'm no longer allowing myself to be trapped by rigid boundaries of the dreams I fashioned a decade ago. I don't have a five year plan anymore; I'll just draw the dream as I go. I will focus instead on developing personal attributes & relationships with people that won't fester, won't run, won't spoil, won't caramelize, won't become a burden, and will not explode. Ojalá que sí!
My only goals now are to live a life of integrity that is pleasing to God, love other people through my actions, stay true to my commitments, and continue to work on being better at being me.
Oh, and go to the beach more.