Many months ago, a Facebook friend posted a question, “At what age do you tell your child to get a job and not follow their dreams?” The question made me both sad for the poster and for the prospect altogether. Shortly after I had read this question, I started to craft a narrative about it, but was halted by several worthy distractions. Now that my writing motor has restarted. . I think. . I felt it time to come back to it.
When I first started drafting my thoughts on this, a few events unfolded that lent more meat to my reflections. Sha’Carri Richardson’s Olympic dream ground to a halt as she was both punished and scrutinized for trying to manage the grief of her mother’s death by smoking weed. Then, my best friend of 40+ years was featured on Elle.com–an inspiring piece that left me digging deeper into the lost pursuit of my own dreams. A visit to the Culinary Institute of America put my son’s academic and professional dreams front and center. Finally, under the Olympic spotlight, Simone Biles wrestled with the challenges of the “twisties” while carrying the weight of the US Olympic team’s legacy on her shoulders.
All of these events led me to ponder the question, “Who really has agency over our dreams?”
On its surface, it should be a simple question to answer. But the cult of celebrity, the capitalist pressure of monetary success and the very real social and political constraints on our bodies and minds makes the answer not quite so simple.
I’ll stay away from too much commentary about Sha’Carri Richardson and Simone Biles. What I will offer is that I found it fascinating and tragic that these two women were so heavily scrutinized for tending to their own physical and emotional needs. Their means of self-care are irrelevant. Their critics broadcast the message that they were not entitled to ownership of their own bodies, health, grief or dreams. It’s impossible to confirm whether or not they would have been spared such judgment if they were of a different hue. However, what they experienced did feel like a remnant from a time when Black women’s bodies were owned by masters, their wives, and a brutal economic system in which they were literally the drivers of production. The parallel should make us at least uncomfortable.
And now we are staring down the looming overturn of Roe v. Wade, a landmark Supreme Court decision that allowed women to take control of their bodies, their family planning and in turn, the manifestation of their professional and personal dreams. My best friend of 40+ years, Alexis McGill Johnson, is the president of Planned Parenthood Foundation and kicked ass in a brilliant interview on The Daily Show where she stated matter-of-factly that “Most people do not want a politician in their decision.” This decision is about so much more than whether to carry a pregnancy to term. This decision for both woman and child is about the ownership of the trajectory of one’s life, full stop.
Lucky for me, I have had access to Alexis’s inspiring brilliance since I was 8 years old. The first time I ever saw her, she was doing cartwheels on our elementary school stage in a play. Donning afro puffs and fearlessness in her gymnastic feat, I was drawn to her confidence and the fact that she was a Black girl like me. Decades later, I am honored to have had a front row seat to her ascension as an important voice of advocacy and activism in the fight for social justice.
Last July, Alexis was featured on Elle.com and there was a particular part of the interview that stuck out to me.
When McGill Johnson was in high school, Condoleezza Rice, who at the time was a national security advisor in the George H. W. Bush administration, “was on TV every day, talking about Gorbachev, and the fall of the Soviet Union.” She was obsessed, watching Rice every chance she got and one of her mentors, an uncle-like figure, told her, “You know, that could be you. You’re really good at arguing. You’re really good at making a case. And I really see you being like her.”Alexis McGill Johnson Is Making Her Mark on Planned Parenthood, Elle.com, July 2021
As besties in high school, we were generally preoccupied with boys and passing notes in class so I had little knowledge of her obsession with Condoleeza Rice or the way in which it inspired her. I knew Alexis could argue–boy, can she argue, but we seldom didn’t see the same side of an issue. As I read these words, I was catapulted back to our high school years and had to ask myself, What was the object of my obsession back then? Watching Alexis’s actualization of this core part of herself in such an important and impactful context, I felt convicted in my own heart that I had not lived up to the example that had been in front of me most of my life.
My Love of the Stage
In high school, the object of my obsession was the stage, acting in dramas and musicals every year with the ambition of pursuing the life when I grew up. My ambitions were thwarted by a waning confidence within the reality of theatrical politics, and a less than supportive family unit. Over time, I never really let myself think about it until a friend’s middle-aged theatrical second wind inspired me to give it go.
So. . . when I saw the audition call for Central Park West, I became pretty excited. . .and then ambivalent. The old voices of doubt started in my head, especially as I contemplated the piece’s author, Woody Allen. Notorious for the lack of diversity in his films, Woody Allen’s justification is that he “always casts the person who fits the part most believably in my mind’s eye” and that affirmative action “does not work” in film. Sigh. Surely, it was unlikely that I would be cast in this play even if Woody Allen was not actually at the helm.
I was mistaken.
I was, in fact, cast to play the lead, Phyllis, a brilliant Upper West Side psychoanalyst with an attractive, yet morally bankrupt husband and a questionable group of friends. . .I don’t want to give too much away. In the US, there would have been plenty of middle-aged white New York women who could have played this part. No director would have had to think outside the box on this one. But here, in an European context, our Swedish director had a much more expanded vision of the part and was convinced, after a deserving audition, that this role was mine.
I remember the moment when I read the email letting me know I got the part. Gratitude, surprise, a little bit of terror when I realized that I would be taking to the stage again after decades. And to be cast in the lead– trusted with the responsibility of holding the story and the energy, an honor that had eluded me in high school–felt almost redemptive. It is a reminder that when we acquiesce our childhood dreams to parents or adults who neglect to nurture and encourage us, a restorative act of grace can come from a stranger down the road when we least expect it.
Playing Phyllis, being Phyllis, was a thrill of a lifetime. Performing on a stage in the very town outside of Paris where Josephine Baker made her home added a surrealism and anointing to the experience. As a writer, I savored all the ways I could play with the text and the role pushed me to stay grounded in my body in a powerful way, something I always struggle with as a part of healing trauma. My whole self was brought to the task and it was life in a state of pure bliss.
The Sanctity of Life
A couple of weeks before the play’s opening night, I was in New York City celebrating my 50th birthday with my beloved friends and family. I took Emmanuel, my son, for lunch one day and he asked me how the play was going. I was touched by his curiosity and support, especially as he was on the precipice of officially pursuing his own dream of becoming a chef. In that moment, I embraced the opportunity to look my son in the face and authentically share with him the meaning of following one’s bliss. The moment was pregnant with urgency.
I told Emmanuel that the play was going well, but the experience was something deeper than that. I explained how I couldn’t wait for rehearsals to begin each day and whenever we were rehearsing, I never wanted the time to end. I told him how I read the script at least two times a day without complaint and that I could talk for hours with our director and my fellow actors about what we were creating together. I looked at Emmanuel with all of the gravity that parenting sometimes demands and told him that this is what it means to follow your bliss and that if being in the kitchen and cooking gives him that, then he is destined to be a chef.
When I first started this piece almost a year ago, Roe v. Wade was the furthest thing from my mind and the experience of Central Park West had not yet appeared on my radar. Now, pondering the sanctity of life through the lens of our heartfelt dreams makes this reflection all the more poignant.
You know, people who want to have children often do it with the blurriest of intentions–to save a failing relationship, to fill some egoic need or emotional void, or because it’s the next step in the commitment journey. When we don’t examine these intentions closely or when the reality does not meet the expectation, the consequences can be life-changing for those very children. So, why would a society force the road of parenthood on those who would not have chosen it otherwise?
What is becoming clear to me is that we are all in possession of each other’s dreams. The particular American notion of individual grit and perseverance is nonsense. Our enduring connections to each other in relationship and in life- our brief but consequential interactions matter–parent to child; bestie to bestie; politician to constituent. The beauty of this idea is that choice sits at the very heart of it. We choose to nurture others or we choose to shame them. We choose to support or we choose to discourage. We choose to open our minds to what is possible or we choose to close them.
When we encourage others to make the choices that are aligned with who they really are, with their dreams for the future, no matter what they may include, we are, in fact, pro-life.
Image credit: Toni Carmine Salerno