Feel Like Making Dreams Come True (But I’m in my Underwear)
Turning 50 finally thwarts Sister Mary’s intimidation so I can become the writer I dream of
You know that dream. It’s a classic. Like the falling-but-never-hitting-bottom dream. Similar to the only-wearing-underwear-in-a-crowd dream. It’s the one where you didn’t go to a class and then all of a sudden you do, and it’s the final exam, and you know absolutely nothing. You can’t even guess at the correct answer because it’s an essay exam!
My subconscious had it playing on an endless loop. Whenever I had submitted a piece of my writing for publication, it put me back in high school and it’s a final exam for a class I had skipped out of because I had convinced myself that I didn’t need to go because it was English Lit, but…wait! It’s Trigonometry?! And to make things worse, not only am I in my underwear, but I get my period. I have no tampon.
Thank you for your submission was in my email inbox. I pictured an unpaid intern, sitting in a cubicle, stressed out about their student loan payments, laughing maniacally as they put my essay in the trash icon. I was instructed not to take rejection personally. They said we weren’t a good fit — it wasn’t me, it was them — as if we had been on a blind date that had held such promise, but by the time the appetizer arrived one of us had gone to the bathroom and never returned.
Maybe I wasn’t cool enough? I tried using hipper cultural references but they seemed too forced. Was I irrelevant? Perhaps my creative writing 101 professor back in the 1970s had been right? Humor writing was (in his words written in large, red letters across the first page of my first essay) fluff.
I had directed his attention to the blackboard. Write what you know had been written in chalk by him. Humor was what I knew. I had the genetic marker. It ran in the family, like nearsightedness and bad teeth.
He said I needed to be edgy.
I lacked edges.
He said I needed more metaphors for death.
If I had to ask, I would never be a writer. He crumpled up my essay and threw it in the olive drab trash can and told me to drop his class.
Oh, I get it. There’s your death metaphor.
Life went on. I got married. I had kids. Dogs. We bought a fixer-upper. So much material!
I joined the ranks of writers who write but have a day job. It was only a matter of time before I became the next Nora Ephron! I tapped out a few short pieces, mimicking her pacing, her phrasing, but there wasn’t enough room for another Nora, and they already had a David Sedaris.
Okay, but what about…? No one under the age of 50 knew or wanted an updated Erma Bombeck.
I would have to summon the courage to write like myself, but who was I, and would anyone care? If I wrote in a similar voice to other writers I admired, being rejected meant I only had to try harder to become more them, but to write as me, and get rejected meant I wasn’t good enough. My subconscious went into overdrive.
The Dream put me back in college, taking the final exam for a subject I knew nothing about while sitting next to the man I had broken up with right before I married my husband and I’m like, why am I with this guy? Didn’t we break up? Didn’t I get married to that other guy? Wait, I thought I dropped this class?! I woke up in a sweat (menopause?), afraid that the man snoring next to me was a different husband. He was not.
I needed a subconscious makeover.
The gray strand stood out among the field of chestnut browns, like a birch tree in a forest of pines. I knew there’d be others coming, bringing reinforcements in the form of lines and wrinkles. It was inevitable. I was 50.
A dot would mark the occasion on my life’s timeline, far removed from the cluster of dots from my younger days — getting a driver’s license, first-time sex, marriage, giving birth, buying a house — when the lifeline seemed endless. What did I have to look forward to? Checking the last box of the age range? System failure. Irrelevance?
“Now what?” I asked the woman in the bathroom mirror.
“Yeah, now what?” she replied.
I took a long look at the woman in my bathroom mirror. The narrow streak of silver meant she had done things. She knew stuff. She wasn’t a rookie. She was battle-scarred, and this shiny band of silver was her medal for bravery, for participation, for perseverance. I liked her.
“This is going to work,” I said.
“Damn right,” she said.
My previous mantra, Excuse me, I’m sorry, had been updated to F*** you! I’m 50.
The woosh sound of an email sent was no longer followed by my gurgling gut, doubts, and regrets. When the rejections came, I didn’t dwell or take to my bed. I pressed pause. Reset. Revise. Resubmit.
The Dream has the adult me, crammed into my second-grade desk. The nun is an amalgam of every scary nun I have ever had. Sister Mary Amalgam is going up and down the rows collecting the assignment that everyone has completed, but I never got the assignment!
She stops at my desk, takes belittling to a whole new level, and I realize that I’m not seven. I’m 50.
“Just a minute,” I say. “You can’t talk to me like this. I’ve had two children. I have a mortgage. I have gray hair. I don’t have to sit here and take this.” I get up. I leave. Poof. Sister Mary Amalgam silenced. I think, why didn’t I do this sooner?
The Dream hasn’t gone away, entirely. It’s changed. I’m never in my underwear. When I’m naked, I’ve got my 23-year-old body on, I always have a tampon, and for some reason, I’m a whiz at Trigonometry.