From the time we are born, people speculate on our future. “This baby genius is going to Harvard!” Often, the ambition is much grander than we are. All children are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A very open-ended question, especially considering the fact that some of us grow up faster than others. Teacher and Marine Biologist are chosen more often than necessary.
I can recall setting up my brother’s wooden play kitchen in the living room and playing priest over my imaginary primary colored altar preparing the afternoon snacks as body of Christ for my brothers and sister. Not that I ever told anyone I wanted to be a priest. I was a girl and a Catholic, so that wasn’t even possible.
There are limits to what you can do as I later learned sitting on the army recruitment bus at my middle school thumbing through a glossy join the army catalogue while in the dark as a military promotional video played. You have to be 5’2” to be a lady in the army? I was stunned and disappointed. Not big enough to carry the biggest gun. I threw the catalogue in the trash.
The truth is that I never had a solid plan on what to do with my life. I knew I could write poetry but that wasn’t a paying job, so I drifted toward broadcasting because I was addicted to the music spewing out of my pink FM cassette radio. I knew from the get-go I was not going to make bank in the broadcasting industry but I figured it was enough just for me. Fuck my imaginary husband and any kids we might have, they are on their own.
I never fulfilled my decided dream of being a radio DJ although a friend once let me run the board during his DJ shift once at Classic Rock Z-93. Touching the fader bars was enough and really, it wasn’t that much different from the TV master control job that I eventually ended up doing for ten years. I touch buttons and they pay me. The only purpose being to make sure everything worked when the salaried workers went home and to air tacky commercials of Tang and Scrubbing Bubbles. Definitely not as fun as playing records and talking to an audience.
By the end of my career, I had seen every episode of Touched by an Angel and had endured countless evangelical preachers beg for money in exchange for prayer cloths, not to mention all the dumb infomercials I put into the tape machines. I’m begging you not to buy this stuff, folks. It hurts all of us. Mostly me, because I can’t stand to watch Suzanne Somers squeeze her aging thighs together one more time!
While employed by the media, I borrowed thousands of dollars from the federal government to study serious stuff: poetry. It wasn’t Marine Biology but I could write about a dolphin and I was halfway there. A lot of people I studied with were kids, not cynical working adults like myself. They studied abroad in Ireland and were too young to drink. Naturally, we wrote about different things.
It’s probably because I never lived on campus. The federal government didn’t loan me enough money, so I had to use my job to rent a $200 room in uptown Grand Rapids. They call it uptown now but twenty odd years ago, I called it crack whore death with fire. I once saw a car on fire driving down the road out my upper bedroom window. I just stared at it on the darkened street and it drove right on. If there was something you should do in a situation like that, I certainly didn’t do it. Another time, a giant fight was gathering in the parking lot of my laundromat just a few blocks up. I pulled into the parking lot with baskets ready and abruptly backed out. I could see that wearing dirty laundry was much preferable to a shot in the face.
I often read Faust and Emily Dickinson poems at the laundromat surrounded by immense Latino families (why does Tia need to come too?), screaming babies, and choking on the overwhelming indoor smoke of cigarettes from the battered table beside the old Coke machines. The homework seemed as much a chore as doing laundry. I enjoyed very little of college life compared to the well fed theory espousing students who would tell me my short story is not actually a story and that Sharon Olds should not be writing poems about her period.
I never even made any friends at college save a few poets who I would drink pitchers of beer with at Founders. All three of us were taking Prozac at the time. I don’t even remember their names. They had wanted me to come to Ireland with them to study poetry in Dublin. The trip cost $8,000. Robbing a bank seemed preferrable to spending the summer airing Ron Popeil infomercials to stupid Americans but I wouldn’t quit a full time job with benefits to prance around Europe like an asshole admiring green pastures, warm beer, and writing poems about it for credit.
College was an illusion for me. People aren’t expected to go to college anymore. We have Fox News now and you can be smart by donning a smug smile and telling other people to shut up. You can be a plumber now and even though you’ll have a prominent ass crack and still can’t afford to buy a house, the establishment will give you a polite pet and thank you for not tricking society into thinking you are worth a college education.
A lake house and a boat? Oh Betsy, who needs that when you have a double wide hoard exploding into the front yard and a Chevy up on blocks?
The crock of life never lies. “You’re not going to space, Johnny.” You can break his heart now or wait until society crushes his soul into a tiny cubicle with a single phone to sell insurance. Probably why God said this lady (me) is not having kids, she is ruined with the knowledge of the ages and can’t be cured.
A year ago, a woman at the Isabelle Phoenix Art Gallery started yelling out my name. “Missy Rogers! Who is Missy Rogers?” It was a reception for an art show I was a part of called, Nevertheless She Persisted. Two of my poems dealing with childhood angst and my time in a mental institution were on display. I nervously approached the woman, who clearly was much older than me, maybe 70ish. She lavished her praise on me for my art and then, demanded to know what my intentions were for my work.
I was dumbfounded. I mean, well, I had just put them in an art show. That is something more ambitious than just showing them to my mom.
I mumbled something about writing for myself but that wasn’t a satisfying answer to her. She genuinely seemed confused by my reaction. I couldn’t answer. I hadn’t even really thought about it or expected someone to lay out my poetic ambition in a power point slideshow type progression of attack.
I want to say now, “Look lady, I’m just a disabled mentally ill person who sells jewelry on Etsy, I’m probably not going to lecture around the country or sell 8 books to people who still buy books.”
And what I want to explain is that this type of ambition she is alluding to is a luxury. It’s a privilege. It’s not a given. If you’re busy wiping a poopy butt, getting beat by an abusive spouse, or working three jobs to make bank every week, you are not thinking of great ambitions. You are thinking, “My God, how am I going to survive this one week, this one day, this one minute of hell.”
I didn’t write a lot of poetry in college except for what was required and it came out strained and a bit laboured, to be honest. I surely didn’t write much poetry, if any, in my early 30’s when I was separated from my husband, living in a $300 room in downtown Lansing, taking college classes (again), and working three jobs tutoring South Koreans in English by phone, editing a Chinese immigrant’s college papers, and cleaning the college’s computer lab, which trust me, is much more disgusting than you can possibly imagine. Who in the fuck is peeling and eating fucking shrimp back here? I did, however, drink a lot at local bars, dance in high heels, and eat cake. Lots of luscious cake that I made my fucking self sprinkled with multi colored chocolate sunflower seeds.
The expectation is that I will take my gift and spread it over the land influencing others and making great bank. Sounds kinda boring and why I never enter writing contests. I know I can win and if I don’t, those judges are probably judgy judgersons who don’t know a poet from a stock broker. Most ambition is truly meaningless when transformed into societal expectations.
Unless you have this incredible resume that you put on Linked In and you butt kiss all your friends, even that guy in Ghana you never met but who randomly friended you last week.
I don’t argue with the emotional need for acceptance, a place in the world, and the drive to be something in life that ultimately excites you. There is pride in your contribution to the world and imagining what that might be like when young.
Assuming all our ambitions look the same is what is problematic and presumptive. It extends into branches of capitalism, elitism, and even sexism, which I won’t address here but I leave you with this small gold nugget–
Sing your future as you spin it and let no others hold your thread.