We are just back from New York City. My family and I were in Manhattan performing our original musical – Happy If Happy When — as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity.
Years ago, my partner Geoffrey and I had a dream of moving to the country and making art inspired by the natural world. Our musical is about how that dream came true. Our musical is that dream coming true. And once we made the musical, the idea of sharing it with others – in NYC – came soon after.
Performing it there got me thinking: What’s in a dream?
As I use it, a “dream” is a vision of a way of being. It’s not just about getting some thing like a Jaguar or a yacht; nor accomplishing a particular activity, like cruising the Mediterranean or climbing Mt. Everest. It’s an idea for how to live a life – how to be and become in relation to other persons, places, and things – that cracks you open, uses you up, and empties out your potential to give.
As the opening song says: It’s not just a whim, wish, or fantasy,
But a deep-seated thrill a strong longing
For a touch of adventure that breaks the spell and
Frees you to reveal a force you can’t conceal –
A love that can guide you to what’s more real.
But as the musical is quick to tell, dreams are often perplexing enterprises. They are prickly, complicated creatures. To follow a dream is to embark on a journey. By the end you will no longer be the same.
1. Dreams have lives of their own. Dreams are alive. They poke and prod, sting and stick, and otherwise demand that you move. You have to feed them else they will die. You need to protect them for they can be shy. You can starve them, but they will niggle; you can ignore them, but they will tickle until finally you take a step to let them live.
When a robust dream of rural life visited Geoffrey and me, we embraced it wholeheartedly. We gave it lots of attention – we talked about it and planned for it. We took it on trips to Vermont. We held it close, kept it safe, and practiced living as if it were true. As we did, we changed into the people who could and would:
Make a plan, stick to it, [and] become aware
Of opportunities that come and open the door.
Keep the faith we’ve no idea what’s in store….
2. Dreams don’t always feel good. To embrace a dream is to feel a lack; and to commit to keep feeling that lack, whatever comes. Sometimes you know there’s much farther to go.
The “want” songs in the musical express the characters’ deeply rooted longing for some reality – some way of being – whose coming is not guaranteed. When – How ‘bout now – What if I count to ten? Or Slowly, slowly, where is a move I can make… One that will help me escape?
This feeling that something is missing and not yet right can be fierce and furious. Such feelings easily shade into sensations of doubt and despair. Embracing a dream makes you vulnerable to the fear that it might never come true. As one character asks: What if they say no?
To hold onto a dream is to learn to ride the waves of wanting – to learn to catch the current and ride its fury. It is to learn to feel grateful to the dream for interrupting your life and disturbing the peace; it to learn to believe in the dream and flow with it. Sometimes you get boiled. Sometimes something dies. That is life.
3. Obstacles are inevitable – and necessary. It would be nice if, as one character puts it, an enormous angel sat on the end of my bed and gave me everything I want! But then again, would it? Life doesn’t work that way.
At one point in the musical, after the family makes it to the farm, everything falls apart. No one is happy. Everyone is yelling at one another – because everyone wants more.
Mom sings: What’s in a dream if I don’t have the means to stop all of this screaming, including mine?
Where is the sharing, the caring I came to find, this is no dream of mine.
Dreams create obstacles, in the same way that waves create sandbars. The dream pushes to the surface what cannot be seen without it: the work that must be done, the mountain that must be traversed in order to get to the other side. That work, in turn, prepares you to receive the gift of what you are seeking. The more you commit to making it happen, the more of you is open to field its coming.
Mom realizes: A dream doesn’t answer every woe.
It’s one more opportunity to know that what matters is love….
4. Dream catching is a team sport. No one can do it alone. There are always people, animals, entities – relationships with powers that sustain us – whether those beings are living or dead, present in the moment or far away. There is the thought of them, the comfort from them, the devotion to them, that conjures in us the resilience and creative thrust needed to rise above the obstacles that appear, and keep flying.
If anything, this theme is one of the strongest in the musical. No one member of the family is able to progress without the help of the others. With each twist in the path, a new obstacle appears; and as it does, one of the characters has the will, the drive, the vision, the superpower to blast through.
Sarah finds the farm. Dad’s love frees Mom to embrace it. Hank is the first to hear the ghosts in the barn, and lead the family towards earth-friendly lives. It is not one against the other in a competition of elimination; it is everyone for the other, with each coming to realize a truth that connects them all. As the sisters sing to one another: The higher you fly, the richer am I.
5. Not everyone has a dream. In the musical Eliza doesn’t. She doesn’t know who she is or what she wants to do. She sings: I want to see the future in me! The farm for her is a foreign place. It doesn’t speak to her. She cannot hear what it is calling her to do. She runs away in search of a reason to stay.
Yet what she finds is not her dream – but the knowledge that she is OK without one, just as she is; she can be happy now. Once she comes to this realization, she discovers in herself an ability she did not know she had – to cope in a crisis and empathize with those who are hurt and lost. She helps her siblings get what they want.
6. Dreams do come true – for a moment. Sometimes it happens. A dream comes true. The gift is a blessing – a heart-throbbing blast of excitement – a swirling, lifting glow of happiness – the thrill of a moment in which an ideal and what’s real fuse in perfect union.
It lasts only for an instant. Maybe a few. As the glow softens and radiates, the dream, in the fullness of its mature self, reproduces. Making more dreams, new dreams, that soon begin to prick and prod all on their own.
A dream is not about getting, but growing. It is not about attaining a goal, but about finding a way to participate in the ongoing creation of what is. It’s not about happy if or happy when, but happy now. And understanding that is the key to living a dream.
There’s always happy if.
There’s always happy when.
But in this moment I can find,
A joy that’s on this earth, here and now, with me all the time.
7. Dreams are bits of love looking for a way into the world. In the end, as I see it, a dream is a burst of life force, coming alive in you, wanting more for you, more of you, and more from you, so that the world can one in which people work together to help each other realize their dreams… and live lives that sustain the earth and one another.
Love is always after you,
Lighting up the dreams inside of you!
Some will blaze to life and you’ll become
One who wonders… How did it all get done?