You can dream a little dream
Or you can live a little dream
I’d rather live it
Cuz dreamers always chase
But never get it

— Aesop Rock

Six hours from now, my alarm will go off. I’ll fumble around in the dark for my bed stand, slapping for the snooze, likely spilling water and/or knocking something valuable to the floor. Twenty minutes later, wiping sleep from my eyes and squinting in the morning sun, I’ll get on my bike and fly toward work. An hour from then, breakfast will be served up in bar form. Spreadsheets filled with millions of dollars of assets, line items representing pieces of reality, will take over my brain. Coffee will be brewed and ingested, meetings attended, and documentation laid out. A blitzkrieg of acronyms will require unraveling. A spread of accounting procedures from around the world will require translating. Mismanaged orders from foreign divisions will need corrections. Phone calls will be placed and answered, labs will be scoured for missing gear. I’ll check and recheck my email. Routine will continue in an organized frenzy, carrying me toward that final hour on the clock.…

Six hours from now, sleep-shy and carrying an overabundance of familiarity with my same daily pattern, I’ll start all over again. Six hours from now, I’ll clock in to a routine that many of us follow: wake, work, play (briefly), and sleep. Six hours from now, I’ll fumble in the dark for my alarm and step into my routine, one last time.

Six hours from now I’ll take the seed of an idea and attempt to turn it into a new reality. Six hours from now I start the process of something different.

_____

I had worn the shirt again. It was what prompted his question. The shirt itself was nothing special — black with long sleeves, normally not worth noticing, save a small, embroidered inscription on the chest. It was the inscription, though, that prompted him to ask me about the South Pole — if I had been there, what it was like, if I had seen penguins. Standing there, getting coffee, I offer him the story of the Antarctic life in brief, the hows and the whys of it. Encouraged by his curiosity, I explain to him how to find work on the seventh continent, the benefits and sacrifices of doing so, and a little of the personalities that find their way there.

His eyes hold the sparkle of an idea — on his face he’s forming the beginnings of a daydream of standing on a polar plateau. His questions bear the excitement of the daydream building in his system. He smiles wide as I lay out the details by which he can pursue the dream on his own. Then, in an all-too-familiar fashion, darkness hurriedly falls over his cheeks, like a mountain-weather storm front. It seeps into his voice and dampens his animated pitch to a lower range.

“I wish I could do that,” he says, defeat creeping into his hushed tone.

I want to grab him by his shoulders, wrest away the defeat and yell emphatically, “You can!” I want to lay out (again) the steps of how I made it happen for me, of how thousands of others did as well. I want to beg him to show me an idea, a dream that he is currently chasing. I want to not feel the loss in his words, the loss that so many become lost in. I want to stop another unfulfilled dream from crashing upon the shore of our modern world.

I want to do all of these things, but I don’t. I walk away, pondering the fear that can be found in the space between dream and the pragmatic call of day-to-day life. Pondering how not to fall victim to the same trap.

_____

Modern science tells us that our brains are elastic, stretching and expanding while young, hardening and growing more brittle as we age. A recent British study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry posited that for each year worked past retirement, the onset of Alzheimer’s disease could be delayed by an average of 18 months. Even as young as our early 20s, the areas of our brain that assess risk solidify, increasing our aversion to activities we would have leapt after only years before.

The routines that we build around our lives become forms, massive structures surrounding an ever-hardening self. Fail to stir the mix or alter the aggregate, and when the forms are removed, the routine taken away, we can no longer adapt to the new surroundings. Routine can fast become a form of risk-aversion, an avoidance of all things uncomfortable, an excuse to steer clear of the unknown. We can keep speculated negative outcomes at bay, but at the loss of growing through challenge. By following routine as mantra, we shortchange one of the greatest strengths of human kind — the pursuit of beauty and good in the face of adversity.

What does it take, then, to stretch our hardening minds? Do we carry the strength to choose a different routine? The strength to choose no routine? Do we have the strength to carry on when forces outside our control break our mold? In the midst of economic meltdown, large-scale job losses, mounting medical expenses, and the multitude of hardships, can we find the opportunity for a new perspective? Can we bail out of a life as habit and into a life of challenge and purpose?

_____

Frustrated by the statements of “I wish I could do that” heard throughout my life, I consistently aim to not say the same myself. It’s a challenge that I have often failed to meet, but an ideal to strive for. By seeking what I want instead of only dreaming about it, I have lived in Antarctica; in the heart of ancient forests; on the edge of oceans and of deserts; in expansive cities and quiet mountain towns. I have experienced work as a cook, trail builder, youth leader, crew leader, alternative teacher, project manager, emergency response coordinator, wilderness first responder, graphic designer, systems administrator, logistics coordinator, inventory controller, political organizer, and as a writer. I know what it is like to work for private industry, for nonprofits, for the government, and for myself. I have known love. It has been my good fortune to learn and to try a great many things.

My attempts and triumphs, however, have not been clear of failure.

I have known long periods of unemployment and depression, loneliness and confusion of direction. Debt weighed down my neck for years. Many I have loved have passed on or moved on. More often than not, the dreams that I have sought came about not from the first path or first attempt, but from the second, third, or fourth. Often the route to a goal changed, sometimes so much so that the goal itself was transformed. I find courage and perseverance in the stories of others — in veterans and immigrants, in the day-to-day struggle of family, and in the perspective of a grandfather who refuses to look at life without a smirk for all of its absurdity.

I have learned, with my own blood, sweat, dollars, and tears, that the risk is worth the reward. We are far better served by challenging the status quo than by upholding it.

_____

Four years ago, while biking on the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand, an idea formed in my head. It has since stayed with me through two major attempts at creating routine in my life, at settling down in a nature alien to my personality. Now, on the edge of a layoff from my current employer, I have another opportunity to jump away from routine. I have an opportunity to tear an idea from the fog of a dream and to make it my reality.

In six short hours I’ll be wrapping up the final pieces of a life in Colorado to go back home to Minnesota. I’ll be packing up everything into storage, save 50 pounds of gear in a trailer, my bicycle, and myself. For an entire summer I’ll seek out a cross-section of Minnesota in the random folk that I meet. I’m out to see if I can listen well enough to hear their stories, to hear how they challenge routine, perhaps to encourage someone to push their boundaries, perhaps to find that I still need to push against my own. The weather will find me, as it often does, with no more shelter than a tent. I want to see Minnesota (rural and urban) without the veil of cynicism that has crept into my postmodern life. In six hours, I’ll set out to understand the land I came from, so that I might better understand the lands I have yet to travel to.

_____

“I wish I could do that,” he says. 

Turns out, you can. Sometimes all you need is to try.

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