At work the other day, I saw a heartbreaking bit of bathroom-stall graffiti.
I work on the college campus that spit me out with a bachelor’s degree almost 20 years ago. On the way back from a meeting, I cut through a building I hadn’t been in for awhile. Years ago, this building housed the weekly student-run newspaper that called me its editor-in-chief. I had to pee, so I stopped in a restroom I’d used a hundred times before on breaks from 2 a.m. editing or story-writing stints.
On the bathroom wall, someone had written “Your Hopes and Dreams” with an arrow pointing down to the garbage can. I found myself longing for the days when graffiti was two names with a big fat heart between them. Like most people, I have up days and down days. But I never get so down that I believe hopes and dreams are destined for the trash can.
I think what got to me is that some 18-22 year-old student using the same toilet I frequented in my own inspiration-filled junior year was already jaded enough to write that.
For me, that dingy building with its puke-green and burnt-orange carpet (which has since been upgraded to a lovely industrial grey-blue) was a place where hopes and dreams were born, not tossed in the trash. At that time in my life, I believed anything was possible. I was going to take on the world with a keyboard, and I was going to spank the bitch’s ass.
I didn’t know I’d spend the next two decades making ends meet by tying them together with a very frayed rope. I didn’t know how burnt out I’d get on professional attire and meetings and the kind of jobs your mind can’t turn off just because the clock says 5 pm. I never dreamed Monday mornings would sometimes make me eat Tums for breakfast. Back then, “going to work” meant writing for and running a paper I loved. “Working in my office” looked like this:
Back then, my friends and I believed we were “girl wonders” who could be whatever we wanted. Long before Facebook spawned the “duck-faced teenage girl” epidemic, we were showing off just how ready we were to rule the world.
Back then I just lived, and experienced things, and believed wholeheartedly in a bright and shiny future. I thought if I busted my ass I would reel in the dream.
As I stared at the bathroom-stall graffiti, I realized just how long it has been since I was that girl. More than 20 years have passed.
Holy freaking shit.
The girl I was then would have called the graffiti artist a pessimistic asshole. But the 42 year-old woman who was just trying to sneak in a quick pee between meetings? She doesn’t like to admit it, but in her worst moments, she gets why someone would feel that way.
A part of my 40-something self wants to grab the smart-ass girl I was by the shoulders and say “Look, fool. The girl who wrote that has a point. See me? I’m YOU. You don’t know it yet, but you’re about to toss your dreams right in that garbage bin to spend the next twenty years doing safe, secure, ‘responsible adult’ stuff. You are about to put your creativity in a cage to spend your life paying a mortgage on a house you aren’t in much because you’re always at work.”
I wanted to beg her to take more risks. I wanted to tell her it would be OK not to know where her next meal was coming from for a few years after college if that was what it took to make a go at being what she really wanted to be. I wanted to tell her choosing the safe road and busting her ass on it wasn’t even going to earn her the financial security she was trading in her dreams for – she’d still end up living paycheck to paycheck.
But you can’t go back. You can only keep moving forward. If the graffiti artist who thinks hopes and dreams land in the garbage heap is a college student, I really feel for her. If you believe that when you’re just getting started, how do you feel after 20 years of scratching and clawing and bad decisions?
Maybe she’s not a student. Maybe she’s a tired near middle-ager like me, fed up with another day of data entry or cleaning bathrooms.
Whoever she was, my 20-year-old self would have some advice for her.
She would roll her eyes and say “suck it up, bitch. So your hopes and dreams got thrown in the trash. Sounds to me like its time to go dumpster diving.”
Since I can’t go back in time and change the choices she’ll make, I might as well listen to her now. It was her belief that we had all the time in the world that got us here, so I might as well make her partly responsible for fixing it.
That’s what I’ve been trying to do since I started writing again. I’ve been digging through the garbage I let get piled on top of my hopes and dreams. I’ve been wiping off the slop and trying to believe in my dreams again, even though they’re stained and wrinkled now.
Whatever her age, I hope the graffiti artist does the same someday. My fortysomething self has advice for her too, and she’d phrase it a little less harshly than Supergirl College Me. I’d tell her it does get harder as you go, but never impossible. I’d tell her that sometimes dreams go dormant because life is a lot of work and we get sidetracked. But they don’t become trash, unless we let them.