The summer camp where I’ve been working asks kids to write and create their own short plays.
My colleague Sarah directed this one that I watched last night. The basic premise: a teenaged writer is belittled by his overbearing mother for his dream of becoming a writer. “You’ll never do it!” she cries, throwing the notebooks in the trash. “Become a doctor and make us proud.”
It mostly follows the script for an adorable kids’ play: little nuggets, in matching t-shirts, doing and saying adorable kid stuff. And let’s face it, this is not new territory: underdog defeating the odds to follow their dreams to the stars is the basic premise of, you know, every inspirational story ever.
Here’s where it took the turn for me: I’m sitting in the back of this auditorium, sleep-deprived and distracted, worried about my own little nuggets about to perform, watching what is for all purposes an adorable if forgettable little play made by little kids.
And then that song “Demons” starts to play.
Silently, the kid playing the writer takes the notebook out of the trash and frantically begins to scribble. The other twelve kids slowly walk into the light and position themselves in such a way that with their bodies they’ve created a giant, fire-breathing monster, alive and writhing, kids on shoulders and kids underfoot. The author writes and writes and the overbearing mother backs slowly down, the giant monster rising, kids raising their arms, stretching out towards the sky. He writes. The monster crumbles and falls apart, suddenly just a pile of kids again. He writes. He looks up at the audience, right at my face. The lights go out.
Cue the waterworks. I’m gushing big gnarly snotty tears down my face.
Some of those kids are eight years old and they get it. Some of those kids are fifteen years old and they get it. I’m twenty-seven years old and, oh, oh, do I get it.
You expect demons from the places we’ve always been taught to expect them. Don’t do drugs. Don’t drink too much. Don’t fall in love too fast. You expect to find demons with your parents, with your family, with your religion, with your friends.
You don’t always expect them from, say, making a phone call to your student loan provider to ask what your options are when you simply cannot make a payment this month. Or next month. Or in all likelihood the month after that. Because you followed your dream all the way to your reasonably successful career in the arts, which at the present moment is allowing you to keep a roof over your head desperately hoping your car doesn’t break down on the side of the highway.
You don’t expect them when you start to resent all your friends for getting married. Not because you are that bitter cliché of a single girl bemoaning her own relationship woes. Because you love them so dearly and you have to choose between attending their wedding or making this month’s health insurance payment.
You don’t expect to find them when you snap at a kid for dumb kid shit, only to remember too late how awful it felt when you were that dumb kid. You don’t expect them in the millisecond afterwards where you think I would be a terrible mother.
You don’t expect to find them bleary-eyed in the drive-through lane at the Dunkin Donuts, where you feel like a failure forking over that $2.60 because you know you could have just woken up a few minutes earlier and made that coffee at home. And you do it again the next morning, and the morning after that, thinking about the coins slipping from your hands. If only I didn’t have to eat, you think, maybe things would be easier.
We all love that underdog story. We were raised on that underdog story. It’s Rudy and Rocky and Billy Elliot and Amelie. It’s The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars and Harry Potter, too. Follow your dreams. Somewhere over the rainbow, something else, something better, will happen. Go to college. Follow your heart. Reach for the stars.
Here’s the messy thing. I still believe in all of that. I have to. I think we all sort of do. How else would we keep going, even on the days when “follow your dreams” feels like the cruelest hoax since Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny?
I guess we write. And we breathe.
And we keep going.