Our Breath is the Wind of Dreams

Dreams by Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Covered with snow.

To Breathe a Dream by Linda Doughty

Taped to my desk and handwritten on a torn scrap of paper, Langston Hughes’s “Dreams” reminded me each day to hold fast. I was a paraprofessional, working at the Chatham College Library. I would earn $10,050 a year, with scant benefits. My title was Technical Services Assistant. We worked in the back of the library, processing and cataloging books and other library materials. I discovered the wonders of OCLC*, stumbled over countless other acronyms, F-keyed my way through WordStar, found joy in mail sorting, quashed my disbelief at the bureaucratic snarl of invoice processing and budget review, and supervised docile undergraduate students. I also learned how to find thin books to stow in the middle drawer of my desk so that I could read. Assigning fund lines for payments glazed my eyes over and there were days when I couldn’t take one more call from a vendor. My peripheral vision was good and I was adept at pushing the drawer back in with my belly. I read “The Old Man and the Sea” this way.

I was demoralized. I was holding fast to my dream of becoming a professional flute player. I’d recently completed my Master’s degree in Flute Performance at Carnegie Mellon University but had no money nor confidence. A conducting student had attached himself to me and it took years to shake him loose. He wanted me to “put my life on hold” and support his career. I made excuses for him. He was from Argentina. He was Jewish. His ancestry was Eastern European. He had childhood trauma. Surely he would understand my desire for a more egalitarian relationship and overcome all these obstacles to understanding me. Love would provide clarity in due course, of this I was confident.

I decided that he should get his doctoral degree in orchestral conducting, in large part due to a series of unfortunate circumstances that resulted in him losing his questionably appointed job at Carnegie Mellon. Basically, his mother had an affair with the new Music Department Head, who hired her son, misappropriated university funds, and lost his job in less than a year. Since I worked in a library I had access to the materials that allowed me to research our next step. The University of Arizona had both a doctoral conducting program and a library school. It seemed sensible for me to pursue a degree in library science. Tucson looked to be an active arts community. I thought we would have many more opportunities in a smaller, western city than in old-monied Pittsburgh. He applied and got into their conducting program. Then I applied and got in as a doctoral student in flute performance. We would both be graduate teaching assistants. This was my dream. He asked me, “When are you ever going to start acting right?”

I dreamed my way into a successful playing career. I burned through a couple of marriages then dreamed my way into a better life. I dreamed a son, I dreamed a family, I dreamed a life with pets. I dreamed horses back into my life.

I dreamed of retirement. I dreamed of quiet, of still, of peace, of time filled with cloud shows, of butterflies on blooms. Covid-19 opened that space. I grasped the doorknob. I let go and opened my hands. I stepped through the door with gratitude and horror.

I’ve burned. I’ve smoldered. I’ve erupted. Not proud of that part.

Dreams don’t die. Dreams drift like clouds. Breath has a warmth to melt the snow. Brokenness heals and healing breaks us open. Our breath is the wind of dreams.

“I think,” Tehanu said in her soft, strange voice, “that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn’t do. All that I might have been and couldn’t be. All the choices I didn’t make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven’t been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Other Wind