A Dream Deferred: A Reflection and a Resolution

“A Dream Deferred”

by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up 
like a raisin in the sun? 
Or fester like a sore– 
And then run? 
Does it stink like rotten meat? 
Or crust and sugar over– 
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

     Until yesterday afternoon, I deceived myself with the notion that I understood this poem, believing it to be a simple outpouring of despair in the face of disappointment. But an unfortunate fall broke not only my arm, but my innocent insight into Mr. Hughes poem. You see, I am a competitive pianist who practices for hours each day. Ever since I began piano before kindergarten, I knew that (alongside literature, of course) it would be my passion. I would not allow myself to play volleyball and such sports and remained the dorky kid who wore wrist guards whenever active, all in attempt to protect my arms and hands for piano. Who would have guessed that I would slip on an empty strawberry carton whilst making breakfast the week of a competition and the AZ Piano Institute camp? And who would have thought that three little words- “You busted it”, thrown out so casually by the surgeon, could be so heartbreaking? Certainly now I know the meaning of a “Dream Deferred.”

    But while a deferred dream may be painful to both body and spirit and I confess that I felt that my life ruined as scholarships, competitions, and accompanying gigs fell away before my eyes, there is hope and even purpose to be found in my accident and within the lines of Langston Hughes’ poem. Notice that he does not write anything definite; every line is a question, a mere speculation about the fate of a challenged dream. Failure is not fatal and we can choose how we respond to the obstacles placed in our paths to success. In my case, God blessed me with enough strength to drag myself up and use the time I spent practicing to begin learning a new language and read the books of the AP Literature list so that my ambition does not “crust and sugar over.” I have also been introduced to wonderful people to advise and inspire me, sharing left-handed repertoire for piano so that I now can enhance my musical ability rather than let it “dry up like a raisin in the sun.”

     Notice also the final two stanzas. These clearly indicate the overarching idea that there is a choice in the face of a dream deferred. Hughes simply states that a deadened dream may “sag like a heavy load,” burdening its bearer with regret and unfulfilled desire to the point where he or she is too bitter and weary to find a new path. I will readily admit that I am tempted to give up and sit at home crying into a bowl of ice cream for the rest of the summer, but I do not believe that is what Langston Hughes would have done. In contrast, the final line returns to the open-ended question: “or does it explode?” Even in the face of great obstacles, dreams may be realized, if in a different way than we initially planned, thereby “exploding” into a grander accomplishment than possible on a wide, smooth path, free of danger or difficulty. For instance, I had never even considered left-handed piano music, but with my right arm in a cast, I am forced to adapt and may emerge an improved musician. The question presented in these final lines demands an answer: shall we allow ourselves to wallow in the proverbial “Depths of Despair” when our plans are interrupted? Or, will we allow ourselves to acknowledge that though we may “walk through the Valley of the Shadow,” all hope is not lost?

     Finally, I leave you with one more of my inexperienced thoughts: A dream deferred is not a dream demolished, a dream destroyed, a dream devastated, or a dream defeated, all of which describe something completely and utterly annihilated and irreparable. Rather, a dream deferred, by definition, is nothing but a dream postponed. Interrupted? More difficult? Disappointing? Yes, but hopeless? Never. 

“Let’s sum up… a little house, white and green or to be made so… with trees, preferably birch and spruce… a window looking seaward… on a hill. That sounds very possible… but there is one other requirement. There must be magic about it, Jane… lashings of magic… and magic houses are scarce, even on the Island. Have you any idea at all what I mean, Jane?”

                  ~Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery

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During a visit to my favorite book shop (Changing Hands), I met a kindred spirit who, like me, has an obsession with the adorable works of Miss Lucy Maude Montgomery. She introduced me to Jane, a literary sister of my beloved Anne and Emily. Needless to say, her namesake book, Jane of Lantern Hill, served to deepen my yearning for Prince Edward Island. (I would venture to call this yearning “homesickness,” but I unfortunately was born in plain, unromantic Phoenix, Arizona.)

This sweet book, simpler in style than some of Montgomery’s other works, renewed my longing to plant a garden, swim in the chilly sea, pick wildflowers along the coast, climb barn roofs, bake pies, run barefoot through green pastures, wake up to a blossoming tree outside my window, and watch the elfin flames of a driftwood fire on a starlit night. Somehow, I fear, the scorching 110 degree heat of my hometown just does not compare to these charming P.E.I. summers described in Jane of Lantern Hill. If only I could sail to the Island in body as well as imagination…but in this instance, reading can only take me so far…

Homesick for Lantern Hill

Writer’s Despair, the discouraging cousin of Writer’s Block

Have you ever been filled with despair because a book is too amazing to be true? Because the author’s wit flows effortlessly? Because the imagery bubbles from the pen as naturally as water from a spring? Because you just know that no matter how hard you try, nothing as profoundly simple, as beautifully tragic, or as utterly endearing can be birthed by your amature pencil.
So thanks a lot, Louisa May Alcott, for being about this bout of Writer’s Despair by your adorable novel, Jo’s Boys. I think that the only cure is more reading and scribbling, as prescribed by another despair-inducing author, Ray Bradbury.

An Old-Fashioned Girl

“A true woman… will be strong-minded, strong-hearted, strong-souled, and strong-bodied… strength and beauty must go together.”

                             ~Louisa May Alcott, An Old-Fashioned Girl

 

I recently found myself in need of what I would consider a “rose-pink” book, full of simple romance and tradition. However, I discovered that this little tale holds more wisdom than most pinkish novels. Despite its quaint title and innocent nature, there is a depth throughout it, as evidenced by the quote above. This book disguises a rather touchy subject, feminism and womanhood, as a classic comedy similar in style to Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel, Little Women.

When we are first introduced to the main character, Polly, we are enchanted by her gentle nature and musical talent, but as we continue we find her also capable of hard work, outspokenness, and selfless love. However, she is scorned by the “fashionable” crowd of ladies as “countrified” and “drab.” Why is this? Is Louisa May simply retelling the old tale of the country mouse and the city mouse? I do not believe so. By comparing lively, loyal, and lovely Polly to the shallow girls of high society, she exposes the devolution of society and, more specifically, traditional femininity. Although written in 1869, the book decries the fading of “earnestness, intelligence, and womanly dignity,” and declares that a lack of “purpose and principle” are condemning women to become “restless, aimless, frivolous, and sick.”

Louisa May Alcott continues this sorry exposition throughout, but does not end without offering the reader hope and a guide for achieving what she- and I- consider true feminism. Sweet Polly, dignified Grandmother Shaw, faithful Miss Mills, and independent Kate (who seems to be based off of the author herself…) spread sunshine in even the darkest times and places. They are all examples of women who lived full lives, but not necessarily because they ran out to perform men’s jobs, although they were certainly capable of doing so, but because they realized the necessity and power of their roles as women in bearing the burdens of their households, caring for those too rich or too poor to care for themselves, spreading joy through difficult times, creating beautiful art and music, and supporting each other through everyday struggles. They excelled and gloried in the roles traditionally ascribed to women, but were also independent and wise, pursuing their own careers and livings while simultaneously serving, cooking, socializing, and teaching. These women represent feminism in its purest form- not feeling obligated to abandon all domestic responsibility, but balancing independence and loyalty, strength of spirit and tenderness of thought, personal ambition and familial needs, and, ultimately, “strength and beauty.”  These are the values that, L.M. Alcott says, “make women truly beautiful and honored.”

(A small note: it seems to me that L.M.A. was familiar and fond of the biblical passage, Proverbs 31 and I would highly encourage anyone inspired by her words to read this chapter as well, for it absolutely captures the honorable woman she seeks to describe.)