January 2017 / Painful life lessons & writing / reading time: 8 minutes (2000 words)
I blame La La Land.
Okay I love it. It is joyous and moving and wonderful and I’d recommend it to anyone. But I came out of it wanting to chase my dreams and never give up on them and…I don’t know if that’s a good thing.
You see I chased my dreams and it’s not always gone the way I hoped. It’s not always worked out the La La Land way (and, no, that’s not a spoiler – go see it yourself ya bum!)
I’ve been the fool who dreams but over the course of these four dreams and a burnout I was forced to learn how to dream smart.
The first dream was when I was 22 years old…
Dream 1: A feature film by the age of 26!
I wanted one of my screenplays made into a bonafide movie. Why by 26? Well I had heard that was Tarantino’s age when he made Reservoir Dogs so that was good enough for me. I was sure that if I succeeded in achieving it then I’d feel a joy and sense of order in the universe. All pain would cease in my life. It would be like achieving nirvana while still getting to enjoy materialism.
I chased that goal hard. Wrote one screenplay in four days (and didn’t worry too much if it was any good). Wrote and wrote and wrote. But it didn’t take long for the problems to start.
From about 23 years old on, I became tired all the time. My GP couldn’t explain it. I drank loads of energy drinks, but I was working with writers as a script editor and the energy drinks made me gassy. I’d belch a lot. Ugh.
At 24 years old, in stressful situations, I sometimes felt sick. I had to leave some meetings because of fears that I was going to vomit. I thought it was illness and ignored the nagging worries that it was more than that more than that.
And there was another problem, the writing wasn’t going the way I wanted. It didn’t look like I was going to make that deadline. And my script editing hit a brick wall. Plus I found out that Tarantino was actually 29 when Reservoir Dogs was released so I pivoted and my new dream was…
Dream 2 – School twinning between Ireland and East Timor
I was 25 years old when I ended up in East Timor in South East Asia. I witnessed the suffering of the Timorese when they bravely voted for Independence. (Read Out of my depth: Observing East Timor’s Independence Vote for the full story).
Engaged and energised by what I’d witnessed and desperate to help Timor, my dream changed. I started setting up links between Irish and Timorese schools and scouts for solidarity and fundraising.
It wasn’t long before the same fatigue started to hit again. At 26, during one trip I got diagnosed as having Dengue Fever. Somehow I managed to complete my work. Once I was recovered, I went back to pursuing my East Timor dreams with a renewed fervor.
During a trip to East Timor in the summer of 2002 things started to fall apart. I was 28. Ireland was playing in the world cup without Roy Keane. I wrote Timor Update emails to Irish students, teacher and scouts that gave glimpses of what was going on.
June 3rd – 13th June:
‘Dear friends, I ended up not making it to Remexio school until Wednesday after waking up on Tuesday and realising that there was no way that I had the energy to go anywhere. It does take a lot out of you to visit these schools, especially as the foreign guest you get a lot of attention from the moment you get up to the moment you go to sleep. This always fun for a while, but it can get tiring.’
‘After the Remexio visit and the other work, I was pretty tired and Monday and Tuesday were my honorary weekend. Monday was spent mostly lazing about in bed or buying chocolate and fizzy drinks in the kiosk (small shop) next door and veging in bed.’
I thought I was over it, but it got worse.
June 13th – July 3rd:
‘Despite feeling tired I was initially intent on soldiering on and kept with the schedule. I visited Aileu. It was a long day, about five and a half hours of driving, plus the different meetings, but things were back on track. Or so I thought.
‘Sunday was spent mostly asleep as was Monday. On Monday afternoon I was working, but finished the day drained. I decided to take Wednesday off and sleep and planned to go to Maubisse school on Wednesday as fit as a fiddle. I joke to myself that this might have gone to plan if it hadn’t been for the trauma of the Irish – Spain match on Monday, but really I was too far gone.’
‘On Tuesday night I realised that there was no way I was going anywhere on Wednesday or for the rest of the week. I needed some real rest. Wednesday was spent in bed. On Thursday I went up to Maubisse to apologise for the delay and explain the situation. I then returned to Dili and my bed. Friday, Saturday and Sunday were all spent sleeping and recovering. And then Monday and Tuesday. It got to be a running joke in the house with the Timorese family that all I did was sleep.’
Yes, it was a running joke to the family I lived with, but I wasn’t laughing. In those emails I made light of it. I didn’t mention the hours and hours of lying in a small bed under a mosquito net in a tiny, hot room while all the world seemed to go on without me. I had enough energy to get out of bed to go to the toilet or meals, but not to do anything else. I had nothing to do but fester in guilt at failing the children in Timor and shame that others were doing much harder jobs than me and seemed to manage fine. It was one of the loneliest and lowest times of my life.
I couldn’t fool myself that I was sick and just needed to get well and then restart the work. I had been ignoring signals – the fatigue, the illness, etc.. – for years. I had to give up on the dream. I decided that I’d finish the project soon, but in the short term something had to change:
‘There isn’t enough time and the schools are too far apart. It breaks my heart, but one of the schools needs to be dropped from the project. It will have to be Sallele Junior High School. They were the last students to join the project and their school is 7 hours away from Dili. I’ll be disappointed to let them down, but in the long term it’s the right decision because otherwise all the schools would suffer.’
Dream 3 – An actual dream
I was so worn out that I couldn’t manage the journey to Sallele in one day. Myself and my driver Paulino stopped off in a tiny, rundown B&B half way there. That night I had a dream.
In the dream I am walking along a wall by the sea. There are rocks a few feet below. It’s windy and gray. I see a piece of paper fluttering between the rocks. I climb down and pick it up. There’s something written on it. It says:
During the three hour journey to Sallele, I told Paulino the dream. I was so burnt out that the dream seemed like prophecy to me. We tried to work out what it meant together, but were baffled. Still Paulino drove extra carefully and tied all our luggage down carefully in the back of the pickup. He worried it could be predicting a travel accident or some disaster.
We arrived at Sallele school. I delivered the school materials bought with the Irish fundraising. I greeted the excited children. They received their letters from students in Ireland with joy. I put off saying anything to anyone about my decision. It felt like I was betraying these kids.
Myself and Paulino stayed with the school principal. That night, I told him that the link between their school and Ireland was finishing. He was very disappointed. He told me how important it was to the students and his school. He almost begged me to keep the link going. I started to imagine doing just that. One more school wouldn’t make a great difference…
Just as I was about to back-track on my decision, I understood the dream. I wasn’t even thinking about it, the meaning just came to me. I realised ‘If it is still on then tomorrow will be a bad day’ meant ‘If the link with Sallele continues then it will be very bad for my physical and mental health in the future.’
All wavering ended. I told the principal that I was disappointed too, but that there wasn’t any choice. The link was ending.
I couldn’t cut and run. It took me a year and a half to finish off the East Timor project honourably. It took me another year to recover fully from the burn out. I hadn’t learnt my lesson, of course. I went off chasing a new dream and didn’t listen to the signals again and got myself burnt out again. I’m only just recovering now.
So have I learnt my lesson? Have I given up on dreams? Well not exactly –
Dream 4 – Getting a novel published
Yep, I’m still dreaming. And I’m dreaming big. I want a book published. I want a career writing children’s fiction and other fiction. But on bad days chasing this dream takes over and bosses me around. Gets me worried I’m not good enough, who’d want to read my books, etc.. But mostly the difference between this dream and previous dreams is my approach to it. I no longer fool myself that success in writing or any other achievement will bring happiness or freedom from pain other than momentarily.
Also I no longer rush off headlong after my dream. I approach it slowly and steadily. I write while my kids are at school. I do 10 minutes of meditation before I start each morning. At 11:15am an alarm goes off on my phone and I stop for a fifteen minute snack break. At 1pm, the alarm goes off again and I have a half an hour lunch. At 2:10pm I finish work and go pick up my children from school. Five days a week I keep to this routine. It’s a marathon not a sprint now.
There’s nothing glamorous about this. Sometimes I feels so routined that it’s painful. I want to stay up all night, drink whiskey (even though I don’t like it) and write the great Irish novel. I want to scribble out my thoughts and nail them to the doors of churches or shopping centres. But I know that wouldn’t lead anywhere good so mostly I keep to the routine or go back to it when it slips (as it does regularly), because it keeps my writing in balance with being a husband, friend, parent, son, etc..
Right now I’ve got one more draft on my novel and then I send it out to agents. I’m writing the 1st draft of my second book. I’m more productive and focused in my writing than ever before. This approach seems to be working. But the fact is, I don’t know what’s around the corner. All I can do is listen for the signals and try to respond to them, but I never know – that burnout fecker has surprised me before.
So this blog post is a call to arms for all of us for whom chasing dreams rashly can sets us off track and disrupts our lives. We all need dreams and we need to dream big, but we don’t need to be a fool who dreams like the beautiful people in La La Land.
Here’s to the smart dreamers- we can still dance!
Lie down on my couch. Bitte schon. Tell me about your dreams. How have they worked out for you?