The Willow & War Blog

The Threat of Dreaming Out Loud

To those who almost lost the fire, or are in danger of it:

"This is the one course you need to graduate high school and I'm not sure you're ready for the real world."

Face flushed, jaw tight, I made my way across a scuffed linoleum floor to the door. Fluorescent lights cast shadows over my eyes. Pack slung over one shoulder. Brain swelling with latent comebacks and recalcitrant rage.

Never a model student by grade or conduct, I swallowed myself, reflexively shielding a fledgling flame of creativity and inspiration; trying to preserve this fragment of truth from the winds of assimilation and indoctrination.

Angst and scrambled idioms clogged my brain: I don't want your career and your machine. I don't want the world you’re selling. Say it. Write it. Scream it. Bury it in art and music and words.

I knew something, then. Fragile and honest.

My fingers brushed across a deep and indwelling truth, something massive, nonconformist, something beyond the mind of a sheltered, indignant 17-year-old. I felt it and dug my nails in because whatever it was, it was true.

Only years later could I know: people are born with a compass to the heart and keys to the cosmos but we trade in our familiarity with truth for the perfunctory tools of a role we're told to play. We become the line workers of mediocrity, fragile pillars of neighborhoods, schools, and institutions. We rise and fall only within the boundaries imposed upon us, to create an illusion of mobility and value.

But I didn’t have those words. Not yet. I could feel my humanity being ripped out and replaced with a motor. Kids like me got a label instead of a hearing. Discipline instead of discipling. We were called dissident. Angry. Hormonal. Distracted.

We got detentions.

I wrestled against a system and a broken world and found myself shoving against an iron structure that had rusted into the earth. Kids like me shouted into the wind after pounding on the walls. Like in dreams when we open our mouths but no words come out. Fear. Or desperation. We are left breathless. Labeled. Dismissed.

Told that we’re not ready for the real world, when the real world is the last thing we could ever want. When the real world was a looming pronouncement, a judgement, a prison.

Kids like me didn’t have those words. We couldn’t go toe-to-toe with professional adults to criticize the underpinnings of a society they stood on. We were snuffed out and left smoldering. Embers of truth extinguished in the name of production. Any kindness throughout was truncated by good intentions.

But kids grow up. Some of us didn’t forget. We held the the flame and let it flourish. We held the truth and let it consume us. We learned. We lived. Scars and all, we’re here. Alive. Burning. With words.

Speaking over you, over ourselves, defective and deficient, like we found the keys to the prison.

You are ready for the real world, because the real world was made for you.

Because the real world is not the abject reality peddled to our children. It’s not bills and debt and taxes. It’s not small screens and canned ideology. It's not politicians with bad hair and game shows. Those are trifles and pieces of something beyond.

The real world is the world you will create.

It’s a half-finished epic, a canvas with spectacular strokes, a song with just the bass-line. The real world is today for tomorrow and tomorrow forever. The future being bright and unclaimed. The horizon being untamed.

The world is yours to take. Don't watch it through glass smudged by fingers tracing sunsets. The fearful love fear because fear is safe, but being safe is not being alive. Entire kingdoms are built on the backs of people who find solidarity in the shadows.

Your sight in not fractured. Your love is not diluted. Your gut is not wrong.

You are ready.

The world waits for the people who live.

The world waits for the burning ones.


You don't have to be happy.

Let's just get that off the table. There's enough pressure to deal with every day without feeling like you've failed as a human being by 7am because you didn't wake up toothing the sun with a fake smile.

Like it's something you just pick off a lower branch on your way to work. Coffee in one hand, an extra-large grin in the other, no room for cream.

Life's not like the toothpaste commercials. 

I've heard so many people say to 'just choose joy'. Be happy! But that doesn't work. You know it doesn't. You've probably tried it. 

Prescribing happiness is a favorite pastime of motivational speakers and stay-at-home Facebook gurus who wear cartoon pajamas to Costco. 

It's been held up as the pinnacle of having your shit together. It's the holy grail for good people. 

But spend your life looking for happiness and you'll always be disappointed. Because happiness is a reaction. A response. A huge super-soaker of joy that is fun as hell to use, but quickly runs out of water.

You don't have to be happy.



But it's worth trying to be content. 

Maybe you'll stumble your way over to happiness after that, but try to be happy before being content and you're only fooling yourself. 

Because content is where you can be imperfect. It's where being okay is good enough for this moment. 

It's where we can be a bit of a mess - and on our way to putting the pieces together before dawn - we can breathe. We can breathe because we're not trying so hard to be happy, we're not pretending, we're not forcing, we're just accepting. 

There will be happy days. Or you'll be subdued. Or pensive. Or creative. Or angry. But contentment will draw you back to some center and release you from needing to be someone you're not. 

It's ironic when people are sad they can't be happy. So don't be.

If you're going to be anything, be okay. 

Find some peace.

And move on from there.


You don't have to be tough.

Heavy chest, feels like 9am was a push. Cycle through the usual rotary of inspirational quotes or verses and come up empty.

Empty like the hands we're turning over. Palms facing sky, soft altars offering up one-word prayers.




And empty hands is a great way to begin. Because we can't be tough forever. We can't ride adrenaline and caffeine until we crash through our doors at 6pm.

You don't have to be tough. But if you want to be strong.

You need to let someone open those white knuckles, love, so you can receive.

Palms up.

Receive your name. It's been too long since you've just listened to it. You have worth.

Receive your hope. It's been too long since you've been built up. You have a name. You have worth. Your life has meaning.

Receive your identity. It's been too long since you've drawn your strength from anything other than effort. You have a name. You have worth. Your life has meaning.

And you're strong because of who you are, not what you do. Not what others see. But who you are.

Your identity is your strength. You don't have to put up the fists. You don't have to grind your teeth. You don't have to hold the heavy world.

You have to hear your name.

And be strong, again.


You don't have to be nice. 

Nice is the Botox of human dispositions. 

It's an injection of switchblade smiles to cover up the truth that we don't know how to be kind or civil. A true smile is in the eyes, but when we're nice, the paralysis only allows for a slight crease in the lips. 

Kindness, however, is that kind of natural beauty stopping people on the street. Because it's rare. And it's cultivated. It's attractive. Magnetic. It leaves you with an impression. It comes from a deeper place. 

Kindness comes from authenticity and unshakable identity. 

But not like Instagram authentic, where you're "real" because there's a trending hashtag. And not like your grumpy-ass friend who is just "being real" whenever she/he barfs up criticism. 

The real woman has molten iron in her veins. She's warm to the touch but is metal inside. She's not nice. Not even close. She might swear. Probably, actually. And she's either fearless or has more courage than you or I.

Real people are not nice, they're kind. 

They're not agreeable, they're straight-shooters. 

They're not pushovers, they're resolute. 

Real people don't smile unless they want to and when they do, it's in the eyes.

Be real.

And be known for your kindness.



That's what we're promised. Like we have to be convinced of this fact.

But we return to our cages. We're familiar with the coolness of metal on the soft of our cheeks. As much as it keeps us in, it keeps the rest out. And that feels like safety.

We learn to live the cage. It is the eternal excuse for the well-intentioned. At least I tried. That's what we say. Is that my voice?

Because to be free means we have something to lose. And choice. And the dread that follows hope around like a shadow, even on dark days. There's risk here.

Freedom is not peace. Or joy. Freedom is owning yourself. Freedom is unmerited grace. It has substance. Weight. Worth.

You are free and you have worth.

And anything of worth, I suppose, can be lost.

Freedom can be terrifying when all we've seen is a sunrise through the grate. To run towards that light...maybe we never thought that could happen. Better to not dream. Better to stay here. Better to keep to our solitary shadowy kingdom than to have something and lose it.



Better to risk losing something of worth than to forfeit the inheritance; what could be. Better to run in open fields. Better to try. Better to fail and rise again.

To rise, the same way our freedom came to us.

To rise.

This is freedom.