I am the proud owner of a coffee mug that displays wisely worded encouragement from Thoreau: Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. I got it at a high-end “Second Time Around” sale at a well-heeled Episcopal Church in New York City—for $1.00. I love this quote, and fondly remember years earlier having given my eldest son a card carrying the same one for his high school graduation. The quote suited him well, as he had, from a very early age, maintained confidence in his creativity (and still does). I was flummoxed as to why anyone would decide that this cup wasn’t worth keeping—if not for coffee, then for pens and pencils on a desk, or the forgotten pennies that seem to accumulate at the bottom of every handbag but fail to appear when requested at the check-out counter. I genuinely thank the anonymous donor who released this treasure to the bric-a-brac section of the church fair, and want to believe that the owner, having taken Thoreau’s advice to pursue the life he or she imagined, had selflessly sent this wise prize along to find its next motivating mission.
Early on in the pandemic, as New York City was under siege, I would wake up remembering long sequences of colorful dreams. These were full dreams, not fragmented glimpses of people or places with no meaningful connection. In one I witnessed my late father in early middle age, enjoying a carefree afternoon discussing modern art. Huh? What? Carefree didn’t describe this blue collar, baseball-loving man until much later in his life, when he answered to the name Grandpa. Discussing modern art? This was a practical, function-over-form, save-not-spend, quiet, and serious-minded fellow. I watched in the dream as he spoke with sophistication, using, as he would often say in life, “Fifth Avenue words.” (Again, what? We lived between the much more affordable avenues of Second and Third.) His language flowed easily, expressing admirable insight on various mediums of art. Even his clothes were fancy.
I was shocked—and naturally intrigued. Who was this man who looked like my father, and had his name and voice? Thankfully, the dream continued to unfold. My father was joined in conversation by a former neighbor of mine, also now deceased, a conservative intellectual who had taught at the best institutions of higher learning, and whose friendship took me by surprise and by storm. I grew to love her dearly, as we shared coffee, political and religious discussions, and Lincoln Center performances. (Her scholarly influence remains large in my mind in what I confirm as her “overshoot for the stars” confidence in lending me her copy of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday when I told her I was reading mystery novels). These unlikely pals who never met in life were now joined in my dream by another person: the beautifully coiffed, cardigan-with-a-single-strand-of-pearls-wearing Grand Dame who attends and volunteers at the aforementioned church and has taken a shine to me over the years of my treasure hunting there. With her lovely red-lipstick smile, she has a way of voicing strong reassurance that makes you think Thoreau could have borrowed his injunction to go in the direction of your dreams from her. At every encounter, she has had the grace to say just the right thing to put a happy smile on my face.
In my dream these never-introduced-friends were visiting a trendy Madison Avenue boutique gallery on the Upper East Side! My father was leisurely appreciating art with these two well-educated, intellectual ladies. (Not a romantic scene in the least, thank God, or surely my deceased mother would have immediately disrupted it.) The best way to describe my father as I knew him would be to say that he was pragmatic, shaped for the long run through early-life conditioning. As a young child growing up in a sizable family in New York City during the Great Depression, he had taught himself not to dream, and as far as I know he never did. He dealt with the tangible, not the theoretical; the latter he might have regarded as folly, or worse, indulgence. Still, what I was seeing in this dream seemed plausible—my father was a very intelligent man and remained so all his life. He also took good care of his appearance.
As parents have dreams for their children, I saw in my father enormous potential for enjoying things that he held himself back from experiencing. Maybe he could have appreciated art, like I do. In my dream he did. And, yes, I think my wonderful former neighbor would have seen a well-spring of qualities in my father that she would have encouraged and praised. And she would have been charmed by his quick humor. As for the church volunteer with impeccable clothing and taste, she likely would have admired my father’s working-class ethics and strong faith in God. I could also hear her saying to him, “You look dapper!” I believe he would have loved and been embarrassed by their compliments in equal measure.
I dreamed a version of my father that never existed in his long decades of days, and now, in remembering his face, his laugh, his light-hearted manner, I wish I could have given him this coffee mug during his life and watched as he read the quote.