"Letting Go of the American Dream" by Camille
I met, fell in love with and married my soul mate in Loveland, Colorado. Like others before us, the Sweetheart city had cast its spell on Bob and me. And, like other lovers everywhere, we were convinced no two people had ever fallen this deeply in love.
The way we carried on, you’d have thought we invented love. We just knew all our dreams had come true and our life would involve unending happiness. Realizing we were hopeless, my brother suggested we read Plato’s Symposium for a little bit of historical perspective. We picked up a copy at the Library and read it to each other, sitting on a picnic table under the full moon at Carter Lake.
As described in the Symposium, there were once three types of human beings on earth. There were men, who were of the sun, women (of the earth) and a third combination of the two, which were of the moon. The moonchildren had four arms, four legs, two faces and were extremely agile and powerful.
Inevitably, the moonchildren challenged the gods and action was taken against them. Zeus cut them down to size by splitting them apart into two separate beings. After that they were damned to wander the earth looking for their other halves. Imagine the joy when someone recognized their other half and reunited with them! The only danger, according to this treatise, was that once they got together again, they would remain locked in an embrace that would seriously hamper their mobility. It was likely they would never go out into the world separately again.
We were so taken with this explanation of our powerful love; we picked a wedding date halfway between our birthdays. If we were truly split-aparts, we imagined we would have fallen to earth to be reborn in marriage at that exact point during the calendar year. We asked a good friend to read the symposium during the ceremony. Then we vowed to share our lives forever.
Two years after we were married we bought the property of our dreams. Like most new couples, we had discussed our future and decided to pursue a rural lifestyle. Our new home with its 7 acres of pastures and woods, 4-stall barn, riding arena, hay barn, house, deck and hot tub seemed perfect. The neighborhood was full of woodsy riding trails and nearly all of our neighbors had horses, too.
The first order of business was getting someone to mow the chest-high grass in the pastures. We called a man named Smitty. He was familiar with our property and agreed to do the work. Smitty arrived on a shiny, red tractor and proceeded to cut the high grass, giving our pastures a new lease on life. It was obvious he took great pride in his machine and in his work.
Smitty lived a couple of streets over in the home of his old friend’s widow. Bob drove past it twice a day, on his way to work and on his way back home. He noticed that the house where Smitty lived had the prettiest flowers and lawn in the neighborhood.
While Bob worked to pay our mortgage, I stayed home. I started a little boarding business, worked with the horses and their owners, and rode with my friends. It was clear to me that I had the life, while he paid the price.
Each day, I scooped every pile of horse manure from the stalls and pastures and hauled it into the woods. On the weekends, Bob and I worked together beautifying our little piece of paradise. We cleared vines from our little patch of woods, opened up trails, and cut down seedling along the fences. Bob mowed the pastures until they looked like a golf course.
Taking care of our property was a labor of love. We only hoped that one day it would be as pretty as Smitty’s place. Of course, we owned ours and he didn’t own his. Which meant that five days a week, Bob strapped himself into the car and drove forty-five minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic to earn the bank payment for “our” beautiful home. It wasn’t long before we began wondering if this was truly the life we wanted for ourselves.
One day, well into fall, a large white flower unexpectedly poked up through the dead leaves. It was one of those events that make an ordinary life special. I couldn’t wait to share it with Bob after he came home from work.
By the time he got home, it was dark and he was exhausted. Like most days, he hadn’t eaten or taken a bathroom break all day. I poured him his first drink and listened to him talk about his day. I mentioned the flower, but he was too tired and I dropped the subject. Hopefully, it would still be in bloom the next day.
The next day, Bob came home late, again and didn’t have the energy to walk around to the other side of the house in the dark and look at the flower. I made a White Russian, he decompressed, we ate dinner and went to bed.
That third evening, I wasn’t taking “No” for an answer. When Bob came home, I fixed him a drink, grabbed a flashlight and led him outside. We stood together in the dark, sipping our drinks and contemplating the beautiful, white flower.
In the days that followed, we realized that our pursuit of happiness was leading us in the wrong direction. Something wasn’t quite right about the life we had fashioned for ourselves but we had no idea what to do about it. Struggling to put our growing lack of direction into words, we came up with an analogy.
It was as if we were in the kitchen and suddenly realized that the room was on fire. We weren’t sure how that fire had started or how to begin putting it out. All we knew was we needed to get out of the kitchen as quickly as possible. Maybe then, we would be able to see the situation clearly. We needed to step far enough away to see the situation from a different perspective.
While we were far from miserable, we had begun to feel like hamsters on a wheel, running in place and getting nowhere. Although we now had the property of our dreams, we no longer had much time together. At work, Bob felt like he had gotten a hold of a live electrical wire and couldn’t let go. Worse, we seemed to be spending every penny he earned just to maintain our new lifestyle. This just seemed like too high a price to pay for a pretty place to live.
After all, we mused, Smitty lived right down the street and he didn’t have to leave the neighborhood to pay for the privilege. We’d see him outside on his tractor all week, happily mowing and plowing for people who had gone off to work in a climate controlled building somewhere. People who were too busy working to make the bank payment to take care of their properties. The only difference was that Smitty didn’t own anything and we did. Or did we?
It suddenly became very clear to us that our seven acres owned us. We were trapped in the American Dream! I went to the library and picked up a copy of “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn where we received more insight into our condition. He wrote about people imprisoning themselves in cages of their own construction. The image of our home, Bob’s career, my business, our possessions, children and pets - all forming the bars of a cage - really hit home! We saw our lifestyle as a trap and were ready to let go of it.
This reminded us of something else we had read. In Richard Bach’s “Illusions,” there is a parable, which begins: “Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river.” But, he wrote, one being had “let go.” The current swept him past the others who, looking up at the one who had become so liberated, cried out for help. “Just let go,” he called down to them as he floated above them. Sadly, the others were afraid of being swept away and therefore, were unable to take his advice.
To plot our escape, we scheduled planning sessions in our hot tub. First we wrote a mission statement for our marriage. “Team together to avoid negative influences and create a life of challenge and fulfillment by following our hearts.”
Next we made collages of magazine photos and showed them to each other. Not surprisingly, our “story boards” were very similar. Finally, we listed things we wanted in our life and things we wanted to avoid. On the “want” side were things like Nature, Time and Animals. On the “avoid” side we listed Neckties, Winter, and Commuting to work.
The picture of our “life of challenge and fulfillment” came into focus and, not surprisingly, looked a lot like a place we had fallen in love with while vacationing in Belize. About this time, we woke one morning from the same dream. In both dreams, we were looking at the beach and thinking that was really where we needed to be.
At this point, Bob submitted his resignation. We put the house up for sale. We wrote a letter to the lodge we had stayed at in Belize offering them a year of our services in exchange for room and board.
Within a week we received an enthusiastic reply to our letter. We sold the house at a cost to us of forty thousand dollars, and closed down our boarding business. We gave away our furniture and our last pet, a horse we had owned for ten years, and moved to Belize. Within a few months, we had traded five horses on seven acres for twenty horses on one hundred acres of rain forest. We found as much satisfaction providing stewardship for our new place as we had for the old. In fact, stewardship was a better bit for us than ownership.
That next year was one of the best years of our lives, thanks to our vow to follow our hearts, and our willingness to let go of the American Dream. Since then, we’ve lived in China, Guam, Hawaii and Nicaragua, all thanks to Smitty, who provided us with an example of someone who had the lifestyle we were looking for without the ties of ownership.