By Calvin J.
It rained the other night.
The rhythmic beating of raindrops against pavement harmonized so perfectly with the fluttering of my curtains. The cold breeze gently slipped through my half-opened windows, bringing with it the smell of rain to cleanse the stagnant air left behind from a hot summer’s day.
Completely at peace, I laid down into bed. But as I closed my eyes it suddenly dawned on me that something was missing.
I used to have this beautiful weeping birch that towered over my bedroom window. It’s malleable branches arching down towards the ground, gently swaying in the evening breeze. Whenever it rained, its leaves would glide across my wet window pane, tapping gently, like a metronome, to the rhythm of the wind.
But that sound was long gone. The lack of rainfall the past couple years has reduced it to a memory now. Only a decaying stump remains to remind me of its forgotten existence.
To remind me of what we might have been.
In elementary, my teachers would assign these writing exercises on what we wanted to be when we grew up. We were told to dream big, that “the sky was the limit”. With unbound childhood enthusiasm we would stand up at the front of the class and recite in order our lives as doctors, firefighters, scientists, astronauts, teachers.
I was always fascinated with the transformative process of living things, and consistently wrote about being a botanist or a horticulturist. How many afternoons had I wasted daydreaming about what it’d be like to run a small conservatory or open my own little flower shop. I was a very peculiar child back then – still am to some degree. I mean, what kind of child romanticizes the idea of running a business? Yet there I was, at the front of the class, painting in words this vivid image of what my little shop would look like. A range of small cacti displayed on reclaimed wooden shelves with terrariums hanging from the ceiling beams. I’d have the hydrangeas displayed in milk cans by the windowsill, and the delicate orchids placed near the back to avoid direct sunlight. In my mind I debated whether or not to place a large Persian style rug by the service desk. How would it look in contrast with the hardwood flooring? Perhaps a bouquet of sunflowers on the counter might help tie it together?
Most of my friends from high school eventually did become what they had aspired to be – teachers, hair stylists, engineers, interior designers, pharmacists. And while I can’t imagine myself doing any of the jobs they do – I just don’t have the patience to count blood pressure medication for the elderly – I remain nonetheless envious. I admire them for their ability to know with such confidence and clarity the person they wanted to become. Ironic in a way, because I too thought I knew myself. That I could paint stroke by stroke, colour by colour, my own self portrait. A neighbourhood shop keeper, amongst his own domestic garden of lilies, peonies and chrysanthemums.
But alas, I never became a botanist like I thought I would. Somewhere along the way I had lost sight of what I wanted, and it never quite came back. Like that first moment of lucid thought as you awake from a hazy early morning dream.
But as quickly as it comes, it inevitably fades into another day of work emails, office meetings and commuting through congested highways. You’re left wondering if it ever existed in the first place.
It was a reality of adulthood that watching High School Musical and The Princess Diaries as a kid never prepared me for. Disney movies made growing up seem so effortless, like the future was something that just happened. But as an adult you become tied down with responsibilities, expectations and circumstances that don’t sort themselves out the way television lead me to believe.
From high school to college, my career plans jumped from botanist, to artist and finally a teacher. Each aspiration eventually fading into the next, each succeeded by another generation of failed “should haves” and “what ifs”. Yet somehow, 4 years later, I ended up graduating from a Bachelor’s program in molecular genetics with fevered dreams of becoming a professor. But now, years into my PhD, one day my passion for research just disappeared.
What went wrong? Is it my own lack of ambition? A lack of discipline? Or just pure laziness that led me to succumb to this sickness? Perhaps I should have just settled, listened to my mother and became a pharmacist, Yes, I’d probably hate every minute of it, but at least my life would have a purpose. Or maybe I should have become that little flower shop keeper. I didn’t turn out to love either gardening nor business school as much as my 10-year-old self always imagined, but it’s still got to be better than what I have now.
The past 6 year of my life runs through my mind on repeat, like a broken VCR. Two degrees later and I still have no idea what I wanted to do with my life. What would my 10-year-old self think of me now?
As a child, I used to play by the weeping birch that used to be outside my window. Caterpillars were particularly fond of its leaves and I’d be out with a mason jar to collect them. I had always found them to be quite adorable, with their backs decorated with intricate patterns of blues and greens. I’d care for them in a large empty glass fish tank, feeding them leaves from my weeping birch, watching their gradual metamorphosis in extraordinary creatures.
As they leaped into the air – wings unfolding for the first time to catch the summer breeze – all that they’d leave behind were their cocoons. A monument of their remarkable existence, covered in a thin film of shimmering scales from their wings. Fairy dust, I used to call it.
In a way, I saw in them what I had hoped to eventually see in myself. That I too would one day metamorphose into something greater, reborn into what I was meant to be.
But now as I look back at the little caterpillar’s journey, I wonder: do they know what they would eventually become? As they spin their cocoons, do they dream of their own metamorphosis into a butterfly? Or do they dream of becoming moths, or lady bugs or dragonflies?
Perhaps, only in hindsight do our stories ever become clear. I chose to close certain doors for a reason. I never had the patience to be a pharmacist, nor a shop keeper. They didn’t bring me the joy that my 10-year-old self promised, and for that, perhaps I am better off having taken the road I’m on.
Uncertainty surrounds us in our daily lives. Yet in the rear view mirror, the path always seems so much clearer.
Like a butterfly, maybe the best moments in life are when you’re able to look back at a journey and be able to realize what it all meant. As its wings unfold, scales shimmering in the sunlight for the first time, the agonizing weeks it spent in the cocoon now seems effortless. As a child, I revelled in that moment. My time feeding the caterpillars supple birch leaves, watching over them, perfecting their habitat with twigs and wild flowers all unequivocally justified. In that moment, as it realizes what it had become, what it was always meant to be, I had never been more in awe of life’s journey.
And it’s a moment worth waiting for.
“It’s never too late, to be what you might have been”
– George Eliot