- Go on an African safari
- Live in NYC
- Leave a lock on a love lock bridge
- Leave a letter at the Elephant House Cafe
- Leave a letter at Juliet’s House
- Ride a dogsled
- Ride a gondola
- Go hang-gliding, skydiving, and bungee jumping
- Ride a hot air balloon
- Straddle the international date line
- Publish a book
- Make it on the New York Times Best-Seller list
- See my work come to life onscreen
- Attend an award show or a film premiere
- Walk down the aisle and exchange wedding vows
- Become a mother
- Graduate U of T with a BA
- Attend grad school and graduate with a Master’s degree
- Meet J.K. Rowling
- See Idina Menzel perform live
- Watch a Broadway show
- See Wicked, Chicago, and Rent live
- Stay in a five-star hotel
- See an international sporting even live (i.e. The Olympics, World Cup, etc.)
- Own cats (in the plural) and a dog
- Swim with dolphins and/or sharks and/or whales
- Go paint-balling
- Score a winning goal
- Run a mini-marathon
- Learn the “Time of my Life” dance with someone
- Learn to meditate
- Release a paper lantern
- Be part of a successful flash mob
- Have my own library with a window seat
- Go on a cruise
- Take a train ride across Canada
- Donate blood
- Cut my hair for cancer
- Go mountain-climbing
- Go to a cat cafe
- Go geocaching
- Stay in a treehouse hotel
- Take a cooking/baking course
- Give a standing ovation speech
- Watch all the movies on this list
- Read all the books on this list
- Overcome all mental illnesses
- Be loved until the day I die
One of the biggest challenges I faced growing up was learning to differentiate between reality and fiction. I was always a voracious reader and spent a great deal of my childhood extremely “adventurously frustrated.” Others had slayed dragons and fulfilled prophecies by the time they were seventeen and I had lived a most mundane and repetitive existence that I could not fathom enjoying for the rest of my time on earth. I wanted to travel and see the mountains, breathe in the ocean, and fight Dark Lords alongside elves and giants. There was so much magic out there that I longed to experience and yet it wasn’t really out there at the same time. All that wonder and those adventures were so close, but so impossibly out of reach that I would get genuinely depressed at times, thinking about the grayness of reality in comparison to what imagination allowed. I felt so trapped, and so out of place in this world.
It was around middle school when my parents began to get seriously concerned about this, and with my reading habits. They tried to stop me, tried to change how much I read, tried to change the nature of what I read, and lectured me extensively on how too much reading was ruining my life. Don’t get me wrong; my entire family is composed of avid readers. But I’ve noticed that many “educated people” are remarkably snobby about the type of books they read and greatly look down on the value of what a child’s fictional story can teach. At that time however, I was only hearing that I needed to “get my head out of the clouds,” “get back to reality,” “observe the tangible things around you,” “pay attention and contribute to what’s actually real.” Alas, “it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” (Albus Dumbledore, PS)
But what was real? How could I leave behind the stories that had made me stronger, braver, and more confident than any tangible part of my life had? All around me, “real people” were tearing into my passions, into my beliefs and hobbies, into the hopes that got me through every day. Whereas my books, the characters I found between pages, were teaching me to love, to fight for goodness, to find my voice, giving me advice through all my struggles. Let me ask you then, what is real?
“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” -Neil Gaiman
I always knew I didn’t want to end up like people who lived their entire lives in a video game, and I struggled to find the balance between living in the moment and seeking shelter with my stories. Was I just a naïve child unwilling to grow up? Was there really such thing as too much reading? Were the scornful people around me really more mature or more intelligent than I was? I saw so many adults with bland lives, loathing their jobs, a dull resignation in their eyes, no more hope of magic. I didn’t want to lose that. Finding the little traces of magic in life was all I’d ever wanted to live for.
The answer hit me just this year in this Nostalgia Critic video. “Stories can change our minds and shape who we are. In a bizarre way, we see much more truth in fiction than we do in reality. It takes our lives, which have no writers, and tries to give great understanding and even purpose to them, and that’s something to greatly admire and learn from. But (…) the purpose of fiction is to help us understand reality, not escape it. It’s giving into a different time and place to help you understand life lessons.” -Doug Walker
Any fiction is valuable so long as it contributes to experience and growth. The stories that I have taken in are not a step back from living my real life. Although there were times when escaping was all I wanted, maturity comes with harnessing those dreams and lessons, and bringing that magic into reality. Every story I’ve devoured has been as important to my development as any real person or experience, perhaps more.
How does it serve anyone to scorn what makes us better, be it kids’ stories or fiction? “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (Albus Dumbledore, DH). Because in the end, does it matter in the slightest whether the conversation between Harry and Dumbledore at King’s Cross really took place or if it was just a dream? Either way, it brought Harry understanding and motivated him to go back and keep fighting. That’s what good stories do for us; they help us become better people and lead greater lives beyond their pages.
As a volunteer at Toronto’s Word on the Street book festival last year, I witnessed an author announcing that he would be making the switch to children’s literature. An audience member commented offhandedly, “well, that’s a step down.” This shows the snobbiness that often takes hold of adults; they fail to see the wisdom and beauty that can come from some of the simplest stories. So much happiness is missed in our daily turmoils because adults lose a lot of their ability to see the positive. Bitterness and broken dreams take away childhood innocence and the wonder that kids see the world with. We would deny ourselves the belief in magic even if it appeared right before our eyes, which is why we so often miss it! I love the fun and crazy adventures that fill children’s literature because their imagination is unlimited and the morals are so true and pure. Yes, there is enlightenment and valuable knowledge in adult literature, but such turmoil and ambiguity are not all there are to life. There is so much light, so much hope, and so many happy endings in kid lit. While a lot of reality is not happily ever after, it is not with more darkness and complexity that we make it better. Even the five year olds know it: only pure goodness and simple belief in love and light will conquer.
One of the things that comes with the transition from a community high school to a university like UToronto is the overwhelming sense of mediocrity. I was always terrified of my own insignificance. I was terrified of ending up like the millions of people in our world who grow up and are forced to let go of their broken dreams of making a difference. How many have trained for the stage? Dreamed for the spotlight only to end up as just another face in the chorus? My dreams were always too big for me, and like so many people, I will never grow into all of them.
As a child, I always liked taking the lead. I was bossy and competitive from the start, and even as some of those traits became buried under confidence issues as I hit middle school, I always wanted to believe I was better than all those other people who dreamed of fame and fortune, then failed. Death of a Salesman haunted me more than I would ever admit; I saw many of my flaws in Willy Loman and he is definitely not a character anyone wants to identify with.
Toward the end of high school, my need to be involved in everything took over again. I truly did love everything that I did, but the desire to be recognized was always a factor in becoming Editor-in-Chief of the school paper or student council secretary or many of the other things I threw myself into. However, the sheer insignificance of my actions hit me in August this year when I was attending a commuter orientation at U of T. We were in a room of maybe twenty upcoming freshman, and each of us had to go around and say a couple of the extra-curricular activities we had been involved in. Every single person in the room was a leader: school president, head of the environmental club, debate club, founder of a charity group, editor-in-chief, etc. It hit me then that for all my contributions in high school, there were thousands of other high schools in the province, and millions all over the world with students like me. Students far, far superior in charisma, leadership, and academics.
As arrogant as it sounds, my mediocrity has been a very hard thing to come to terms with. Being among the best was always nice but I think I’m learning a lot (maybe even more) from not being the leader, not just in ability but in attitude. In joining a dance collective and soccer team this year, I signed myself up to be the worst (no, that’s not an exaggeration) member of both groups. By doing so, I’m not only learning to dance and play soccer, but also how to listen and how teams work together. I’ve always preferred independent activities (archery, etc.) or activities when I am the one in charge because I know exactly what I’m doing. I don’t have to depend on anyone else or fail due to a weaker member’s mistakes. I love control and certainty; it makes me feel safe when I’m the only one to blame. But when I am the weakest link on a team, I have no choice but to be open to criticism and advice and suggestions. I’ve learned to tone down my bossiness and delegate more, working as a collaborator as opposed to a dictator who always got frustrated when people didn’t follow my instructions. I learned to appreciate the patience and encouragement that my experienced teammates showered me with, despite my being their weak link.
This lesson is tied in with how our definitions of success change as we age. I think that this — accepting that being a part of collaborative change can be just as rewarding as being the spearhead of every movement — is something every noble person eventually realizes. If we want to talk nerd terms, that is the difference between a Hufflepuff and a Slytherin; neither are inferior in ability but while a Slytherin will always strive for personal glory (and therefore they are more often recognized for their achievements), a Hufflepuff knows that it’s not all about being the single best, and they will step aside, sacrificing their glory without hesitation.
This isn’t to say that I’ve lost interest in leadership roles; I’m still gunning for many. I think that will always be a part of who I am. I will always feel the need to be involved and be influential. But for all the groups I’ve led and clubs I’ve joined, I’m no less proud of the ones where I was the weak link instead of the leader. I think being able to feel that way, albeit gradually, is a big step in maturity.
I was far from the only child who wanted to live a life of luxury. I wanted a cottage on every continent (two in Europe). I wanted a jet-ski, a private pool and gazebo in a Narnia-esque backyard, 5 kids, an undefined but adoring husband, all in a mansion in south California. I wanted to win Oscars and touch millions with my words. I can’t be sure whether these aspirations were in spite of growing up below the poverty line, or because of it. Anyhow, can anyone honestly say that they never dreamed of popularity and richness as a kid?
I was set on my success. It wasn’t as if I sat and waited for it to come to me; I worked hard and I had passion. I knew I could succeed if I put all of myself into my work. Yes, I was young then. It was before I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, or seen Citizen Kane. Still, I do believe that hard work and passion can take anyone to a certain level of success. At the time though, I didn’t just want relative success; I shuddered from mediocrity. I didn’t want to just be a face in the crowd. I wanted to leave my mark and live in textbooks centuries after my death. Outliers require a great deal of luck, opportunity, and often money. I came from no wealth. I have no natural inborn talent either. I had only dreams that were unrealistic and too big for even the most talented to grow into.
Somewhere between 17 and 18, I grew up. My definition of success changed. All I wish for is a modest house in the neighbourhood I live in now, a job that I don’t dread (even if it’s below average wage), enough money to support 2 or 3 kids and a pet, and waking up to someone I love every morning. I would be happy with mediocrity.
Why do our dreams get smaller as we get older?
Kids look upon fame, money, and glamour as the best things in the world; they are the flashiest things that are always advertised and promoted in our world. Naturally, as children, we strive for this. Until we are shown something better. Until our dreams change — perhaps not into something smaller, but just something different.
Hard work takes time and energy. It takes sacrifice. I could still give myself completely to striving for a life of recognition. But we can’t have everything. And I, like almost everyone in this world, will always choose love over international recognition. Because the best nights of my life were not when I successfully executed projects worth thousands of dollars.
There is something so beautiful in seeing a couple with their kids at the park. And that is no groundbreaking revelation. Everyone realizes what matters at some point in their life; the greatest classics all tell us that money is not everything. But this was my gradual epiphany. Our dreams change as we mature because eventually, we realize that there is more to life than the scars we leave.