On family vacations, I sat in the front passenger seat of Dad’s Lincoln Town Car on our way from the Florida panhandle to Disney World. Dad drove and told the same stories over and over: how he was raised up in a converted mobile home in southern Alabama, a couple miles away from the gulf shore, how Mamaw had to come to talk to his principal at least once a week because of all the bullshit he pulled, how Papaw, a WWII vet, would whoop him and teach him to build gates and trellises, to string scuppernong vines through the trellis boards, to grow low citrus trees, to determine if raccoons and possums were rabid and to kill them right and fast if they were. Dad told me that he was the kind of teenager who drove his car into an oncoming train trying to beat it across the track. When the draft started for the Vietnam war, he made plans to leave the country, but his number was never pulled, so he became a professional drug smuggler out of the port of New Orleans instead. He met Pablo Escobar in Colombia and almost died when the plane he flew went into a downward spin over the US-Mexico border. He described what he did in the cockpit that day, the aerodynamics, the way to turn the wings, lift the nose, bring the body of the plane back into flight. He said it was all about timing. He told me he had to save his own life over and over before I was born.
I imagined Dad when he was young with long, light brown hair and big sunglasses hitching from Pensacola to California or standing on his boat at night on his way to New Orleans. This was the guy everyone called Bobby. Then there was the guy I knew: Bob, a fire alarm salesman and business owner with a big, round belly and precise beard, his hair wavy, chestnut, the brightness no longer pulled through it by the sun. Dad talked about the gap between his two lives. He called the process of scaling that gap making it. Like swimming across a mean, deep inlet. Like crawling up, half dead and breathless on the warm sand.
The American Dream, he’d say, and we’d both go quiet and watch the short evergreens and palms out the front window for a beat, their leaves waving a little under the swarm of midday sun. When the window filled suddenly with with a spray of water, the trees and road went liquid. Their colors blurred. Dad would gasp, Shit, Asha it’s happening again.
He’d say, God’s raining only on us.
And I’d roll my eyes at him, watching his hand drift away from the lever near the dash and back onto the rim of his steering wheel. His hands rested there, moving slightly, but only when the road required it.
In early 2017, I was a few months away from finishing a graduate degree in speech-language pathology, a degree that would allow me the kind of lifelong professional engagement with science I had been craving since early college anatomy classes. Most importantly, though, it would provide me with a allow me to completely support my children as a single mother. Achieving a decent job was going to be the culmination of almost a decade of education, most of it completed while working or parenting or both. But when the job offers came in, I wasn’t sure what to do. Even though I had been working on the degree and knew it was a high needs field, I didn’t believe employers would offer me actual jobs. It didn’t just feel like fraud. It felt like I had been launched into outer space. When I tried to describe this feeling to one classmate, she said, You have arrived, lady! She offered me a high five.
Another classmate said, First world problems. He shrugged.
They were both right. I had arrived somewhere alien, a landscape of economic options that I hadn’t experienced before. But arrival isn’t the same as resolution. It’s a small breath above water.
Still, I allowed myself to feel good about my arrival. To feel strong. To feel the weird illusion of making it somewhere. I had no idea how to choose which offer to accept, so I mapped it out. I listed my priorities by order of importance: time off with my children, living wage, available sick days, job setting, and the population I would serve. I picked a job that fit the first two categories best. I told myself: I love the population and the setting. I told myself that even though my skills are the most developed working in a hospital, I will increase my skills working in a school over the course of the year. I repeated these lines like a mantra. I will repeat them until they are true.
When my family drove from Northwest Florida to Disney World, it felt like going back in time. We had spent the first five years of my life in a small town outside of Orlando called DeLand. My dad was a park ranger at the time, and the state employee discounts he received allowed us to visit Disney World almost weekly, the same frequency I take my own children to the playground. After we moved up to the Florida panhandle, we couldn’t afford family vacations for a few years. Disney became a goal. It became precious. When we finally visited, the theme parks brought forward those loose, early memories: the murals of talking dishware and treasure maps near their respective rides in Magic Kingdom, the foreign country tour along the walking corridor of Epcot, the walking cartoons, animatronic complements to rides and restaurants. Together, these elements constructed the bizarre landscape of a manufactured dream, an idealized youth. Nobody actually had a childhood that looked and felt like Disney World. Almost all of my memories from early childhood looked and felt like Disney World.
On one of our last visits to Disney World before we moved north from DeLand, my mom bought me a tube of gold glitter marketed as Tinker Bell Fairy Dust. As my family packed our house into cardboard boxes, I watched them, disconnected from the experience, imagining what it would be like to fly. I thought the glitter would do the trick if I sprinkled it on my head, closed my eyes, and believed hard enough. I stood at the top of the concrete steps leading up to our front door, hair full of glitter, eyes tight, fists clenched, waiting for it to happen. I thought I’d know it when I felt it: a lightness, a lift off, my body filled with magic. I thought that when it happened, I wouldn’t float up, bobbling around aimlessly like the Darling children in Peter Pan. If it happened to me, if I actually flew, I’d know how to steer my own body through the atmosphere. As long as I worked as hard as I could, to believe.
Before I started applying for jobs this spring, I had been working at a different, brand new job for just a few months: an adjunct composition teacher at a community college forty-five minutes away from my house. At the end of the first class, one of the students called me Professor Doré. Another student called me Professor. Another said only, Miss.
Miss, this is my first time back in school in like seven years, he said, when everyone in the class introduced themselves.
Driving home that night, I listened to the rebroadcasting of a morning radio program. The host kept pronouncing words incorrectly and revising them. I couldn’t focus on the topic. The meaning of his words disappeared every time he distorted them. It reminded me of the litany of new labels I had received earlier that night. Not Asha. Not Mom. Not single mother, working mother. Not anonymous and underpaid waitress, tutor, writer, Navy wife. That night, the labels the students gave me sounded like a what linguists call jargon, random sounds laced together, nonwords, until the one who called me Miss said, Please don’t let me fail this time.
I won’t, I said.
He said, I have too much to lose, Miss.
I straightened. I pushed my heels into the carpet and leaned forward a little. I wanted to tell the student, I know. I really do. I’m with you, but I was sure he wouldn’t believe me. The space between us was too large, and the way we each travel it is too random, sometimes too chaotic, to ever really know. I wanted to promise this student that he’d make it as long as he worked his ass off, did the readings, turned in the assignments. I watched him sitting in his chair across from me, the familiar desperate motivation shifting inside the muscles of his face. I had been some version of this student years before, something simmering inside my body while I sat in community college classrooms. In that body, the only thing that existed was the momentum. I had to get the fuck out of my hometown, the tiny gorgeous and economically wrecked beach town that was flattened every year or two by a hurricane. Destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again. That’s how it felt to be in my family growing up. Almost always poor but sometimes not, our bodies bobbing up and down through the stratosphere of class every couple months or years.
That night, my first night as a teacher, I sat in my swivel chair in slacks and heels and still-fresh lipstick and knew right where I was, still bobbing. I knew I couldn’t promise this student anything. These promises, they are revisions of the truth.
Even that is an euphemism.
They are lies.
The truth is, I have no idea what will happen to this student. There’s no one-to-one correlation between whatever effort he puts into this course and the outcome, the failure or the success. He could do everything he needs to do, get the grade, pass the class, but it’s just one class. A tally mark inside of the universe of his life. Just like all the classes I’ve ever taken. Just like the classes I’m teaching now.
At my daughter’s’ school, the teachers redefine the idea of work. When the children are painting large, undefinable forms, they say, Look at Emily’s good painting work! The other children lean around her, eyes wide, lips open a little. The teachers talk to the children about cleaning work and cooking work and sewing work and building work. Everything that they engage in with intent and investment is work, and work is, or at least it can be, joyful.
I’ve adopted the same practice at my house. When my two-year-old tears construction paper into tiny pieces, I say, Look at his good tearing work! We celebrate my oldest daughter’s dancing work and my younger daughter’s singing work. When one wanders into a room to ask what I am doing, I tell them I’m doing cleaning work or school work or even work work, and there, I think, is where the new value system becomes complicated. Work work is the labor with a direct financial outcome. To call it straight up labor might feel more exact, but the origin of labor is to plow but also to endure pain, to suffer. To labor toward something is to both burrow through whatever it takes to get there, and also to suffer it. Of course, this is an oversimplification. Of course all economic work is not a drudgery, and all other types of work are not a joy, but how often do we talk about going to work when we’re off to a yoga class or to a coffee shop to study for an exam. We reserve work for a singular process: the activity that brings in the cash. The activity that allows us to be fed. It is not optional, not in this country. It must be endured.
Now that I live on the opposite side of the country in a landscape defined by tall, dark redwoods and rain and coffee shops and fog, almost everyone I meet associates Florida with their own family’s trips to Disney World. I’ve been to Florida before, they’ll say, and I know before asking which part they’re talking about. The Floridian resorts inside of Florida itself. The manufactured paradises. The concrete beaches and wave pools and college students dressed as cartoon characters.
I haven’t been to Disney World as an adult, but I imagine that the cognitive dissonance required to feel like you’re somewhere new as you relax on a beach chair beside the fake beach of a Disney Floridian resort in Central Florida might be overwhelming or at least surreal. I am inside of real Florida but not a real Florida beach that looks exactly like a Florida beach, but brighter, prettier, cleaner, with no birds. I imagine that visiting the place that has transformed at least annually over the twenty years since my last visit would offer me the most supreme headfuck of mismatched memories and reality. It seems like that’s not far off from what Walt Disney was going for when he created this place.
On the day of Disneyland’s opening in California, he said, Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. In interviews from the 1940s through the 60s, Disney talked about returning the child in all of us. He talked about how visiting Disneyland and Disney World was a way to re-enter that small fragment of ourselves, as surreal as it may be, as uncomfortable as it may be. And inside of that fragment, we have a real opportunity. To dream better. To believe.
In 1966, Disney said, A person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and talent to getting there. With enough effort, he may achieve it. Or he may find something that is even more rewarding. But in the end, no matter what the outcome, he will know he has been alive.
Disney talked about innovation, about building cities in a state of constant flux and instead built an interactive shrine to childhood, to dreams as defined and dictated by the media produced in Hollywood. He built a series of real life versions of cartoon towns inside of a real city, and each town is filled with themed restaurants and gift shops. Everything is overpriced there, and almost everything is poorly constructed, plastic, chintzy, at least that’s what my friends tell me, the ones who can afford the incredible price of admission.
In neuroscience classes, the concept of work is called cognitive load and it’s defined as the amount of effort a person’s working memory is putting forth to complete a task. Recalling a series of three numbers after someone has spoken them to you is an example of a task that requires a small cognitive load, while having a discussion with your psychologist that requires you to imagine something from your past, recount that memory in words to your therapist, and simultaneously analyze it is an example of something that places a fairly high cognitive load on a person.
In other words, pretty much everything we do is work. Reading the word work requires your brain to access the sounds that it makes, the shape of the word stored in your brain, and all the meanings attached to it. A lot of the work we do is subconscious. We don’t think about the way we attach meaning to words. We don’t think of the effort we’re putting into that task. We aren’t fully aware of the synapses shooting across our brains as we do this, but we do have the ability to become aware. We can ask ourselves, What does work mean to me? We can tell ourselves stories about the good work we’ve done in our own lives, chasing our dreams. If we achieve whatever goal we created for ourselves, however temporary, we can tell ourselves: I deserve this. If we don’t achieve it, we can tell ourselves that the work we did was good anyway. We lived. Working is living, at least in this country. We worked and so, we were alive.
Asha Doré, Rabble Nonfiction/ Hybrid Forms Co-Editor, is a writer and a mother of three, originally from Florida, currently living in the Pacific Northwest.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain.