Friday, March 4, 2011

Measuring The American Dream

40 degrees and windy, the air coming off the water makes it seem colder than it is; it’s too chilly to get out of my car. I come to the beach when I need to think. The water slaps the shore; so vast and strong, it extends beyond my view and yet it stays contained within its boundary, coming and going by the timing of the moon. It reminds me that I am a small piece of a much larger picture.

I was 13 when I left the United States for the first time. My parents took my sisters and I to Belize by way of Mexico. Looking back, it seems strange. I didn’t know anyone else whose parents had taken them on an international fieldtrip.

We didn’t get on a plane and fly across country lines; we crossed borders in our tan 1983 Chevy Suburban; driving from Colorado to Belmopan. We didn’t stay in hotels either. My brave parents, 3 sisters and I slept in the truck under the flickering streetlights of any gas station or market we found when it was time to stop for the night. One night in a parking lot, as we lay on top of the folded down seats, quietly tucked under blankets, a hostile drug deal took place outside the window. Wide-eyed and on edge, I don’t think my dad slept at all that night. However, I don’t remember ever being scared in this foreign land. We played in black sand and azure water as we made our way down Mexico’s gulf coast and found an RV campground on a lush piece of land at the water’s edge in Chetumal; a town on the Mexico-Belize border.

In Belize, we stayed with family friends who were living there at the time. They took us to a wildlife refuge and the Mayan ruins. We crossed the Mopan River on a wooden, hand-cranked ferry. We ate creole food, fresh pineapples, mangos and bananas, drove through the humid jungles and waded through the panhandlers in Belize City. We went to an indigenous church in a primitive cinder block structure and listened to the native music, largely influenced by Bob Marley. I was immersed in this unfamiliar society and I was intrigued. This was the first time I saw another culture first hand.

There’s an awareness that comes from seeing how people live in nations that aren’t as developed as our own. It sparks a seed of compassion for those who struggle to survive under the thumb of poverty. It calls for gratefulness and an outlook that shifts away from excessive reaching to consume. That fieldtrip was the gateway to my worldview being expanded beyond the typical American dream. I came back to the states one month later having experienced more than just a family vacation. 20 years later, it’s still with me; maybe more so now.

Staring at the receding tide, I ponder the years between here and there. A lone barge is making its way up the Long Island Sound. With lights on, it turns and appears to be moving head-on toward land. The course correction I’ve recently made to my own life looks to some like I might run aground as well.

Chasing corporate success and the applause of those who ask what I do for a living squelched the life I truly wanted. It left a hole on the inside that kept leaking from the bottom. Trading in padding my net worth for the less tangible ‘fulfillment’ and ‘meaning’ appears irresponsible. It’s illogical.

If the American Dream means gaining prosperity, success and a richer, fuller life, whose measuring stick do we get to use?