On Pluralizing The Future

Life is one long road. As we approach this road, it stretches, distorting in perspective. It appears daunting, tedious even to begin journeying down. All of us will fall into the predicament of a singular road at some point. Our lives, our imminent futures all individually unique, are suppressed by the lack of choice in pathways available. We are expected to conform and to give into intimidation. But humans are complex. The simplicity of a single way of living clashes with our very nature. We are greedy, always wanting more than what is given. How can we split one road into two, and two into infinity, we may wonder? I remember when I was faced with this dilemma.

I walk along the side of a wide rubble road as the sound of chirping rides the end-of-summer breeze. It has been over an hour since I withdrew from university and walked away from the conversation with my mother about my future endeavours. I ran out my front door to try and untangle my feelings—the guilt of my decision and wrestling confusion for having done what I wanted. I am utterly lost. The beaming sun kisses my forehead in response to being here, on this road, heading back home. But the sun could never understand. She only ever had one path to follow in life. 

I stop abruptly in my tracks, the extent of my actions now beginning to dawn on me. The moment I submitted the email replays in my mind, over and over. In my head, I am counting down from three, dragging out the seconds of two and one and clicking Send. The registrar’s office will not receive my notice of withdrawal, never mind fully process it, for days. But I already feel the consequences of my actions digging into my young, tense shoulders. I have just cancelled the future and there is no going back.

When I think about myself, what my single road in life consists of, all I see is my mother. She is a strong woman—the Trinidad born, immigrated to Canada with one suitcase and built a life from nothing, kind of strong. In that suitcase of hers, she packed a lot of sacrifice, knowledge, and pain that I admire. I have only ever wanted to take those belongings and create a fuller life than hers, like she wants me to. I expected her to lecture me about the importance of obtaining a degree. How nothing can touch an educated person except the downpour of career success preventing their bank account from drying up each week. Is money not magical? At least I, the oldest of three children, was fed meals of this stuff. Six-figure income. Benefits. Big home and fancy car and debt-free vacations. This is the epitome of happiness, or is supposed to be. And I have been thinking more about what all this means for me as a queer, mixed-race woman.

In her poem A Litany for Survival, Audre Lorde writes about the luxuries marginalized people are not afforded in life, dedicating one verse “for those of us who cannot indulge/ the passing dreams of choice.” Lorde considers the system of oppression, and the way in which society weaponizes fear, leaving some unable to “triumph” in a future of their own making. Any sliver of good a marginalized person may hold in life is an illusion. They believe that moments of contentment are heavy-footed, and triumph will eventually slip into defeat. The marginalized person lives on the shoreline, she says, “imprinted with fear.” 

Lorde was a Black lesbian woman. She understood that those with social identities outside the dominant groups—like my own—live in a world not made for them. We are readers with disabilities who rarely see ourselves as the hero. We are racialized post-secondary students who sit in institutions of racism. We are wealthy, openly-queer workers who can never pay the price of peace to escape a lifetime of discrimination. These isolated experiences affect our envisioned futures. We waver between having hope and fear because nothing has ever been promised to us.

Lorde believed we will always be afraid, but we cannot let this fear that coils around our willpower silence us into submission. Our resilience and radicalness are threats to oppression. Our existence, by societal standards, is deemed untimely because it is persisting longer than intended. We have and will continue to defy the odds because “we were never meant to survive.” While Lorde does not discuss the complexities of having an intersectional identity, I feel weighed down instead of uplifted by all that I am. My mother is unaware of my queerness and unaware of the nuances of financial stability, which become complicated when identities are thrown into the mix. I am trying to entertain the thought of accepting the traditional path to success she has presented to me for the past eighteen years. But I cannot. Not when my heart beats harder and faster with excitement for what I am not meant to do: dream of a life of my own, and daring to do so, unafraid, is to further defy the constraints placed on me. And a part of me wants to. I am an enemy of my world and my mother. It is a beautiful thing but haunting all the same. 

The sound of passing vehicles draws closer, as I near the end of the road. I turn right onto a livelier street, bustling with people out on walks of their own. I stumble over a crack in the pavement and fall into the memory of earlier today, still fresh and bittersweet. I closed down my computer screen and departed from the kitchen table, the email now sent off, and my first thought was to find my mother and confer with her.

I am standing in the entryway of my mother’s bedroom, shifting the weight of my foot from one to the other. I stare across the room in silence, as she remains engrossed in the local televised news—she hates watching the news. Normally, she would bicker about how the same nonsense is always on and change the channel. But I seem to have unseated nonsense news. I know that it will be difficult for her to stoop to my level and understand my perspective. However, I have no intention of rolling up my sleeves and putting away my naivety for an old-fashioned mother-daughter argument. She lowers the television volume and finally matches my lingering gaze with the same dark brown eyes that told me to behave in the store as a child. She is ready to have the conversation. I cannot help but crave her words when I should least want them, so I listen.

“My father gave me a choice at your age: go to school or get a job,” she calmly recites from a script I have heard many times before. “I could not afford to go to school, so I began working in a warehouse twenty years ago and never left,” she continues. “I have dealt with a lot of abuse being the first woman hired into this company working alongside men. I work through my lunches and breaks to make sure everything gets done. And after doing dog labour for so long—look—I am in constant pain, and my bones are now deteriorating—” she pauses to collect her spitted rambles and avoid igniting her short fuse. “I did all of this because I had a family—you—to support,” she says. I listen more closely to this story than all the other times. I listen to every passing minute filled with her vulnerability and insinuations about where her disappointment in me comes from. And I listen to myself, thinking about how I am afraid I made a mistake—going to university is the least I could have done. 

It is easy to make my mother the antagonist of my story. The stereotypical immigrant mother that bottle-fed her only daughter with her expectations. But that would be wrong of me to do. Although I am straying from my mother’s influence, I do not think I can define my future completely on my own. Are our memories important to our futures? Li-Young Lee, in his poem This Room and Everything in It, claims that our memories are important when preparing for the hard days in our future. He writes that “when I need/ to tell myself something intelligent/ about love/ I’ll close my eyes/ and recall this room and everything in it.” The “scent/ of spice and a wound” that lingers in the air. The “book/ on the windowsill […] the even-numbered pages are/ the past, the odd/ numbered pages, the future.” How his partner’s hair was time and his thighs like a song. Their love, he says, was a moment but will stand for distance.

My mother is recalling the hard-to-bite-down memories of her past and in my current animosity, I am too. Or at least I am trying and failing at conjuring up our hardships. I am overcome by good memories that animate into a teachable clarity. I see my mother marching into the principal’s office with a confident stride and loud voice that I was embarrassed by when she found out I was being bullied in my predominantly white elementary school. I feel her echoing voice in my head telling me to “treasure your brothers” when we get into petty sibling arguments “because when your father and I are gone, they will be all the family you will have left.” I can hear her flipping through the CD case to find her favourite soca mix to pop into our stereo system whenever she cleans. I can see her smiling with a duster in hand pointing out to me which songs I danced to as a toddler. Perhaps when my mother is someday gone and I listen to Machel Montano in some cheap apartment, I will be young again, recalling my childhood and everything in it. My strong, Trinidadian mother will appear beside me because her face is like time and her comfort like a song. And she will fade with the music until I am a lone adult sweeping the floors within four strange walls.

Memories are the vessel of our whole lives. These are the things that stay with us, that the grown-up versions of us can never let go of. The value and fondness in them charges us. We cannot leave our experiences in the past because they thrive the most in our futures. As much as I would like to convince myself otherwise, my mother must be preserved because I am who I am because of her.

A moment of silence engulfs the room. My mother surrenders her voice, turning her attention to the upcoming forecast, looking more concerned about the thunderstorm warning tomorrow than the storm that is happening between us. I lower my head, fizzing with endless thoughts that have been shaken and ready to explode. I let out a breath. I know mom. I understand what you are telling me (words that I cannot manage to admit out loud). During a quick brief of commercials, I hear her shuffle out of her slouch as she softly says one last thing: “You have to hurry up and start your life. You will be thirty-years-old, living in the bedroom down the hall, and still figuring out what you want to do.” She knocks total shame into my heart like it is a bowling pin, battered and all. And in an instant, I turn on my heel and leave her sitting where she is, wishing she had said something different. 

Is it possible to mourn a life that will never happen? John O’Donohue, in his poem For Grief, captures how losing a loved one can consume us with misery. He empathizes with us, saying “your heart has grown heavy with loss/ And though this loss has wounded others too/ No one knows what has been taken from you.” Our blissful realities are ambushed by sorrow and regret, and everything, O’Donohue says, from the ground we stand on, to our words, thoughts, and heart is fragile because “life [has] become strange.” The hardest part of healing, he proclaims, is to learn how to live with your departed. Our lives, then, take on a different meaning that we must become familiar with.

While I did not lose someone, grief is still relevant to my life direction. I, and countless others, have hopes, dreams, and expectations we cling to. These ideals are also very much alive. They live with us as children, walking around in our minds and feeding off the world around us. It is hard to let go of the things we want, to realize that it may or may not come into fruition. Realization ceases a future filled with images of joy and fulfillment that could have been ours. We resent our present. We mourn for a lost future. And everything we know about ourselves changes. 

I could have an easy life. The linear path with the degree I will one day regret and the job that I will despise but tolerate to boast about in conversations. The man that I will lean forward to kiss at the pronouncement of us officially being husband and wife. The house in the suburbs with the children and golden retriever. And the perfect family photograph framed on the wall for my mother to pass by each time she comes over to visit the grandchildren. I once wanted all of this. I am puzzled by the sadness I feel in that I no longer desire that fantasy and know it was a false image I created to prevent myself from undergoing a liberating loss. My mother is also a part of the wreckage. She is grieving how I escaped her expectations and her vision of my future. We are both in unfamiliar territory. Mourning in our own ways, while trying to understand each other’s losses. I do not know if my mother, or even I, will be able to bid the ghost of who I could have been goodbye. Maybe we will still see her from time to time, walking on a school campus as we drive by or in a grocery store with two children trotting behind her leg. But I can only try to make my mother proud so when she stands before me years from now, she can understand that the person I became could not have been anyone else.

The sun casts a cherry-pink hue on the horizon, closing in for the evening. I venture an uphill climb onto the street that I live, my house slowly coming into view. I rummage around my jacket pocket for the house key and open the front door. I walk up the stairs to my bedroom, squeaking with each slow step. My mother’s eyes lock onto mine when I glance in her direction from across the hallway. She is in the same place that I left her, now watching a cheesy romantic comedy on the Hallmark Channel. Instead of guiltily averting my gaze, I curiously look at her for a few seconds before taking my hand off the banister and turning away. 

I close the door behind me and fall back onto my bed. I lie there for a while, staring at the ceiling and thinking about tomorrow. It is the first time in my life that I have no idea what comes next. The word tomorrow feels unwelcome on my tongue, but there is something savory about it. Lorde says we are people “seeking a now that can breed/ futures.” If the future is truly ours to make, then the road—our lives—is capable of splitting from its singularity. Our ambitions and identities. Our feelings of regret and rage and grief, and our beautiful memories are all mighty and prospering. We are, in every way imaginable, powerful. Now, I am seeing how we all can pluralize our future into a multitude of possibilities.

JESSICA LAPPIN (she/her) is a Professional Writing student at York University who has a passion for social justice and storytelling. She is currently a Junior Editor for non-fiction at Existere—Journal of Arts and Literature, and has received an Honourable Mention in both the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 LA&PS Digital Writing Awards. In her spare time, she likes to create hyper-realism portraits.