It's the preschooler's new Thing: "When I grow up..." It's usually said in response to being told that he cannot have the current object of his desire, but he'll happily share his grown-up dreams during less volatile times as well.
"When I grow up, I'm going to buy whatever I want."
"When I grow up, I'm going to have a birthday party every day."
"When I grow up, I'm going to eat ice cream all the time."
"When I grow up, I'm going to have meat and rice for every supper."
"When I grow up, I'm going to buy all the Lego."
"When I grow up, I'm going to buy clay, so much clay that it will fill a whole room, and I'm going to build with it every day."
"When I grow up..."
Usually I just agree with him. Oh yes, that will be very nice. Sometimes I forget he's only three and I slip into logical mode - money and responsibility and contentment and happiness not coming from things and blah blah blah, he doesn't care, he's still little and these dreams are the stuff of life in his mind.
Of course, I remember thinking the same things a child. I would drink pop whenever I wanted and I'd stay up late every night and I'd have really long nails like my mom's and I would never be mean to my kids and basically, my life would be perfect and so would I.
Surprisingly, that hasn't actually happened yet.
If I'm honest, though, the game hasn't really disappeared for me. It's just changed a little bit, morphed into something both equally unachievable and equally appealing. It's the running joke between the husband and I: "When we're rich..."
We say it with a wink and a twinkle in our eye. We say it as we sit together right in front of our 18-year-old 12-inch TV, playing Wii and straining to keep track of things on the fuzzy little screen. When we're rich, we say, we'll get one of those big screen TVs and actually get to see what's going on. My Lego Frodo beats up his Lego Sam and steals all his coins. He pokes me in the ribs in protest and I flash him an evil grin; he returns my grin with a mock glare and a kiss and you know what, forget a bigger television, I'd rather keep snuggling in front of this little old thing.
But we keep saying it anyway. When we're rich, we'll indulge in this. We'll splurge on that. We'll have a house of our own with a yard and a garden and a library (because of course) and a white picket fence. We'll spend a year traveling abroad and we'll have that fancy SUV and our furniture will no longer be purchased primarily from IKEA and we'll have that new coveted-but-unnecessary gadget and our ethical ideals will more easily become reality and and and...
We'll do all the things and have all the things and then life will be perfect, right?
Oh, it's mostly said in jest. We're old enough now to know that money can't buy happiness and other such trite-but-true clichés. There will always be something else promising us contentment if only we had it; you never truly "arrive" in this game. But I am merely human and sometimes I forget these things and the joke feels less funny, more wistful, oh, one day, when we're rich...
But these someday-when-we're-rich dreams, they're not so different from fear, I've discovered. Like those worries about what the future may hold, they pull me out of this right-now life and I forget gratitude, forget to be here and present and thankful for this very moment. Oh, they can be fun, these dreams, and they can be truly good, too, but only as long as I'm still actively and abundantly living in the present instead of longing for something that may or may not come.
It's always gratitude that brings me back. When my fears or my dreams pull me into a future I can't live in, when pain and anger pull me the other way into the past, it's gratitude that reminds me to live abundantly here and now. It's gratitude that I carry with me like a shield during the day and pull over my shoulders like a blanket as I lie down at night.
I close my eyes and breathe deep. I feel the baby pressed warm against my side, the comforting weight of the quilt lovingly stitched by my grandmother's wrinkled hands, my husband's strong hand in mine even as he sleeps. I smell baby girl's damp sweaty hair and the crisp fall air drifting in through the open window. I hear a soon-to-be-gone cat's meow, the quiet giggles of boys in their beds but not yet asleep, the childhood-familiar sound of a train in the distance. There is so much right here and it doesn't matter what may or may not come, not as long as it is today. And it will always be today.
But for now, a three year old dreams of complete freedom and a thirty year old still sometimes dreams of the same. Some things never really change.