I kicked the frozen dirt as I walked my usual 30 paces ahead of my family. Between the gray sky and the twisting branches, the path was dark; though the trees were empty of leaves, they still dimmed the day. With ears cocked like a retriever’s, I listened to my rabid sister’s chatter — not because of the cold, but because of the excitement of her college experiences.

My sister is not one to miss an opportunity. I noticed my toe catch on a rock as I heard my dad snort behind me. In response, my sister halted her fantastical monologue to snarl a what? The laughter was still in my dad’s voice as he replied, “You do so many things that it is hard to keep track. How do I know what to be excited about? You have so many ideas — some you only try out in a sentence.”

Her current job allows her to cartwheel down the halls between stacks upon stacks of obscure books in the lower levels of the library. She sends me pictures of her favorite titles.

She also has a job plucking the feathers off birds and placing their bones into formaldehyde jars; she is a member of a dance team that mixes traditional Northern Indian folk with hip hop (although she had never danced a day in her life before joining); she organizes and referees tennis matches; she started a cross-country ski team (though she has no skis at school and lives in a sprawling urban environment; she volunteered in a hospital for about four hours; she was a member of the crew team for the duration of an e-mail exchange. She also conducted research on bones infected with malaria and traveled up to Alaska to survey archaeological sites, checking to see if the climate had weathered them. And yesterday, she left for Senegal.

She wants to be an archaeologist.

She wants to be an animator and work for Pixar.

She wants to be a doctor.

She wants to be a humor writer for Saturday Night Live.

She wants to discover mermaids.

My sister was in true disbelief at my dad’s frustration. “What’s wrong with that?” she asked. I sensed my dad’s struggle to reply, and, after a moment, I heard his hands drop to his sides and his breath stagger across the air.

I found this exchange of dire importance. When should one dream on the inside instead of describing their dreams out loud? When should one live inside their own head? Could I justify being as jealous of my sister’s lively imaginative life as I was of her real one?

I recognized that I spend a lot of time living inside my own head instead of the real world. I counted the attributes. Confining my world to the inside of my brain has made me prone to excessive worrying. My internality may take away from activity in the physical world. I often have a surprised tone when someone starts a conversation. I often forget where and when I am (This is frightening — what are we without context?).

This seems an overwhelmingly negative way of life at first glance. However, those who live internally often are the most creative — writers, artists and inventors. A life of thought also contributes to one’s self-awareness and often leads to being conscious of and thoughtful toward others. Life inside works much like a good book, allowing you to transcend space and time, giving a more abundant and exciting life.

That last point is not a good one. In fact, it is the reason why living in your head seems so bleak. Because when one reaches the final page of a book and realizes the journey has not been a real one, the world feels empty. I tried to think of why the outward excitements of my sister and the constant buzz inside my own brain have such different effects.  

The best explanation I can offer regarding the difference between her and me is that she gives each idea a chance (though the duration of each chance varies). She gives them at least one gulp of oxygen as she lets them fly off her tongue. At least one. Whether spoken to my parents or via an e-mail to the rowing head coach, she gives her ideas space to be real. Never did my mother tell me to think before I spoke. I always did on my own, so thoroughly that few sentences escaped my lips. I am not one to take risks, even in speech, but if one cannot say it, how does one ever expect to accomplish it?

The line between life in your head and life outside of it needs to be crossed when one senses themselves ceasing to speak. The first step to overcoming an obstacle should be to speak its name, just as it should be the first step in achieving a goal or enacting a plan. Just as silence may be the fence that traps one inside of one’s own head, speech may be the easiest bridge to action.

One Wednesday night, it was quiet hours in the dorms, and I was walking out of a friend’s room laughing freely. A boy I knew poked his head out from his room into the hall, sternly reminding me of quiet hours. I did not apologize. Because I say so little, I have started to feel ashamed taking back what little sound I make. I laughed some more. It felt good to live in the real world.

Payton Luokkala can be reached at payluokk@umich.edu. 

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