‘Wait a minute now, you can’t stop dreaming’

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This is an excerpt from John Fountain’s new book, “No Place For Me: Letters to the Church in America.”

The year was 1982. Lately, it had been reinforced how far our island of Komensky Avenue, on Chicago’s West Side, really was from the rest of the world. And it left me feeling stranded, like Robinson Crusoe, only in the ‘hood.


I was feeling this way one morning after prayer as Grandmother and I sat in her Cadillac outside my apartment. I felt lost, as if I was never going to amount to anything and there was nothing Grandmother or her prayer warrior friends could do to alter my destiny, which more and more seemed like a life sentence to hard times in my neighborhood called K-Town.

Grandmother and I had just come from prayer that morning, except I could not yet feel the medicinal effects. It was like that sometimes, especially on days when my troubles seemed particularly heavy, when the food had run out or the lights, telephone, or gas had been cut off in the dead of another wind-whipped Chicago winter.

I sat in the car with Grandmother, sullen and about ready to start sobbing.

“I’m tired, Grandmother,” I said, my words slow and heavy. “I can’t find a job, nothing. Man-n-n, even when people tell me somebody is hiring and I go there, they say they’re not hiring. I ain’t ever gonna find a job.”

“Oh yes, you will, baby darling. You just keep on holding onto the Lord,” Grandmother responded.

“I’m tired of holding onto the Lord, Grandmother. Why won’t God bless me with a job now?” “…I can’t even afford to buy my children shoes. If God loves me so much, why does He let me suffer so much?”

Grandmother didn’t answer. Maybe there was no answer.

“Grandmother, I just give up,” I said tearfully. “I ain’t even got no dreams no more. I give up, I just give up.”

Grandmother looked at me, the car idling in the morning air. What happened next seemed less divine than earthly, though I would later hearken back to it as the moment of my mortal resurrection. This time Grandmother did not offer to pray or break into a sanctified praise. She did not scold or even offer a dry shoulder. She did not speak in tongues or moan in the spirit. She spoke simple words that struck me in a way that few ever have.

“Wait a minute now, you can’t stop dreaming or you start to die,” she said, her words half sung. “Oh no, baby darlin’. You can’t stop dreamin’.”

Sitting there, I tried hard to recall my dreams, to remember what I had wanted to be before life happened. The more I searched the corners of my mind, the more I encountered empty black spaces. It was as if life itself had been sucked out of me and, along with it, every dream I ever had.

“You can’t stop dreaming or you start to die.” Grandmother’s words jarred me like smelling salts.

In the hours and days that followed, Grandmother’s words churned inside. And for the first time in a long time, I began to think seriously about what I might like to become someday, about the places I might like to go, about the kinds of possibilities that made me giddy.

I gave myself permission to climb aboard the dreamboat of imagination, to take a temporary excursion from my island of constraint.

Eventually, I found my dreams, lying like sunken treasure at the bottom of the sea of my subconscious, deep inside my heart.

I wasn’t sure where those dreams would take me or how far. But I had hope. At least I had hope.

Email: Author@johnwfountain.com

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com

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