When did you get the memo about priorities? It reached me one day as I was lying in misery, banished to a dark room away from irritating sunlight in the heat of summer so I could recover from a walloping case of poison ivy. Poetic justice? It had all started on the sleeping porch, where my sister and I were supposed to be completing the last of our daily chores — sweeping the porch after making beds throughout the house, and folding the laundry we had brought in from the clothesline. Instead of finishing off those dull and uninspiring duties, my sister and I busied ourselves on the porch inventing tales of wild journeys on imagined horses, and making our fictional way westward to the ranch we planned to own one day. Chores could wait. Dreams couldn’t.

Our mother was hardly a Helicopter Matron, and the little work we did manage to do convinced her that we were developing sage habits of work first, play later. No one ventured onto the sleeping porch, where my sister and I hid the truth of our indolence. It worked. Until the morning I saw that our sleeping porch had turned into an archeological dig full of unwashed clothing, bird feathers, rock collections, and a few discarded dishes of dubious vintage. Did I convince my sister that we should clean up the place before resuming our games? Are you kidding? We simply moved our place of malingering to the patch behind the house.

We had been warned to steer clear of the patch, a vibrant green tangle of poison ivy, but where else could we go? And so, all morning we avoided the real world of chores and frolicked instead in the forbidden patch. In fact, we rolled in it, rubbed our bare feet in it, and buried our faces in it. The following morning, unsurprisingly, we were covered in the telltale punctate lesions of the most poisonous of ivies. Welcome to the real world.

So there I lay encased in calamine lotion, sequestered in darkness, with nothing else to do but give careful thought as to how I had gotten where I was. Who was to blame? My sister? No, she had been my dear accomplice. My mother? No, she had trusted my judgment and assumed I would weigh the consequences of my choices before making them. So that left me as the culprit. I had chosen to play first and work later.

But the real world, I was learning, worked differently. In its pay-to-play system, my sister and I could keep on dreaming, but only if we attended first to the real-world chores of well-swept sleeping porches, tidied beds and folded laundry. I read that memo over and over as I waited for the poison ivy rash to subside.

In a matter of days, my sister and I were back at our imagined ranch with a herd of wild horses to tame. But this time, we folded the laundry first, so we’d have clean clothes for the trail. This time we tidied every bed in my mother’s house before we told the wranglers on our make-believe ranch crew to get a good night’s sleep. And this time, we swept the sleeping porch clear of every grain of grit before we led our pretend horses into the fine paddock they deserved.

My mother praised us to the skies. And well she should have. The memo was from her, and we had read every word. You can have your dreams, and live them, too. Just be sure you’ve done your work in the real world first.

—Susan Rosenstreich