It’s been a couple of months since I decided to quit using the themes I’ve used for several years here on my blog: Mental Health Monday, Writing on Wednesday, and Faith on Friday. And yet I still wake up on those days thinking about those themes. It had become such an ingrained habit that I can’t seem to shake it. But this morning I woke from a disturbing dream. I believe that how we respond to our dreams can affect our mental health, so I’m going to share a bit of it with you here. Warning: It’s Stephen King strange.
My husband and I were with a group of people in a cabin in the woods. Suddenly we heard a helicopter overhead. We looked out the window and it was landing right next to our cabin. But it wasn’t your run-of-the-mill helicopter. It had an RV attached to it. The chopper/RV landed with a loud thud and people from inside it started coming into our cabin. They seemed friendly enough at first, commenting on how beautiful the area was and introducing themselves (first names only). But soon I began to feel something ominous was in the air. A woman brought a little girl into the cabin, and the girl was carrying a duffle bag and a few toys, as though she was there to stay. She asked where the bathroom was—like they don’t have one on their flying RV. The adults seemed to span out quickly, going through the cabin like they were casing it out for something. A little boy about six years old came up to me and pulled his pants down to reveal an unusually large penis for a small boy. A women standing near him—his mother?—just smiled and didn’t scold him. I asked him to please pull his pants back up. I wanted to sneak off to the bathroom and call someone—the police? And say what? That a helicopter with an RV attached to it had landed by our cabin and I was afraid that we were being overrun by aliens or cannibals? My curiosity got the better of me and I walked outside and into the RV. There was a gliding couch in the first room, so I sat down on it, and shortly I was joined by a slim middle-aged woman with dark hair, wearing a bathrobe. She smiled and sat down beside me and began to speak with an eastern European accent. “Are you Russian?” I asked. “Yes.” “I know some Russian people who go to our church, we are Orthodox,” I answered, nervously. “Yes, I know,” she said, with a creepy smile. That’s when I wanted to run screaming through the woods hoping to find a place where my cell phone would work. And then I woke up.
Stephen King material? Maybe. I know I won’t be writing it… just recalling it briefly here creeps me out. Stephen King’s novel Doctor Sleep is about a group of people in RVs called “The True Knot,” quasi-immortal beings, living off the “steam” that children with the “shining” produce when they are slowly tortured to death. No way I could read this—it would not be good for my mental health. But on the web site for the book, I read these words:
All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.
Whether you interpret your dreams using Jungian techniques, run from them, or ignore them (I know people who fit into each of these categories) I believe there’s something to be said for what happens to us in that dream-state of our subconscious just before waking. But instead of trying to apply it to my life today, I wanted to get this morning’s dream out of my head, and so I hope to do so by writing about it here. I was just glad the sun was shining when I woke from what was surely about to become a full-blown nightmare. (I had lots of nightmares, and even walked in my sleep as a child.) So now it’s time to turn my thoughts to happier things—and get this dark stuff out of my head. Running errands on this beautiful morning will help.
I hope everyone has a happy week, free from nightmares, unless you’re a Stephen King fan.
Darkness gets a bad rap. It’s often associated with evil, whereas light is touted as good, especially in literature and drama. Bad guys often wear black; heroes sport white. And when it comes to mental health, someone who is depressed might describe their feelings as being in a “dark mood” or “in a deep dark hole.” Our parents’ generation didn’t cast it quite as darkly, saying, “I’m feeling blue.” And of course with music, that translates to the blues. But no one ever says, when we are depressed, I’m feeling light.
What color is anxiety? I’ve been anxious quite a bit lately, about a number of things. That anxiety plus an overly active mind have kept me awake a couple of nights. Insomnia isn’t something I experience regularly, thank God. But when it hits, it’s exhausting. Sometimes I can feel my heart beating as I lay still trying to sleep, anxious thoughts seeming to flutter around the room like so many birds. I wouldn’t describe the feeling as dark, but more like murky—lacking clarity.
Yesterday I read an article in The Atlantic by Kathryn Harrison, author of The Kiss and other works of nonfiction and fiction. (The Kiss is excellent, but a little dark, because Harrison wrote it about the incestuous affair she was forced to have with her father.) The article is really about writing (she not only has several published books but she teaches writing) but it’s also about darkness, which she embraces. She reflects on a poem by Joseph Brodsky, “On Love,” especially this line:
For darkness restores what the light cannot repair.
The darkness Brodsky and Harrison are talking about here has to do with our unconscious lives, and especially the dream world, where many believe healing can take place. As Harrison explains:
Many human transactions take place in this realm of darkness. On unconscious planes, through dreams—even, on some level, in people’s ability to communicate without words. By darkness, I don’t mean black, as in lacking light. I mean dark: the aspect of life that is not accessible through our conscious processes of analysis…. There’s huge redemption in the fact that there is a world that is dark, or opaque, to conscious life. The realm of darkness that heals and restores, and allows memory to bind up, provides the present with a kind of solace that is almost holy. The line is about the holy and generative properties that exist within us. And so, I think the line is about God. A realm that God inhabits.
I believe that God inhabits the darkness. There are many stories in the Old Testament, especially, where God met the prophets of old in the darkness. And of course He went down into Hades to free the captives. He doesn’t just dwell in light.
It’s Holy Week for Orthodox Christians, and the services at my church this week could be called dark. The music is often in a minor key, the tone and atmosphere itself subdued. The lights are dimmed, the nave mostly illumined by candles, which cast a muted brightness on the gold leaf of the icons behind them, but also dark shadows. Even the priests’ and deacons’ vestments and the cloths covering the altar and icon stands are dark, having replaced the usual gold and white coverings. Is all this darkness evil? No, it’s a necessary part of our spiritual—and emotional—journey through Christ’s passion. And not unlike the unconscious world described by Harrison, this atmosphere can “heal and restore” and provide “a kind of solace that is almost holy.”
I’m going back there tonight. To the darkness of the church service. I’m going to try to let go of my anxiety through the unconscious work of chanting and prayer, breathing in the incense that reminds us that our prayers rise to God from the darkness of our broken lives.
You never paint what you see or think you see. You paint with a thousand vibrations the blow that struck you.– Nicholas de Staël
My dreams sometimes include children. But lately there’s been a plethora of children-filled dreams. Dreams that I long to understand and am often sad to leave upon waking. Some mornings I push the snooze button on my alarm and try to return to the dream. My intentional awareness must be what’s been bringing those dreams back to me in flashes of déjà vu for the past week or so.
One dream involved a group of children at a boarding school or summer camp. I’m not sure what my job was, but I think I was a teacher or something. But I kept screwing up—getting lost en route to a class, losing students on an outing.
Another dream involved a daycare of sorts, and a baby I was responsible for and lost.
I’ve abandoned a former habit of writing down my dreams, so I can’t remember the others clearly. But this morning I felt the urge to explore their meanings or messages a bit. I went to my psychology bookshelf and pulled out the book, The Art of Dreaming: Using Your Dreams to Unlock Your Creativity (Celestial Arts Publishing, 1995) by Veronica Tonay, Ph.D.
First I read a little about creative people and dreams in general:
In Jungian psychology, the child is a potent creative symbol in dreams, representing a new part of the psyche, regeneration, and rebirth. Clinical psychologists notice their clients often dream of children when going through major transitions. Most of my creative clients dream of children when they are about to embark upon a new creative project.
This resonated with me immediately… but then I’m almost always about to embark on a new creative project. I’m aware of two such projects which are in the works, but I’m also wondering if writing new scenes for my novel—which I’ve been laboring over revising for months now—isn’t part of this.
I read more about creative types and our struggles:
Creative people who do not become seriously mentally ill (and these are the majority!) tend to be more impulsive, more depressed, and more angry than others…. Paradoxically, though, creative people have more inner resources with which to cope with their inner difficulties…. Creative work provides a means for hurt children to find meaning in their experience and may even provide some protection from emotional instability.
There it is. I’m one of the “hurt children” (due to childhood sexual abuse) and I struggle with those emotional health issues. Dr. Tonay continues to describe some of my tendencies:
Creative people are driven. We are typically less easily satisfied than are other people. We are often ambitious for our work to be recognized by others…. We must develop a lifestyle that allows us to create.
Most of this isn’t new information—for me or the general public. Neither is much of what I write about in these “Mental Health Monday” blog posts.” I’m not a mental health professional. I’m just trying to interpret the world for myself and others who might be following a similar path. So what about the significance of endangered children in our dreams? Like the one I lost in last night’s dream?
Along with replaying and confronting us with real feelings we felt in childhood… endangered dream children represent us. The child within us accompanies us throughout our lives and can be heard the loudest in those who were emotionally wounded (for example, creative people). The child we were and still are needs our attention, respect, and caring. Again, he or she also needs our willingness to be childlike, because the child can help us to find our creativity…. Endangered dream children indicate that our creativity is right now in danger of being destroyed or hurt.
Of course bells are going off as I read this… how is my creativity in danger of being destroyed or hurt? Is the danger coming from others, or myself? Or both? It’s taken me years to begin to carve out a space for my work, and to learn to say “no” to things that distract me from writing. But something—I don’t know what—seems to be keeping me from finishing revisions on the novel. I return to Dr. Tonay’s words:
Creative people must take courage to make their creative expression a priority in their lives and must fearlessly protect their creative children. If we do not, we may dream of little ones in danger.
I must confess that although I’ve been reading and thinking about this since I first woke up this morning, I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to do. There are some good questions to ask myself at the end of the chapter, including:
What does the dream child need? Is there something I can imagine saying to him or her? Doing for him or her? What action can I take to ensure I get what I need?
Stay tuned. And thanks, always for reading. Feel free to chime in.
Don’t blink. Life seems to go by so much faster as we get older, doesn’t it? Sometimes it scares me that I’ll be 64 in a couple of months. I laugh with my husband as we watch sports because I no longer make comments about how cute the athletes are. It’s the coaches I notice. I’ve had a crush on Jeff Fisher for several years now. But he’s still a young 56.
And then Kevin Costner shows up on the cover of the December 2014/January 2015 issue of AARP The Magazine. Yep, he’s still got it. And he turns 60 this month. How does he do it? He says:
When I show up I have to be ready. Whether the energy is there or not, I bubble it up…. I still like swinging for the fences.
His energy inspires me as I continue to work on projects that are important to me, even when I often feel old and tired.
But it’s a small column in the “My American Life” section by Anne Lamott that helped me the most this month. “Have a Little Faith: How Getting Older Deepened My Belief in Goodness… and in Myself” isn’t just about faith in God. As she says in the article:
It’s about faith in goodness, in life, in things mostly working out. And let’s not forget faith in ourselves—the conviction that we are loved and chosen—which is such a component of the spiritual life.
If you don’t get the magazine, you can read the entire article on Lamott’s Facebook page. She posted it here, on December 9. It’s short and powerful and worth a read. She talks about things I need to hear about over and over, like forgiving ourselves and others. And laughter. And when to say “yes” and when to say “no.” And the importance of community:
Twenty-nine years in a tiny church has proved to me that when two or more are gathered who believe in Goodness, they will take care of those in their community who are suffering, scared, lonely.
I’ve seen community in action when I’m suffering—especially the hands-on help I got from the people in my church in the weeks following my car wreck in 2013. And even in good times, when neighbors we’ve only known for a few months brought over Christmas gifts, like homemade bread, a Southern Living cookbook, a nice bottle of wine, and even a calendar with beautiful images of angels in it because the gifter noticed the angels on our walls when she came to a party at our house. These expressions of love from new friends—along with the sustaining love of life-long friends—bolster me up when I’m feeling down, or tired, or just old. They help me “bubble up.”
As I dive back into another round of revisions on my novel in the coming weeks (having put this task off during the holidays and having now run out of excuses) I’ll make time for coffee with a neighbor, lunch with a friend, and hopefully get back on the elliptical machine as often as my aching ankle will allow. To the casual observer it might not look like I’m swinging for the fences, but I know that I am. I still believe I can hit one out of the park. Thanks to my community, my family, and the inspiration of folks like Costner and Lamott. (And an occasional glimpse of Jeff Fisher.)
I had invited a number of people to my house for a special event, which included lunch. About thirty minutes before they were to arrive, I finished moving the furniture around, setting the tables, and putting out fresh flowers on each table. The house looked warm and welcoming, and I was excited about the event. And then it hit me: I had forgotten to make the soup!
I was supposed to make the butternut squash soup the night before and keep it in the fridge to warm up for our lunch. It would take much longer than thirty minutes to prepare the soup with the fresh squash I had purchased earlier in the week. Panic-stricken, I scurried about my pantry and fridge looking for something else I could serve my guests. Nada. Checking the clock one more time, I decided I should hurry to the neighborhood grocery and pick up something from the deli. But what if someone arrived while I was gone?
And then my alarm went off.
I’ve been told at numerous writing workshops to never begin a book this way—with the protag having some exciting or stressful adventure to hook the reader and then suddenly she wakes up and it’s only a dream. It’s considered cliché. But I’m breaking that rule for today’s blog post because it’s Monday morning and I’m happy-tired from the wonderful week I just spent with my kids and grandkids in Denver and this is the mental material that’s easily available to me right now.
I’ve always had active dreams. But I only began to pay attention to them about fifteen years ago when a friend shared a bit with me about how to interpret them. Since the 1970s, “dream work” has become more and more popular, so there’s plenty of lay material available for those who want to learn more. I even attended a dream work group a couple of times, but it didn’t hold my attention the way I thought it might.
Freud said that the content of dreams is often related to wish fulfillment. More often than not, I really don’t know what to do with the interpretation. Dream expert G. William Domhoff says:
…unless you find your dreams fun, intellectually interesting, or artistically inspiring, then feel free to forget your dreams.
My husband never pays attention to his dreams and usually forgets them immediately, if he remembers them at all. I think that’s partly because he embraces the Orthodox Christian view of dreams as something to be wary of, because demons can lead one astray through dreams. As Elder Ieronymos of Aegina says:
It is better for us not to believe in dreams at all, because many have gone astray on their account. There are three kinds of dreams: those from God, those from our thoughts, and those from the enemy. If they are from God and we don’t believe them, God does not take offense, because we don’t believe them out of fear, lest we be led into deception…. If the dreams are from God, they bring calm; if they are from the enemy, they bring turmoil. Beware of deceptions. Better to protect ourselves and not believe anything outside of what our Church teaches.
(You can read more about why many Orthodox are wary of dream work in this article by Father GeorgeKonstantopoulos.)
I’ve never been very obedient to such warnings, possibly because I’m usually curious, searching, and open to new things. Or new ways of seeing old things.
September 17 was the feast day of Saint Sophia in the Orthodox Church. She’s the patron saint of my Goddaughter, Sophie Mansour. Yesterday after Liturgy, I walked with Sophie up to the balcony at St. John where the large icon of Saint Sophia and her three daughters, Faith, Hope and Love, hangs on the back wall. We venerated the icon together, and then I prayed that Saint Sophia would protect Sophie all her days, and that she would give her courage and wisdom.
Courage because living a life true to the Faith is difficult in any society. Sophie’s mother is from Iraq and her father is Syrian, so their family knows firsthand the suffering of the people in the Middle East. But even here in America, we often suffer if we stand firm for what we believe.
Wisdom because Sophia is a female name derived from σοφία, the Greek word for “Wisdom.” The name was used to represent the personification of wisdom. My friend Sally Thomason loaned me a book called The Web in the Sea: Jung, Sophia, and the Geometry of the Soul, by Alice O. Howell, which I’m enjoying skimming right now. I say skimming because I’m not up for a closer read but I’m gleaning a few nuggets. Like this one:
Behind every event in our lives is a purpose, and it is up to us to discover it. This means paying attention.
I don’t know if Howell meant paying attention to our dreams, but I suppose I’ll continue to at least give them a few minutes of thought upon waking. Maybe it will help me learn more about myself and grow into the person I’m meant to be. If not, I’ll at least gain some awareness.
I was in a large house with people in every room. I think I was supposed to be watching a group of children. I recognized one quiet little boy among them—he was about 6 years old. I didn’t know the other children, who ranged in age from 2-ish on up to 9 or 10, or so it seemed. There was chaos. People were coming in and out of each room of the house doing a variety of things. The kitchen was full of dirty dishes and glasses and there were snacks sitting out but I couldn’t tell what was what.
When I found the room the little boy was in, he looked at me across the mass of children and said, quietly, “I need a glass of water, please.” And then, “Can you read me a book?” His voice was calm.
“Sure,” I said. “Just wait here and I’ll got get the water and a book.” He smiled and sat in the corner of the room watching the other children running around doing various activities.
I had a hard time finding the kitchen and trying to decide if there were any clean glasses for water. Along the way I was distracted by all sorts of people, including a group of adults who were putting on a play with musical instruments and dialogue. I stopped to watch them because I recognized two of them—two guys who live in Nashville. It was fun watching the play, but finally I remembered the little boy and I left the room to look for his water and a book to read.
I found a clean glass and got the little boy some water, but I couldn’t find any books anywhere in the house. (More distractions happened in each room as I searched for a book, but I can’t remember them.) Finally I found a newspaper and got the comics, thinking he would enjoy that. When I got back to the room where he was, some of the children were asleep (thankfully) and the little boy was still waiting patiently for me. I gave him his water—which he thanked me for and drank politely. Just as I settled down on the floor beside him to read, I woke up.
The little boy represents the part of me who is learning to speak my voice. But also the part of me that is sensitive, thirsty, and maybe a bit needy. I’m trying to learn to take care of that little boy inside me (swimming, coloring mandalas, reading, writing) but I get easily distracted by special events and exciting activities. (Nothing wrong with those special events and exciting activities, so long as I also take care of that little boy.)
In Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (August, 2014, Triton Press, Oxford, Mississippi) edited by my friend, Ellen Morris Prewitt, one contributor says this:
I like when people listen because you can express your feeling and tell them how you feel about the situation or things they need to know and show and tell them how you care about a situation. The Bible tells you when God made the world he spoke it and whenever you ask in his name he will hear you. So it’s very important to speak your voice. Long time ago somebody told me you didn’t have no voice, it just made me determined to go forward in life no matter what people say about you. Just keep pushing in life.—Robbin K
When God made the world, he spoke it. I’m so glad that little boy keeps speaking his voice inside me. Maybe today I’ll sit down with a glass of water and read to him.