Sunday, May 3, 2009

Dreams in the Mist

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope,
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.
--T.S. Eliot

We have a sign hanging above our kitchen door that we can see every time we leave the house--if we look up. I got it from the Art Co-op on Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado one Thanksgiving weekend. It's a bronze sheet with the words of Thoreau cut out of the metal: "Live the life you've imagined." I bought it as a gift for Kevin. He unwrapped it that Christmas morning, and I promptly commandeered it. I wanted our family to have a mantra of sorts, to help us imagine something more, to give our kids a doorway to a dream or an imagining entirely theirs. (In my dreams, when Christian opens on Broadway or Madison Square Garden, he will thank me by making reference to the sign that hung above the mustard-colored kitchen door.)

I imagine lots of things. I imagine that the exercise balls at the gym have feelings. I imagine that when they see my rear end coming down on them, they try to move out of the way. Sometimes I start laughing so hard at the thought of what the balls must think/see that I can't stay centered enough to do my crunches. Sometimes I think my car talks to me, especially when Kevin's driving and he forgets that my engine has about twenty three more cylinders than his sensible European model and he doesn't need to gun it off the stop. I can't drive by a line of poplars that are the only indication of a now-crumbled irrigation canal without wondering about the people who planted them.

And if poplars and cottonwoods get me going, you should see what explodes in my mind when we happen upon a long abandoned homestead, with a still proud brick home trying its golden vain best to remain upright against a backdrop of tumbled silver barns, corrals and winter cheat grass. Julia and Christian will hear my sharply drawn breath and say, in mocking unison before I can give voice to the words, "Oh, just imagine . . . just imagine." They've heard it so often, they have the rise and fall down pat.

I used the exact phrase last night. I picked Christian (15-years old) up from his night out, and we were waiting in the drive through line at Wendy's for our mother-and-son midnight junior bacon cheeseburger, when he said, "I was born in the wrong era." "When should you have been born?" "Oh sometime in the Middle Ages, so that I could do heroic things with horses and lances and ladies in towers." "Oh, could you imagine what your teeth would have been like. . . . the snaggletooth hero. . . just imagine." I start laughing; he starts groaning. Our almost-joke is that he will still be wearing his braces about the time he earns his Eagle Scout which will be around the same time he finally gets his driver's license just after he graduates from college, which college might be ITT Tech, because not only does he imagine he wears his rubber bands, he also imagines he hands in his homework.

The problem with imagination is that it can be more powerful, more influential, and a whole lot more satisfying than what is right in front of us. We live, many of us, in an imagined world, upon which the real world sometimes intrudes. The strongest pull of the imagination is that which involves our notions of ourselves: who we are, what being "Tessa" means, in my case; what actions, behaviours and attitudes are consistent with my imagined self; what life situations are acceptable, and which are not.

Most of us have definite notions of what being ourselves means. For example, I don't dance in public--ever; Santiagos bring honor to the family name; Meyers forge their own path; our family volunteers; I come from a long line of married people; I am an athlete; I am not the kind of woman who gets manicures; I am the kind of man who provides for his family. Whatever our definition of self is, we act accordingly because we have imagined ourselves in those spaces and places and know what to do. Things get interesting when life presents us with situations in which we have never imagined ourselves, in which our imagined self crashes into what actually is, and there are only pieces left to pick up.

I have been watching the disintegration of a marriage in our neighborhood. For years, a man has been at a crossroads. His wife wants a different life: she doesn't want to compromise anymore; she wants a straighter, more committed way. She wants a more truthful road. She wanted it with him--initially. He has been invited, cajoled, and given options, opportunities to make different choices, chances to change and to create together a new vision. But he won't do anything at all. He is frozen by the idea that this, this reassessment of what his relationship is with his wife, is happening to HIM. He cannot conceive that he could possibly be part of a marriage that is troubled. Therefore, in his mind, he is not. The problem is, of course, entirely hers.

He is angry that the wife that he thought he knew is acting in a way that he could not have envisioned, that she morphed without his permission. He is shamed that, on this particular occasion, he is the one to be found lacking. He cannot get passed the idea that this is actually happening, and worse, that it is happening to him. In his strutting and posturing and indignation, he has missed completely the opportunities for reconciliation, for change, the chances to make anew. He does not yet have the emotional humility to let go of his image of what his life was (never mind that it might never have been that at all), which imagining threatens to undo what and where he actually is--which is at the crossroads with the chance to choose anew, to start again.

The image that comes to mind as I think about the husband's reaction to the changes in his life is that of a wild animal, say a wildebeest, who has found himself trapped in the corner of game preserve where the rivers have run dry, the veld is overgrazed and the rainy season is still a long way off. He's being moved to another part of the preserve, where a watering hole is filled with water all year long, and the grass grows long and green. Only he doesn't know that. So as the wardens load him up into the trailer, he's kicking and snorting and hyperventilating. He injures himself in the loading process. He continues to kick and bellow, until the doors open and he sees before him a grassland lush and thick. But, it's not the territory he knows, the one he's familiar with, and so, he remains, backside pushed up against the back of the trailer, head thrashing, hooves flailing, stubbornly refusing to come out. Chances are when he finally emerges from his self-confinement, he will attempt, beyond logic, to return to familiar, barren ground.

His struggle, and ours, is to be brave enough to box and shelve our imagined self and life (perhaps donate it to the Salvation Army for somebody else to try on). We must live in what is actually before us. One of the most limiting beliefs is that there is no way other than the one we have imagined. We have visualized, time and time again, the future, including a particular path, or a way of living, or a notion of ourselves, our partners, our marriages, our children. This visualization becomes our way. We work towards it; we plan for it; in many ways, we bank on it. Then when the real is not the dreamed, we struggle because we have conceived of no other way. If what is happening to us is not as we have imagined does that mean that what is happening is not good, or will not ultimately become good? If we could stop the comparison to the imagined, would the now be so disappointing, so unendurable?

I had one of those moments in church this morning. (It's a small moment, I admit. It doesn't involve divorce, adultery, loneliness, death, poverty, or loss of faith, at least not yet. But it's still my imagined life pushing against the real). I sit by myself with our four children; Kevin's up in front, facing the congregation. Christian spent the last part of the service, including the closing hymn with his head tipped over the back of the pew, his jacket hood pulled up over his face, unibomber style. During the second verse, he broke from the pose to sucker punch Adam in the gut. Adam promptly doubled over, looking at me with stricken eyes, but as he didn't look up again or make a sound, just remained doubled-over and we were on opposite ends of the pew, I didn't know whether he was for real or not.

I felt the big sigh rising up from the pit, escaping through my shoulders. I sat there thinking, "Why is it that I have to do this on my own? When do I get to sit next to Kevin, thigh to thigh, shoulder to shoulder, enjoying whispered asides, passing written questions and responses to each other. Why am I the lucky winner of eleven years and counting of religious single parenting?"

I caught myself in the act of that thought; stopped myself as soon as I heard the multiple I's, and the plaintive creation of an ideal that served no other purpose than to make me feel worse. I considered the actual: Julia to my left, her arm across my shoulders so that she can tell me more about prom without drawing too much attention; Christian (prior to sucker punch) entertaining Adam with drawn cartoon adventures of the three brothers, clad in underwear and capes; Julia's fingers entwined in Seth's hair; Seth's quiet voice carefully picking out the tunes. Every Sunday I am like a nursing mother dog in the center of a brawl of puppies, my lap their basket. Two weeks ago, my body became the bed across which Adam sprawled on Easter Sunday, cadaver-like; he lay so still I noticed, and wondered if he might actually be listening to the choir. As they finished, his hands moved outward like he was signaling a touchdown, then he brought them slowly down again. He turned to me and said, "Oh . . . that was so good, I just wanted to clap. . . wierd."

This is my real, my actual, perhaps not the thigh to thigh warmth I have imagined, but good and sweet . . . which goodness and sweetness I can taste if I turn from the imaginary to the world actually before me.

(Title: from Heart, These Dreams) (Alternate Title: Maze of Imagination, from U2, Beautiful Day, one of my favorite songs)


  1. Nice bra ;). I love your writing. Thank you again!

  2. Just read your article in Meridian Magazine and came to your blog. I haven't read any but this latest post but wanted to thank you for your insights. I look forward to reading and pondering your older posts as well. Deanna

  3. I am the mother of a child with many neurological disabilities. If I compare her to other children her age, it quickly becomes too painful to see her limitations and all of the things she will never do. However, when I give up on the "imagined life" I had for her, so I can see her reality, I see a beautiful, silly, funny, vibrant person, full of life and creativity, who blesses the life of EVERY SINGLE person she comes in contact with--who makes progress EVERY SINGLE DAY (can I say that about my own life?).

    Reality is much richer than the imaginary life. This is one of my main problems with our cultures fascination with video and RPG games (especially among YM and YA men)--they spend so much time in the realm of fantasy, they waste all of the heroism, service and creativity they could use in the real world.