Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dreaming: The Shadow

I have always been afraid of my shadow. And yes, I mean it in both senses of the word – the Jungian shadow buried deep in my unconscious containing all of the psychic material I had long ago stuffed there like old childhood clothes crammed into a trunk with a metal lock threaded into a brass hasp, the key swallowed – and my physical shadow, that substance-less absence that only shows itself in the light.

Pure mind is how I like to describe myself, and I have so subsumed my sensory function, pushed it so far down the well of my unconscious, that I had a terrible time learning how to drive, can't line edit to save my life, and have to pinch myself sometimes during sex to remember that yes, this act is indeed a sensory, not intellectual experience.

So in the dream, I am standing before the entrance to an attic, and I cannot remember how I got there. I recall nothing before the creaking sounds my boots make as they press into the loose planks of the wooden staircase that is leading me to this place.

It feels like it might be my grandmother’s house, though it can't be really, because Bubby never had a house - only a series of drafty apartments in sub-divided brownstones where she lived alone except for when she rented out a room or two to borders - strange lonely men from Russia or Poland with no children and no place to go on the Jewish holidays.

I’d had nightmares about Bubby’s apartment before, decades ago, when my mother had left me there from time to time to spend the night.

“The man upstairs is going to get you,” Bubby would snap, whenever I’d misbehave, which usually meant I’d spoken too loud or scrunched up on my knees instead of sitting properly at the dining room table.

And just as Bubby would utter her warning, as if on cue, the building would start to creak or moan, and I was certain that as soon as I was alone in the dark, lying on the cold narrow cot that Bubby had unfolded in the back room, the man upstairs would come into my bed, smelling, as old men do, of stale smoke, onions, and tooth decay - and suffocate me.

Years later, I realized that perhaps Bubby was talking about God, which thinking about it now was just as, if not more, frightening than a smelly border living on the third floor, given the way God was known to write people’s names in the Book of Life or Book of Death.

God had come for Bubby almost forty years ago, but somehow, in my fifty plus years of life, I had eluded Him.

Or had HE eluded me?

The failure of God to appear in my life is as awe-full to me as the absence of light in my shadow.

But now, in this dream, as a fleeting wisp of darkness floats across the attic’s entrance way, I let my body enter.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dreaming: Herself

So it happened again last night - the big dream - the recurring one I have had in various iterations since the first terrifying time when I was eleven years old.
In each of these dreams, which have haunted me for over forty-five years, there is a baby and this baby is in my care and somehow, I fail to keep this baby safe and it dies.

Sometimes, like the first time I had the dream, the baby is an actual child. Randy is a little girl I used to babysit and in the dream she (three or so) and I (eleven) are walking along the curb on the cul de sac where we both live. I am playing with a bob-a link, my favorite toy from that time. It has a red plastic ball around 4 inches in diameter with a 1 inch hole on the bottom. The ball is attached by a string to a short wooden pole. As I am walking, I let go of Randy's hand to flip the ball in the air, and maneuver the stick to try to get the ball's hole to land precisely atop the pole.

It's a perfect fit.

When I look over at Randy, I become very frightened. It appears as if she is beginning to shrink. She gets smaller and smaller until she's only about six inches tall. As I bend down to pick her up, it starts to rain hard - torrents of water blind me and before the Nooooooo! can escape from my throat, the little girl is swept into the teeming gutter and disappears down the sewer.

I awake, guilty, terrified and utterly ashamed.

Another time, years later, I am a new mother and this time the child in the dream looks like it could be mine. It has the same chubby round cherubic look of my daughter. In the dream, I sit her upon the granite countertop in the kitchen and watch in horror as she turns all blue and pink and shiny like a ceramic cookie jar.

I make no move to support her and like Humpty Dumpty she falls to the tile floor, breaking into pieces.

There have been other babies over the years turning into balloons then slipping through my fingers. Still others have been dragged off and eaten by wild animals, their bones buried beneath my feet.

In a particularly devastating one, an intruder enters her bedroom, steals my baby from her crib and places her beneath the wheel of my car in my garage. I awaken in terror just as I am about to get into the car, turn the key in the ignition and hear the motor rev.

In last night's dream, the baby speaks to me.

She is only six months old, but has the deep sultry voice of a grown woman who has smoked too many cigarettes. When I look at her, I can tell that she understands everything that is going on around her. She is just too helpless to take care of her own physical needs.

In the dream, I forget about her. I don’t feed her or change her diaper and when darkness comes, I leave her lying cold and alone on the family room floor as I go upstairs to sleep.

In the morning, when I wake up (still dreaming) I sheepishly creep downstairs to the room where she lies cold, wet, hungry and helpless on the floor.

It's her painful, knowing tone that punches me in my gut.

"You forgot about me," she accuses. "What kind of woman forgets to take care of a baby?"

And with that, this resilient little baby's eyes become mirrors.

Over the years, decades actually, I have tried to make sense of this recurring nightmare. And for years, I thought the image of the baby was to be taken literally - that it expressed my unconscious fear of being responsible for the lives of others.

But during those years, I managed to raise two healthy children and launch them into adulthood and I successfully taught thousands of other people's children over the past thirty five years.

So now I am thinking that perhaps I need a different approach to this recurring dream - one that sees each image in the dreams as aspects of my own psyche - the dreamer dreaming herself.

Through this lens, the image of the baby becomes the neglected, wildly unmothered part of myself. And if this is the case ( and why shouldn't it be?) last night's dream is a hopeful one.

For this baby, unlike all of the other babies of my dreams, though left alone in the dark without food or care, is still here in the morning.

She survives the neglect and looks at herself as if to say, "I am Marsha, and I am here."

And the dreamer, dreaming herself replies, "Welcome."

Monday, November 1, 2010

Finishing the Hat: Following the Urge to Create

There's a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat...
Starting on a hat..
Finishing a hat...
Look, I made a hat...
Where there never was a hat

Finishing the Hat. This is the title of a new book by Stephen Sondheim, a collection of his lyrics replete with his personal reflections of the process of songwriting. ( The complete title of the book is "Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes.)

Finishing the Hat is also the title of a song from Sunday in the Park with George, a musical about the neo-impressionist painter Georges Seurat. The actor playing Seurat sings this song after completing his most famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The stage becomes graced with live actors perfectly still behind a translucent scrim, wearing the exact clothing and standing in the precise positions as the figures in the painting. The actor re-enacts the moment when the artist is "finishing the hat" putting the final details onto the masterpiece, in the last orgasmic thrust of creative energy propelling the artist to push forth the painting, like a baby bursting from a womb. The masterpiece is delivered to the world, alive and complete.

In the song, he laments losing the lover who wouldn't wait for him through this process. He'd hoped she would have understood, suspected that she might not yet despite this, he knows that he is powerless. Once in the grip of this generative force, he has no choice but to succumb to the surging waves of labor that will not be denied its completion.

I've been feeling a bit of this lately -- the heady, almost giddy elation of creation as I learn how to make mosaics and experiment with photography. I become enrapt in the artistic process and I dream of the feel of cool pieces of broken glass on my fingertips, and I see familiar images in new and surprising ways.

Playing with the possible. It's how I once thought about teaching, for me, also a very creative endeavor. If I ever would have written my dissertation, that would have been the title. "Playing with the possible," or perhaps, its mirror image, "imagining the real.

Somewhere there is a place that exists between the conscious and unconscious mind - a wild borderland on the margin of sanity where images rise up from some deep ancient place and merge with shapes and patterns; where words heavy with the symbols they carry intersect with rational thought.

This is a captivating place to live, where there is no map other than the one you make with your own traversing of the territory, a place you must go to with abandon.

Stephen Sondheim was my friend Adele Magner's favorite lyricist and composer. Sometimes we'd talk to each other in Sondheim lyrics. "Send in the clowns," she'd say and I'd answer with a Jewish accent in the form of a question, "There's got to be clowns?"

Or she'd sing, "Careful the things you say," and I'd sing back, "Children will listen."

And I will never forget her favorite line from her favorite Sondheim play, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum - from the ironically titled "Impossible" - "The situation's fraught, fraughter than I thought, with horrible, impossible possibilities."

Adele created a program that enabled young people to feel the power of their own impossible possibilities -- to imagine the real and play with the possibilities of their lives, by introducing them to the process of play writing. These adolescents, my students and thousands of others, were invited to give voice to their inner visions and outer conflicts and through the process of creating their plays, their very lives were transformed.

She was my teacher, my mentor and my friend and she taught me how to listen closely to what my students weren't saying, to follow their steps in this complex dance, then lead them gently back to themselves.

Adele had cervical cancer and she suffered with it for three years before it took her. The horrible impossible possibility that lies deep in the dark and terrifying woods reared its head and swallowed her whole.

It was she who told me I could invent what I desire. It's taken me ten long years since her death to finally get it -- not just intellectually or as an academic concept but to fully GET IT. It isn't just about cutting and reassembling glass, nor capturing surprising images in the shutter of a camera or juxtaposing words in unexpected ways. It's about giving yourself over completely to the process of invention and committing to it fully.

And it's about loving not the finished product but reveling in the pure joy of finishing the hat.