You Don’t Have to Understand It (I Don’t)

About a month ago, my dad appeared at the doorway to my bedroom. He was smiling like usual, wearing his favorite striped terry-cloth robe. It’s still hanging in my closet. I was happy to see him; I’d been struggling with something and whether it was with words or a hug, his presence is always a help to me. He entered the room quietly and sat on the edge of my bed. I began speaking and started to cry. The grin he was wearing didn’t waver at all, he he waited and listened with total attentiveness, the kind you rarely find. His calm demeanor and ease despite my tears comforted me, as though he knew something that I could not. When I paused he said “Be strong Mary,” like some kind of Indian warrior, but less warrior-like. He continued to smile as he spoke and reminded me, “You want to make sure you’re loved for the right reasons.” This felt like both a question and an answer. It sounds a little vague, but I could feel distinctly that I was heard and he understood me. His words were minimal but powerful; they gave me what I needed. I felt lucky to have him. Then, it was over.

The brash sunlight in my bedroom bursted in through my blinking eyes as I left one world and awoke firmly in this one. It’s bizarre but it usually happens the same way: In the first moments of consciousness, the dream plays out in its entirety in reverse, in maybe one or two seconds. But this recollection doesn’t seem to happen in my mind. It’s as though it comes from the center; my gut or chest. Then, it arrives in non sequitur bits and pieces and my mind immediately begins to reassemble them in order. In those first moments of wakefulness, the experience feels so entirely tangible and fresh, so within reach, I’m convinced if I close my eyes tight enough it will all come back to me. But most of the time there’s no going back. While the dream itself is sacred, there is something Holy in waking from it too. I have felt God there. It’s as though dreams give access into the eternal, and in those first blinking moments, the human mind hasn’t caught up yet. In this little pocket is where we can sit with the phenomenal before our thoughts flood in and diminish it into something digestible; something that makes sense.

The dream visit is like the Cadillac of post-death interaction. It’s a chance to see and hear and feel someone that you don’t have physical access to anymore. I feel extremely grateful when I have dreams with my dad. Beyond the refresher for my senses, there is power in them. I was given advice and comforted yes, but I felt actual love through that dream. I drew strength from it and I’ll treasure it among the other great memories I have of my dad. And that had me thinking. I’m always hearing people say that dreams “aren’t real” or shouldn’t be examined because they’re just imagination or a meaningless summation of random events and mostly just aren’t true. Of course, this has roots in pragmatism. A dream that your best friend is living in your refridgerator doesn’t mean that they are, hopefully. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately of dreams I’ve had with my dad, especially this most recent one. I’ve been recalling it, as though it were a real memory. And I’ve been trying to discern what the difference is between an actual conversation like this and the one we had in my dream. Didn’t it really happen? Isn’t it now a real memory? When you read the first paragraph, did you have reason to think it wasn’t real? It did happen. Not in our dimension but in some dimension. However unorthodox, there is still meaningful interaction between us. I don’t pretend to understand how it all works, but I know it is true. It feels as real as a phone call with my brother last week, or the heat of the sun burning on my neck.

Two weeks ago, we celebrated his 67th birthday. We always cook his favorite meal and group-text photos of the food like a bunch of nerds. We caption them with the funny things and phrases he always said. It’s happy. It’s a chance to remember him and hear his stories and the awesome things he did or the weird songs he sang on his guitar. It’s all an opportunity not just to celebrate but to know him better, which I’m perpetually trying to do. For a long time I didn’t allow that to happen. Since I didn’t truly grieve him until college, I entered my twenties still knowing and remembering him as my 12-year-old self. There was a chunk of time when I shied away from talking or hearing about him, afraid it would make me cry which I hated to do in front of other people. It pained me to see other people cry over him too. Grief was something I had to learn, it didn’t come naturally. And whether I had cut myself off intentionally or was just too young to process it all, I had also cut myself off from getting to know him further. I unknowingly stunted our relationship, which I assumed was something that couldn’t grow once he was gone anyway. I was wrong, as it were, and so occasions and stories were just reminders he was gone.

It wasn’t until after facing and enduring the big parts of grief that things changed in a big way. I could finally begin to know my dad as my older self, not as a 12-year-old. I began understanding and appreciating him in new ways, and my love for him grew. It was then that our relationship began to evolve past sentiment and allowed for interaction. He existed as more than just memory, which was so fulfilling in my life. I found myself looking forward to any occasion regarding my dad. I love(d) to hear peoples stories about him and the wide open way he loved and lived. New stories and photographs all offer another glimpse into his life and who he was. I’m still putting the pieces together. Even the stories I’d heard before took on new meaning, because unsurprisingly, you process a story or memory much differently as an adult. I allowed other peoples sadness and I allowed my own because I knew it meant we loved him well, and that was in itself a comfort. A connection. All of it, including the dream, reminded me that he was still my dad and some part of him wasn’t gone, he or it was still there somewhere, maybe in that pocket between life and the dream.

I know that enduring the pain of losing him and reaching out to him again as though he could still hear me is what opened up our “line” where things like the dream happen. But truthfully the contact is not always so blatant.  Most of the time I have to look in the minute, the subtle, in things that are easy to dismiss. And I find him there. In heart shaped leaves. In a fly that won’t leave. In being so unconditionally loved and taken in by my family, including my stepdad, who my mom says my dad helped arrange. I find him in my nieces and seeing my brothers as fathers. In the morning. In rain. He loved the rain and was always reminding us that it was a sign of balance. Since his death he has continually shown up to special occasions with rain, if even a two minute shower. It’s raining now.

Getting to know my dad so many years after his death is a surprisingly positive and treasured experience for me. It’s been a privilege, really. Death is mostly talked about in hushed tones and at the risk of sounding morbid, which I’ve been accused of once or twice. But my dad has made death feel less serious, somehow.  When someone dies we label it as “bad” and when someone young dies we call it unfair. And while losing someone you love is one the hardest experiences in life, grief is not stagnant. Nothing stays the same, including the pain. And when you endure it, you also open the door for incredible things to happen. You’re brought intimately close to the lifecycle and there’s a sacredness there too. I don’t think it’s over when it’s over. I also don’t think people die and stick around to play with light switches. But I do think the line of communication is still there. It just involves reaching for it and experiencing someone using a new kind of language. It means being open to things you don’t completely understand.

I’ve always been aggressively curious and sometimes the weight of life and the worlds mysteries become too heavy and I get discouraged. Even mad sometimes. But getting to know my dad after his death and developing our relationship and talking with him while he sits on the edge of my bed…it superseded the comprehensible a while ago. It left me with far more questions. It’s made me an implicit part of something I don’t fully understand and for that I am so grateful. Because that’s most of life, anyway. We don’t actually know why we’re here or what happens to us when we’re not, but we go after it and love people and try to have a good time anyway. Knowing him has been a humble reminder that life and love and the infinite universe unfold despite our human comprehension. It reminds me that we don’t always need the answers in order to experience the fullness of life. Sometimes we get so caught up with thought, intent on answers and knowing that we limit ourselves from the phenomenal. Some things are beyond the realm of understanding, beyond words and category, and these are all but reasons not to embrace and cherish them as the miraculous treasures they turn out to be. I am looking forward to more. The rain has stopped now.

Happy Birthday to my Dad: THE ORIGINAL HIPSTER!
Happy Birthday to my Dad: THE ORIGINAL HIPSTER

This post is many weeks late. Chronic tardiness was my beloved dads only vice and he passed that on to me. So I’m sorry dad, but also I blame you. -Love, Rudy

Health, Happiness, Happy Birthday!

How To Escape a Nightmare?

It is 2:31 in the morning on Thursday, December 12th. I am wide awake, besides being restless in the legs, antsy in my mind, and strangely very hungry. I basically just ate dinner in bed. Monty temporarily lifts his head up from sleep at the foot of my bed and sniffs the air to identify what I’m eating should he decide he wants some. He does not. He plops down his head with an exhausted exhale and his belly falls. It doesn’t take him long to re-enter dream world. Me, I am stuck on this side. Reality in the middle of the night. The same as last night and two nights before that. The last few hours have looked a little like this:

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But lately my problem is not as much my difficulty in sleeping as much as what happens once I finally do fall asleep. I think it might be starting to be a problem. Here’s an except from my notebook from a few weeks ago.

Recently, I took a trip to spend Thanksgiving with my Brother and Company in Miami. I slept in baby Olives room, my one-year old niece. The second night I was there, I had a horrible nightmare. Something I’ve been having more and more of these days. This one wasn’t so much plot based as it was more a series of disturbing images, like those old home movies that play a little choppy from slides. From the start the dream was filled with eerie-ness and unease. I was in a dark place (literally)- similar to a cave but not entirely enclosed. There is nothing pleasant about my surroundings. The aesthetic is dull and drab. I’m walking forward but don’t know where I’m going. I see a full skeleton positioned against a wall, sitting as though it were an alive body, reading or relaxing. As I’m staring at it, suddenly the skull whips its head to turn and look straight at me, and its mouth jolts open. Quickly, harshly, intensely. In a word, it was terrifying. Almost at this same moment,  I realize I am dreaming. I find myself trapped in this nightmare, which has happened before and is now happening frequently. I try to scream in order to wake up my brother or sister-in-law, knowing that if I scream they’ll come to the room and subsequently I’ll wake up, escaping the dream. But when I try to yell, nothing comes out. Not only that, my mouth feels glued shut, as though my upper and lower lip were molded together. Consequently I am voiceless. My next attempt to escape is to physically kick and flail my limbs with such gust that the movements shake me out of it- my equivalent of pinching myself awake. But when I try to kick my legs, they’re stuck. They don’t move. They feel as though I’m standing waist deep in thick, dense mud. When I try to move my arms it feels like I’m in a straight jacket. So there I am; trapped in a scene which appears terrifying to me, and unable to speak or move. The strangest part of it all is knowing that it’s not real. Once I have this realization, the fear should fall away shouldn’t it? At any rate, it’s just a stupid skull head with its mouth open. It’s not the first thing I’d like to see in the morning but still, it could be worse. I try and try to scream and move and kick and flail but I can feel all my attempts failing. Silence, stillness, stuck. It’s stressful. The fear is tiresome. Finally, something from the other side makes a peep into my dream. I hear it once. I hear it again. It’s reality calling. Gradually it grows louder and louder, and I dissolve slowly from the dream. It turns to ash as I slowly wake to the bedroom. The reality calling is baby Olive crying. Finally, my eyes open. I can move my legs. I have a voice. I relish the sound of the baby crying. Never have I been so relieved and so happy to hear that sound. I feel bad because it was probably me squirming and making noise that woke her up–trying to escape the cave with the evil skull! But this is how it goes now. I realize I’m dreaming, often it’s a nightmare, and I can’t get out of it without something from the other side, some external force intervening. My mom saying my name, Monty pawing at me or the bedside, my phone ringing enough times to finally rattle me out of it. But never on my own can I get out. My sister-in-law sneaks through the cracked door stepping lightly, hands Olive a bottle and immediately her crying stops. She lays back down in her crib and soon I can tell by her breathing that she is back to sleep. Me, my heart is still beating fast, and I’m thanking God that Olive cried and got me out of the dream.                                    

                                                                                                                                          11-27-13

So there it is. I went a whole week without a computer! Sometimes you just need to feel a pen glide on paper. Anyway, that’s what happening lately. It’s making my nights quite..adventurous.  I remember learning in a Psych class once that in our dream phase of sleep, the brain temporarily “paralyzes” the body, so that we don’t jump out of windows or act out the weird things we do in our dreams. So there seems to be a miscommunication somewhere, a mis-firing of neurons between my brain and my body. One says I’m awake, the other says I’m asleep, and I’m caught voiceless in the mud, somewhere in the middle.

As dependent and exaggerated as it may sound, Monty has been my life saver lately. Or dream saver I should say. In my last few nightmares, I’ve called out to him (or attempted to) knowing if he made noise in the room I could get out of the dream. Two nights ago was another very scary one where I couldn’t move or scream, but I remember trying so hard to yell Monty’s name. All I could get out was “Mmmmmmm” because once again, my mouth was glued shut. Even without fully saying his name, he came in my room and pawed at my bed, until I woke up and my voice came back. I hugged him really really tight then, and he slept the rest of the night in my room. (Not on the couch, which he apparently finds preferable) Because the dreams are so real, the fear is so tangible and the images so lucid, even after waking up I feel in an eerie haze. Floating in some in-between world. I often need to look at something mindless to get my head out of whatever nightmare I was just trapped in. (Helloooo Facebook at 3 am) There are plenty of distractions to lift the post-nightmare haze, but in the meantime, I’ve got to figure this out. There must be a way for me to get myself out of these dreams once I’m made aware of where I am. And while I admit there are unpleasant and scary moments in all this, it is very interesting. I’ve always been a heavy dreamer, waking every morning  often with detailed streams of dreams playing through my mind. Sometimes I write them down, other times I tell myself I’ll remember and I put it off. But the more I immerse into real life, the faster the dream fades. “Like cotton candy” my mom always says. “Write them down right away!” My mom happens to be a student of Jungian psychology and well versed in the symbols and library of dreams, so since living with her again, she’s been a live in dream-interpreter for me, which is nice. Think about it– there is no clearer or more accessible portal into your subconscious than dreaming. It is hours of our existence that is not interrupted by thought, so I know there are profound answers to be found there. I am her I.T. person and she is my dream analyst. Fair trade.

I’ve learned quite a lot in breaking down the symbols in our dreams. And there is universal meaning to be found there. Do you think it’s a coincidence that many people dream their teeth are falling out? Or that they show up to an event completely naked? Or arrive to take a final for a class they haven’t gone to all semester? Of course each one relates more individually to each person and their life, but this is the human experience. We aren’t so different. I think it’s fair to say there is some objectivity in examining the subconscious without subscribing to some hokey pokey psycho crap. Admitting there is meaning in our dreams isn’t subscribing to witchcraft, as I’ve heard people react when hearing of dream interpretation. We shouldn’t be afraid to go deep for answers. That’s where most of them lie.

I’m going to attempt sleep once again. Monty is here and has been made aware of his duties. “When I start freaking out, you paw at the bed. Got it?” On the next post I’ll have my mom break down some universal dream symbols and go further into these nightmares if they’re still occurring. If anything, it’s another adventure. The riddle now is how to get out.

Accepting any/all suggestions!

Health, Happiness, Dreamworld

The Paris Promise.

Have you ever promised yourself a gift? Something unnecessary, something perhaps even excessive, but something just for you, from you?

When I was 22, I left America to study a spring semester in France. I had always been drawn to Paris– the French, the language, the lifestyle–but I could never pinpoint why. I just felt I needed to go one day. I became so philosophical about wanting to go there and not understanding what was fueling my desire that finally I called my brother Nick in a strange self-induced panic. “I want to study a semester in France.” “Great!” he responded. “But I have no idea why!” A pause. “Who cares?”

It was my freshman year, and I often called Nick with my college-born troubles. I remember him telling me with such sincerity, “Mary, don’t think to hard about it. You want to study in France, so study in France! You’ll know why once you get there.” He was correct. Three and a half years and a crap-ton of paperwork later, I packed two ridiculously sized suitcases and prepared for life abroad.

Technically, the timing couldn’t have been worse. I felt very troubled leaving. It had been one of the hardest years of my mom and I’s life. Just less than a year earlier my step-dad died suddenly, and everything sort of stopped. None of us were prepared for that. As if that wasn’t hard enough, a few months later my black lab Brusky, who had just turned one year old, developed an infection and also died suddenly. Brusky was one of the only positive things my mom and I could count on that year. When things became intense or overwhelming or sad, he’d always do something to make us laugh. He was truly a wonderful dog. He was my sunshine. And when he died that morning, I really felt forgotten. There was an empty feeling of chaos inside. I watched the world spin on but I felt stuck standing still. I was jealous of happy people. I was doubtful for our future. And I was losing faith that we could ever be happy again. It was partially the reason I went to France. At that point it felt like I didn’t have a lot to lose.

But I was the last kid left in Louisiana. Most weekends I drove home from school to be with my mom. There are so many logistical things to tend to after someone dies. Just cancelling his cell phone with AT&T took months and months. My mom always told me to stay at school. That I didn’t need to come home and that she’d be fine. But when you see a parent lose someone they love, you see a piece of them go too. She’s tough, and she rarely reaches out for help. And that was mostly the reason I went– so she wouldn’t have to. When I received the acceptance letter to a university in a small town in France called Besançon, I was immediately excited and then immediately distraught. How could I leave my mom at such a pivotal time? She insisted I go. Insisted she’d be fine. The last thing she wanted was for Roger’s death to hinder us. I grappled with the idea of staying and the idea of going.  Finally it felt like I had to go. If I stopped exploring, learning, living, loving, trying, then I’d have let fear and doubt and melancholy take over. We had to keep living, both of us, and maybe while I was gone, something wonderful could happen to her too. It didn’t make our goodbye at the airport any less sad. I held it together as best as I could, but still I felt the fear and the doubt and sadness right there on the surface. We hugged goodbye and I prayed all the way to Paris. It was the only thing I could do to keep my confidence alive in a decision that I wasn’t outwardly sure about.

Once in France, my brothers words rang true. Meeting amazing people who are still incredibly close friends. Watching the first snow fall. Cafe au lait and croissants and vin chaud and ridiculous business hours and cafes and little French children. It was perfect. All of it. I fell in love. With the country, with a boy, with my friends, and my life there. “This is why,” I thought. I’d found my answer. Something in my soul must have known I’d find happiness there, at a time where I’d forgotten what happiness even looked like. I lived in a space maybe half the size of my bedroom now with a twin bed and a desk, and I have never been happier. Best of all, I felt vibrantly alive for the first time in a long time.

Happy, oui.
Happy, oui.

Not only that, but while I was gone, my mom said yes to a coffee date, with extreme hesitance.  A friend convinced her it was only coffee and so she went. The coffee date turned into a dinner date. Which turned into an every meal date, and falling in love and happily ever after. Would that have happened if I would’ve stayed? We’ll never know, but I’ll always wonder.

When leaving after an adventure like that, you make a lot of promises. You think you’ll go back. You think you’ll stay in touch with everyone. You’ll carry on traditions. But these are more optimistic than realistic. The real world resumes on when you return. (It’s awful!) Although I made two best friends there, one of which is My Stupid Friend Jess, very few of us stay in real touch. We reminisce. We get sad when we think about the fact that if we all went back now, it wouldn’t be the same. Our experience was wonderful, carefree, spontaneous– but impossible to repeat. It was five and a half months of not living in the real world as we know it. School was very easy, teachers were lax. They encouraged you to immerse yourself in any and everything, and if that meant missing class, pas de probleme! I loved it. It was truly perfect.

But I did make one promise that I have always intended to keep. I promised myself that I’d return to Paris and celebrate my 30th birthday there. I’ve thought about this promise throughout the years, and I think over the last two years I’d sort of lost hope and resorted to the idea that Paris wouldn’t happen. But when I turned 29 this year, that promise seemed to reignite inside me. I realized it’s only impossible if I say it is. I have a year to make this wish come true. I have no idea why I made the promise for my 30th birthday. I probably assumed I’d be wealthy and successful by then. Hahaha!!! Life is funny.

So I’m not exactly wealthy and successful (yet) but I still have 10 1/2 months until my 30th. A lot can happen in that amount of time. I know that work is required of me. I know there is a way for me to have this illness but still contribute in a meaningful way and support myself and Monty and pay back all the debts I’ve incurred along the way! I truly think it’s possible. I constantly see items on TV or in magazines and think ah, when I’m a millionaire, I’ll totally have a temperpedic mattress and my own jet for travel so I’m not subjected to modern commercial air travel. They are fantasies, sure, but something tells me they could really happen. It’s not like this type of success doesn’t exist. It’s not impossible! It’s just going to require getting creative. Most people don’t make millions from bed, but it’s not that far off the radar. I mean the Kardashians did it!

Anyway, I don’t have the money yet but I haven’t aggressively tried to get it. I’ll need to strategize. And maybe I won’t be in great health, and it will be different than last time and I won’t be able to walk the city as freely. But I’m going to turn 30 no matter what. Here or there. And if I’m sick here, why not be sick there? I don’t mind being sick in Paris! And if it’s just me, alone on a terrace, watching the Eiffel from afar, that’s great too. As long as I am choosing life, and honoring my passions and keeping my dreams alive and not stifled, I don’t think I can really go wrong. I don’t know how this is all going to fall in place, but somewhere deep, someplace where I once felt that initial drive to go and didn’t know why, I feel that it will happen. And if I keep letting the illness infringe on every dream, I’ll never get anywhere. Things will stay the same. And  once you stop dreaming, what is the point really? This was a promise I made to myself. Not for a boy, not to prove anything, just a gift I promised to my soul. Last time I left, it was a troubling time and I was uncertain, but once I arrived it all made sense. It appears to be that way again.

The only question left to ask? WHO’S WITH ME?!   :)

La Santé, Le Bonheur, et La Promesse