Such dreams

Last night as I went to fill the hot water bottle I prepare every morning and evening for the new puppy in our care, I over filled the kettle. I went to tip it as it continued in its rumble post boiling point and water spilled over my hand. 

This is the third time I’ve scalded my hand in this way. You’d think I’d learn, but no. I’m careless and always in a hurry to get the next move made, the next thing done, the next hot water bottle filled. I become superwoman who can resist such burns.

The delicate skin between my thumb and index finger right in the crook where the muscles join is now red raw, but at least it does not interfere with my typing.

The puppy is asleep again basking in the comfort of the red cloth covered hot water bottle, which emulates the presence of another life in its warmth, even though, unlike other life forms, it’s inert. The puppy has come to rely on it for comfort and it tends to last most of the day until the late afternoon when the puppy tends to kick into action and demands play.

Who’d have thought we’d take on another baby at this stage of or lives. A puppy is a baby of sorts with all the requirements of the most vulnerable life forms. It demands huge bursts of attention, especially in the evenings and first thing in the morning.

I sometimes tire of the puppy much as I tired of the demands of my infant children over the years. Though I remember well the urge to have another baby and another in my twenties and thirties when for a long time what mattered most to me beyond my career as a therapist was the business of getting pregnant and bringing new babies into the world.

Much as my mother had done before me. 

Who can resist such a tiny foot. How fast the babies grow.

It took an age before the urge stopped. An age before I could get a similar shot of pleasure from other events in my life and the longing for a new baby disappeared behind the weight of whatever next project evolved for me, most recently in the form of the book I seek to birth.

A writing teacher once reacted strongly to my suggestion that each writing project, each new book was like a baby. No, she said, we invest too much in our babies. You need to invest less in your book. You need to be able to avoid too much hope for its future, too much investment in the outcome. You need to let the book rise and swell – like a pregnancy perhaps – but you also need to be prepared to abort it if it’s not working. 

She did not use the human birth metaphors I use here. She used instead the language of people like Annie Dillard on the idea of a book’s structure ‘cantilevered’ in some seemingly miraculous way that only you can achieve in the production of a book.

Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, Can I do it? Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as his first experiment dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is who no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too – the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he. For there is nothing in the material for this book that suggests to anyone but him alone its possibilities for meaning and feeling. 

Forgive Annie Dillard her use of the masculine pronoun here. She was writing at a time when the masculine was the only way. We now know better. 

And the book I write is like the first dream of last night that comes to me now: I fell into it around 1.22 am – I looked at the clock when my daughter and her partner arrived home after a night out with friends. The dogs started to bark, and the older dog went off to share their bed upstairs while earlier she had shared ours. The younger puppy stayed in her crate yowling for maybe a minute to be let out but then when the door closed behind my daughter and her boyfriend a silence descended.

I floated into my dream aware that someone had littered tiny beetroot balls across the floor near the dog’s pen and my bed. I could not understand how they had come about, and I feared they might stain the place red/purple in the way of beetroot. 

I have not seen my father in dreams for many years, not that I remember but there he was in my dream, beside my bed, naked and insisting that he join me. I told him no, but he begged to be allowed in. 

He did not want to do anything to me, he said. He wanted only to lie beside me. I wanted to go back to sleep but my father towered over the edge of my bed clamouring to be let in under the blankets. 

At one point in this dream my son in law was lying on top of the bed beside me and my father stood over him, too. I could see my father was so enraged he could have leaned down and snapped the young man’s legs in two. But he resisted. 

And then I was again alone with my father. My mother had taken herself off to her bed in the middle of the house while my bed was propped inside the kitchen. 

I wanted to go back to this bed away from my father, but he was desperate. Naked and desperate. He wanted to be beside me. Not to do anything, he repeated, but he could not bear to be alone. 

I wailed and screamed, and he pinned me down. I pleaded with him to leave and screamed out for my mother. ‘Take him away from me,’ I begged her. 

I felt sorry for him but hated my father. I did not want to be with him no matter what. 

And I woke in a welter of perspiration and angst. The darkness of the night a balm to my overstretched mind. At least in this dream I could escape my father even without my mother’s help.

And a final word from Annie Dillard, who advocates ignoring your feelings when it comes to writing your book, much as my writing teacher, Janey Runci, proposed when she discouraged the book-as-baby metaphor. 

Ignore your feelings about your work. These are an occupational hazard. If you are writing a book, keep working at it deeper and deeper when you feel it is awful; keep revising and improving it when you feel it is wonderful. No matter how experienced you are, there is no correlation, either direct or inverse, between your immediate feelings about your work’s quality and its actual quality. All you can do is ignore your feelings altogether. It’s hard to do, but you can learn to do it.  

A child in transit

There was the time, many years ago, when I woke one morning to a dream. One that was murky and unsettled in the way of dreams and the only thing that remained were the letters of one word. PHALANX.

At the time I had no idea what it meant. I was not even sure it was a word.

I took it to my analytic session the next day. Mrs Milanova sounded intrigued. It was indeed a word and she was surprised I did not know its meaning. A line of men, usually a term used in war.

Vintage engraving of a Macedonian Phalanx. The phalanx was a rectangular mass military formation, usually composed entirely of heavy infantry armed with spears, pikes, sarissas, or similar weapons.

It’s not a word we encounter often in the everyday speech of our lives and in later years I came to imagine I first saw it in my eighteenth year when I studied books like Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin. 

Phalanx is a word that must have featured often in Virgil’s many discussions on the antics of the armies, the language of battle.

Dreams are like that. I wake with a start and Mary Oliver’s poem comes into my head ‘One day you finally knew what you had to do…’

Get up and now despite it being the first day of holidays.

Get up now because your youngest daughter is about to travel in a car with family friends and drive for seven hours and all day long she will be there in the back of your mind in the way each of your children are there in the back of your mind when they travel far from home. Whether in a car or on a plane or boat.

The sensation is the same, at least until they reach their destination, and your mind can settle into the usual stuff of life. 

A child in transit is a scary thing. A child who might not reach her destination. A child who takes themselves far from you. As each child must.

And Mary Oliver’s words come back to me: ‘though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice’. 

Their bad advice on how to live your life, for Mary Oliver on how to save your life. Your ‘one precious life’. 

There’s not a lot to it in the scheme of things, this one precious life. Not a lot to hold onto but it’s the most you have in life, this one precious life. 

Use it wisely. Whatever bad advice those voices throw at you. Whatever admonitions come your way.

In school holidays I read the Scarlet Pimpernel in advance of my year ten days and took notes at the end of each chapter as a refresher for when we would study the book in the year to come. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a dashing man who saved the lives of those hapless royals in fear of the guillotine. 

I tried to imagine the world of these people, alongside the images of those old hags who sat knitting beside the guillotine, teeth rotted in their mouths as they crowed with delight whenever a royal head fell to the ground at their feet. There was much trampling of horses’ hooves in the night, and many clandestine meetings behind the backs of those who sought their revenge. 

It taught me about the confusion you can encounter between good and bad.

Why should I identify with those flamboyant royals with all their money when the peasants were starving? But I did. 

Around this time my mother began her special pleading for my father. He was troubled, she told us. He’d had a latch key childhood. A terrible time with parents who were never there for him.

Mother Mary John’s pronouncements came into my head. The colours yellow and purple when placed together signify an unhappy childhood. It became a secret code in my mind and I used these colours often in my childhood illustrations, a hint to passers by, a hint to the nuns and priests that I too had endured an unhappy childhood but I was nothing like the royals in The Scarlet Pimpernel. 

Their fate was worse unless the Scarlet Pimpernel could save them. I was more like the wretched peasants hell bent on revenge against those who had wronged them. Hell bent on letting those, including my father, know how much I had suffered. Only I could not let my father know these things. His vengeance was greater than mine. He smashed into walls. He stripped himself naked to punish us with the sight of his unclothed body. He cursed ny mother as a whore. He threatened to be rid of us all, one by one beginning with my mother, going through me and my sisters and ending up with my brothers.

And my brothers could hardly form a phalanx against him, strong man that he was.

We could only do our best to survive our one precious life.