This week brought more videos and news of police shooting black men. These confrontations are as usual shrouded in confusion, misinterpretation, reactivity, bias, and defensiveness. Peaceful demonstrations in Charlotte turned violent, as they had in Baltimore last year. If we inquire into such protests and uprisings, perhaps we can glimpse the frustration, hopelessness, and rage behind them. Given the pervasiveness of racial inequity, one wonders why there aren’t more of them. I imagine similar outrage in Chicago, where the bodies continue to pile up and youth unemployment in some neighborhoods reaches ninety percent.
I was just finishing the following post when these sad, violent events occurred. I questioned its relevance and wondered if I should just put it away. After some thought, I decided that the invitation to embody and embrace opposites might be useful. It could be just the time to seek the awareness hidden behind surfaces, and to assume that all is never what it seems.
“‘Tell them they have to wake up twice in the morning,’ Nyae continues. This means that you should first wake up in the morning and get out of bed. Then awaken your heart: walk out of the bedrock of objects and materialism and into a spiritual world guided by the felt lines of relationships that hold everything together. Now the ropes, rather than the objects they connect, are primary. They are the most important and the most real.” ~ Bradford Keeney
I’m dreaming in a tent under the full moon at a forest retreat. Here to meet the awakening that beckons from the world behind this world. In my dream, a panel van pulls up in an alley behind a building. All the surfaces are hard—buildings, paving, cars, light poles. A man tumbles out. He’s been shot in the left shoulder. My first thought is, he is escaping from criminals, maybe he’s been kidnapped.
It has a true-crime feel. He gets up off the pavement. Now I see there’s a gun in his right hand. He waves it at whoever is filming. Is he a good guy?
The viewpoint pans up and wider. A police car has arrived, sirens and lights. It’s mayhem, surrounding this van. Urban chaos: people, cars, noise. The man staggers, brandishing his gun. Bystanders are panicked and screaming. In the confusion, I reject the scene and turn away, to awaken into the day world.
I did not want to have a dream like this in the soft, green forest lit in a milky pattern of moonlight and shadow. Trees stand sentinel, cicadas and crickets sing. I do not like how quickly my initial concern for the man turned to judgment and disgust.
After I tell this dream, the retreat leader asks me, “What is hard?” and “What is soft?” In the dream, it hits me that there is something soft in the scene: the people. The man himself is both victim and villain. Suddenly, my heart breaks for the man and for the other people in the dream. They are trapped in violence and chaos, vulnerable. The man is bleeding, in fear and pain. I am blindsided by this very raw and tender feeling. I could weep for hours, bereft.
This unwanted dream is an invitation to connect on a deep level. Labels like “unnatural” and “man-made” (shorthand for inert, dead, lifeless) are superficial judgments. The retreat leader encourages me to go into the forest and find something hard and something soft. Play with the opposites, he suggests, the tension between the two.
This retreat invites us to develop sensitivity to imagining and to being imagined in turn by this place. The suggestion is to pay attention, to listen and watch and notice. Bring childlike curiosity and steadfast courage. Anything could happen.
“When you find you do have a response—trust it. It has a meaning.” ~ William Stafford
I find an old cemetery hidden in the forest. The hardness of the headstones draws me in. Mosses grow in profusion over the eighty- and hundred-year-old graves, shocking green mounds that echo the bodies sleeping beneath lichen-covered headstones. I imagine the bones under the ground that once were hard and are now becoming dust. Everywhere I look in this place, hard and soft co-exist in a fluid spectrum.
The man from the dream accompanies me. He doesn’t say much, except that he was driving the van, not escaping from kidnappers. I ask where he was going and he says, Away. I ask, Away from what? Towards what? He says, Away from—all that.
He rejects as condescending my pity for his wound and his constant fear. He says pity is a distraction that creates distance and prevents me from seeing beneath appearances.
We find a small rounded headstone for a fourteen-year-old boy named Travis. (My son is fourteen this year.) His name, “Rest in Peace” and dates are chiseled in a childish hand by an amateur whom I imagine to be his father. Flowers and stars decorate the spaces between the words. The numbers of birth and death nearly spill off the right edge. They crowd together at the end of the line as if trying to avoid a perilous precipice.
The man from the dream, who I’ve been addressing as “V.V.” ( for “Victim-Villain”) now tells me that he is/was this boy. He is/was Travis. Seen in these stark lines of type, this makes no rational sense. In that forest cemetery, though, it stretched my understanding of what it means to belong to a place, and of relationship. Why wouldn’t he be free to wander into my dreams as I sleep on this land?
I associate hardness with longevity and permanence. There is an aspect in our cities and artifacts of cheating death and keeping wildness at bay. We strive for inviolability, for invincibility. Yet death, here, is life. Iron markers are rusting into origins. Even the very stones wear away year after year. Only the mosses live on, eternally renewing and spreading.
I explore the dream further by making a drawing. Carl Jung’s visual records of his dreams were collected into an impressive tome called The Red Book. I’ve known of it for years but never had the courage to examine it. I set aside my usual resistance and work with my dream and the beautiful question of how can I embody—embrace—the opposites that show up in my life and in my work. I let myself be guided at first by color. Browns and grays and greens and blues speak a language beyond language that takes me out of my rational mind and settle my worry about whether this is “good art” or not.
Looking at the drawing the next day, I was struck first by the obvious image of the man’s body as a bridge between worlds. He spans between Life and Death, growth and decay, soft and hard, belonging and exploitation, remembering and forgetting, time and eternity. He is woven into the fabric of the city and the forest. His blood becomes water, hands branch and root. The corn moon watches over all.
On return to my regular life, I kept hearing that question, What is hard? I thought of it when the vet told my husband that our beloved dog Lena has her fourth chronic and serious health condition—a myelenation of nerves in her spinal chord that is already causing some paralysis of her hind legs and will eventually lead to complete paralysis and incontinence. What is soft? We know her liver disease will likely claim her first. She has about six months. For us finally to get the harsh reality of this was a heartbreaking blow.
The service advisor with whom I dealt at the Nissan dealer for my car repairs—which had been a frustrating experience—was someone who, over the phone, I did not trust one bit. I felt he not only lied to me, he often just made stuff up to get me off the phone. I was not happy with the whole situation. On the way to pick up my car, my beloved told me two very funny stories and we enjoyed laughing together. I even thought to thank him for making me laugh.
Inside, I met my nemesis the service advisor, a young black man with intricately braided hair and a faded neck tattoo. He was so obviously miserable in his job that I found myself feeling for him. When he asked me if my day was going any better today, I said it was, and asked him the same. He shrugged and said, Not really. I said, I don’t think I could do your job. Is anyone ever happy? He said, Not really.
Again, the questions arose. What is hard? What is soft?