Monday, December 15, 2008

Last week I dreamed

that I was back at Camp Timberline in Mokuleia, Hawai'i, where I'd spent at least one weekend a year at chorus rehearsal camp from sixth grade till I went to college, plus here and there a second or even third weekend in a year for some school event or another. I dreamed that I was there as the adult I am now, with a lot of the other alumnae of the chorus. But my sister was also there, and some other non-alumni of the choir and friends I'd met as an adult; none of them had been to the camp before. I couldn't wait to show them this place that held so many of my memories.

The first place I wanted to take them was the mess hall, which I remembered being up a small flight of stairs. But the stairs were gone, apparently succumbed to neglect and covered with dirt. In their place was a steep hill, which I thought I could run up if I was quick enough. I tried, but found myself on my hands and knees, grasping handfuls of dirt, making slow and clumsy progress--while some of my fellow alumnae ran lightly past me, and quickly out of my field of vision.
Eventually I found the old staircase, which was so much steeper than I remembered that I found myself trying to climb it like a ladder. But the wood was rotten and crumbled away in my hands as I grabbed it. I was already halfway up the hill, which seemed to be getting taller and taller, and I didn't want to fall. I found myself in a race against the crumbling wood, hoping I could grab it and pull myself upwards in the split-second between when I touched the ladder and when it disintegrated. It wasn't working, but it slowed my descent from a free fall into a slow, scrambling sink.

I sank down the hillside with my hands full of dirt and rotten wood, slowly, in spite of all my flailing, getting further and further away from the place I'd hoped to revisit some of my happier childhood memories.

It has been a difficult couple of weeks for me, recovering slowly from my trip to Tampa and the flu I seem to have brought home with me. In Tampa, my sister and I went through what felt like a million old photo albums that my father and his new wife did not want to store any more, filled with pictures of my parents as a young couple and the two of us as children. We mailed them to ourselves. We were presented with my mother's jewelry, most of which we vividly remember her wearing; we held her wedding ring set and wondered about another mysterious wedding ring set which we'd never seen her wear. We don't know anyone to ask about it. We divided the jewelry and brought it back to our respective homes.

Home, I held the pieces of jewelry in my hands. I pored over the photographs of my mother as a teenager, as a young woman, as a new mother, as a mother to two young women as emotionally fragile as she herself was, and I tried to find answers to questions I can't ask her anymore. I tried on her wedding ring set and found she had the same, tiny, difficult-to-find ring size as I do.
It is not enough.

I have spent the last two weeks mostly watching reruns of The Wonder Years, which I remembered after I started watching it is a show my mother loved. I haven't watched it since it originally aired starting twenty years ago. I didn't remember more than the very basic elements of its plot. But amazingly, as the episodes rolled forward, I remembered exactly the spots where she'd burst into laughter. I could almost hear her. I heard, certainly, the absence of her laughter in the spots where I hadn't realized I was expecting it until it wasn't there. I remembered, with cold-water clarity, her voice, which is the part of her, more than any other, I always fear I am forgetting, and the sound of her laughter, which I always fear I didn't hear enough.

I think I know what my dream was about. It was my subconscious poking at me, reminding me of the impossibility of regaining my childhood. It was telling me that no matter how many afternoons I spent staring at old photos or how many baubles I tried on, my past is at the top of a steep and unclimbable hill, something I can try to examine in a limited, distant way, but never re-enter. Trying to come back under its cover is futile, unproductive, messy, exhausting. Nothing there can be changed or kept. It is time to come all the way back into the present.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Last night I dreamed

that my good friend D., whom I originally met in New York but got to know well in San Diego, was housesitting this amazing place in Hawai'i or the Caribbean, or somewhere sort of tropical. It was a beautiful, slightly ominous mansion--more like a castle or a palace, all white marble, overlooking cliffs where huge waves crashed under dark roiling clouds. It wasn't really beach weather, which is probably why the people who owned the house weren't there.

So D.'s job in this house was to feed their collection of this exotic, red crustacean. Sounds simple, except that these crustaceans lived in this very deep, narrow pool that occupied its own room of the house--a pool with a very small circumference that went down maybe 20 yards--like a well. The little crabs or crayfish or whatever they were couldn't swim and couldn't breathe above water; they just all clung to the sides of the pool, so that its entire inner surface except for the very bottom was plastered with their small, hard, burn-colored shells.

Apparently the only way to feed the crustaceans was for a reasonably strong, experienced swimmer to dive straight to the bottom of the well, place the food there at the bottom (I guess it was some sort of weighted packet that gradually dispersed food upwards) and then ascend straight upwards. The key was to not touch any of the little crustacean bodies on the way up--because apparently these crustaceans, while not aggressive, would lash out and bite if touched, and their bite was fatally venomous. All of this made feeding them a very stressful undertaking.

Nervously, I watched D. feed the crustaceans. When he came up not dead, I breathed a sigh of relief. Then he asked me if I'd feed them while he went out of town over the next couple of days. I thought, No way, while hearing myself say "Okay, sure."

I dreamed of peering into the well the next day, reminding myself that I am a pretty decent swimmer, though not by any means an expert diver. I drew a deep breath and dove in headfirst, letting out my breath as I descended in a straight line, clutching the food packet, somehow managing not to touch any of the deadly little shells surrounding me. I thought about how much I was risking, how no one besides D., who was out of town, knew I was doing this. I thought, I just have to get through the next few seconds and I will be fine--just put the food down, turn around, swim straight back up, pull yourself out. One step at a time. Then I thought, How am I going to turn around?

I put the food down and then curled myself double somehow, touching my toes, and, in the improbable kind of thing we do in dreams, somehow snaked myself right-side-up and held myself rigidly straight as I floated to the surface.

When I was safely out of the water, I decided I would never, ever, ever again agree to feed someone's pet deadly-poisonous crustaceans at the bottom of a well. Shaken, I started to walk--I don't know where--home?

In dreams, I am almost always somewhere that I don't live--on vacation, or on a business trip, or at camp, or fleeing a war zone. I am often some kind of fugitive, or on some kind of mission, or both. Rarely in a dream do I sigh and think, well, my errands for the day are done; I'll just go home.

But in this dream, after successfully feeding the toxic crustaceans*, I was walking along one of those outdoor hallways that apartment buildings in warm climates tend to have. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement, and when I turned, I saw Miss Laura Van Holt (of The Famous Chronicles) whom I know via my dear friend Mayumi, washing the outside wall of her 30th-floor apartment. She was standing on one of those ladders like they have outside water towers, comprised entirely of metal rungs stuck into the side of the building. I called to her, "Laura! Honey, what are you doing?" (It is only in dreams, mostly in dreams that occur after I visit places like Tampa, that I ever call people "Honey" in a Southern accent.)

"Washing my wall," Laura said. "I figured, why pay someone to do something I could do myself?"

"But you don't have a harness, or a net, or anything!"

"Well," she pointed out, "that's only a problem if I let go of the ladder."

I considered calling Mayumi to tell her that her friend was acting crazy, but then I wondered if maybe it was me being crazy, or paranoid, or hypervigilant. After all, I'd just voluntarily slipped underwater into a narrow space filled with deadly shrimps, or something, after watching my friend do exactly the same thing. Maybe, I pondered in my dream, that is just what life is--all of it is always at stake, everything is loaded with risk, every step you take is as precarious as the steps my friend balanced on thirty stories above the ground; every breath you take is as crucial, as potentially ultimate, as the one I took before diving into the well.

*Band name!