In Which Animals Appear in My Dreams

I’m in the mood lately to make lists. Not simple bullet-point lists, but a compendium of thoughts, memories, images. Lately my head’s overstuffed with consciousness, and putting and organizing thoughts down somewhere makes it feel better.

I call it a librarian’s impulse, or an archivist’s urge — maybe it’s because I’m older and I want to sort through the stuff of life so far as I head into my “next act”? I don’t know, but that’s what I’m doing here — making my own little #MemoriesDreamsReflections. First up: dreams!

I love dreams. I’m not talking about the aspirational “things I would like to achieve” ones, but the movies in your head that play at night.

Dreams are important to me. The people I feel closest to in the world, I tell them my dreams and they tell me theirs. We sit around and actually try to analyze our dreams together. (“You know, maybe making out with yourself is really about self-love?”) It’s a intimate, tender way to talk about deep desires and long-buried feelings in a symbolic language that is unique and personal. I mean, how amazing is it that your subconscious has its own secret code for you, completely customized to your experience?

I judge my mental health primarily though my relationship to dreaming. If I can’t remember my dreams at all, I know life is too busy, stressful and overstuffed. If my dreams are particularly vivid and emotionally sharp, I know I’m in the midst of some serious emotional WWF. If they’re sort of just silly and odd in the way dreams can be, life is just sailing along and my mind is doing some mental and emotional tidying and decluttering.

I know something special is happening, though, when animals pop up in my dreams. Animals are considered by serious Jungian types to be archetypal, representing iconic energies, life passages and emotions. Some believe they’re special totems or spirit animals. I think of them in a kind of Philip Pullman “daemon” way — companions or messengers of the soul. I’ve had quite a few animal dreams over my lifetime that presaged major changes in self and life; these are the ones I’ll confess to in public.

The Baby Elephant Dream

I mentioned this dream awhile ago. But in a nutshell if you’re not into clicking: I dreamed that I had a pet baby elephant named Slo-Mo that lived with me in my old apartment in NYC. Slo-Mo was THE BEST: he was a smiley, happy soul, full of energy, curiosity and sunshine, and I loved him to pieces.

We had all kinds of adventures together in the city, simple things like taking him out to eat falafel and going for walks by Riverside Park. Coming back from a day full of fun, we were walking up the six flights of stairs to my place when I realized Slo-Mo would one day outgrow my apartment and NYC altogether, and I needed to find us a bigger place to live.

Of course, this was a parable for a decision I had been mulling in real life at that time: where should I go after graduating from film school? I thought of staying in NYC, because I had always assumed I’d live in NYC forever. But that assumption no longer was feeling right: too expensive, everyone was moving away, and while there is always something exciting to see and do in NYC, it still felt like I was going in circles. Should I move to LA? Should I move to Chicago? I didn’t know.

While the answer didn’t come to me — and it took me awhile for life to figure it out and circumstances to unfurl just enough for me to take a next step — this dream made me realize that in order to grow, I needed to move onward, though I will always be a NYC-lover in my heart forever. Sometimes I think the current stage of my life — building a home and family, caring for a wee one, forging a partnership — really began with Slo-Mo, who laid the groundwork for it all. Or maybe began to chip away at the old groundwork, so it could give way to something new…

The Dream of Two Horses

I’m on the beach, a vast landscape of ocean, sand, gentle sunshine and waves. The whole expanse is empty but for me on a beautiful white horse, and we are galloping along, racing the waves towards the sun setting on the horizon. We’re going so fast and I’m so sun-blind that I’m a little scared, though the feeling of wind in my hair and the brightness of the sky also exhilarate me. I want to go faster but I don’t want to fall off.

Suddenly another rider is at my side, a man riding a black horse. We’re riding alongside together, going fast enough that I can’t really turn my head to get a good look at the other rider. Yet somehow I can tell he’s supporting me with a kind of steadfast presence, warmth and empathy — it’s like he’s sending me vibes with a kind of inner voice. He’s close by but not in my space; I’m the one riding and guiding and powering my horse, but his presence holds me steady. We’re connected, but it’s not dependence — just a core of warm trust and security. And together we keep riding along the beach, two people connected and headed towards the same destination, in tandem and yet on our own horses together.

I had this dream at a stage in my life where I was dating a lot and “doing a lot of work” in terms of resolving a lot of “past emotional baggage” related to my “romantic history.” All those quotation marks earmark the self-help-y portions of the sentence, but the journey was in earnest: you could say I was learning a lot about myself, and more importantly, what exactly is love, and a loving relationship?

It’s overwhelming to think about, and moreso to put into words without flattening the poetry and beauty of it — “it” being the fact that everyone — male or female or gay or straight or whatever — deserves to have a trusting, warm love that is secure, enduring and full of integrity. And yet it’s so hard: most everyone I know has struggled in the journey towards love. Sometimes I think it’s because, for whatever reason, a lot of us grow up emotionally impoverished or just feeling a “lack” in certain ways, and so emotionally healthy dynamic feel alien, weird and foreign, and we don’t recognize them. We find them “nice but boring” or “lacking in passion” or simply weird. And unconsciously we might reject them in favor of the familiar, which don’t require as much change, adjustment or work on our end.

But I woke up from my dream of two horses and I got it. I knew what that kind of “good love” feeling felt like, and it wasn’t drippy — it was exciting and passionate in its own unique way. I knew love not from what it looked like, or what it appeared to be — but from the deeper emotional truth of what kind of space it created in my heart. And that’s how I would recognize it in real life — did I feel safe, supported, loved and enclosed in a kind of warmth? Did I feel empowered and supported and valued?

And that to me represents the power of dreams — that even though we are “unconscious” when we have them, they are still valid emotional experiences to the part of the brain that doesn’t distinguish past from present, reality from dreamtime. To be honest, that feeling of warmth, safety and companionship I felt in my dream was rare with the people I chose to date — and sadly, I didn’t feel that very often growing up with my family of origin, so I had no real emotional experience of what I craved. No wonder I had a time making it happen in my real, grown-up life!

But valuing my dreams — and learning to listen and decipher them — grows me as a human being because my emotional experiences within them are as powerful and epochal as the ones in my “real life.” And so when I woke up from my dream of two horses, I knew what I wanted love to feel like. I knew I didn’t feel it with the current relationship I had at the time, so I let that go. And when I finally met someone who made me feel that way, I saw that person straight and true from the very beginning and valued him accordingly. Isn’t that nice? And I would say that this really began to crystallize with my two horses.

The Polar Bear Dream

I’m in my childhood home, but I’m not a child in my dream — I’m the age I’m at now. My house is still the same, but all around it, the neighborhood had disappeared, leaving nothing but a plain dotted with clumps of forest. The vast emptiness feels desolate and overwhelming, so I go into my house through the front door. My whole family is gathered, and they are making a huge meal together, though it’s disorganized in a relaxed, meandering way.

I weave in and out of different rooms and see all sorts of people from my past — my sweetheart, my parents, people I encountered at weekend seminars, old film production colleagues, a real smorgasbord of acquaintances, friends and loved ones. Yet everyone feels “at the same level” in a way, at about the same level of emotion and intimacy: warm, friendly but not particularly close in the sense that everyone is doing their own thing. It’s almost like one of those long afternoon barbeques with people milling in and out of the house.

Somehow along the way someone hands me a baby, and I wander around the house some more. The baby is calm and seems content, but I get nervous anyway because I don’t know how to care for it. (I can’t tell if the baby is a girl or boy in the dream — it’s just a small, tiny baby.) I can’t seem to find its mother, though I’m not looking very hard. Finally I realize it’s up to me to take care of the baby and raise it, but this realization is very matter-of-fact — like, “Well, I guess this baby is now mine and I have to raise it.”

That’s why I decide to exit my old childhood home. I go out through the back, through the kitchen of the very first home I ever grew up in. When I go out through the door, I scan the landscape in front of me and see a huge white polar bear walking behind a line of poplar trees, almost as if waiting for me. Yet I don’t feel scared of the bear — she feels like my friend. So I walk towards her, getting ready to walk through the big empty land, just me, a baby and a polar bear.

I had this dream at the beginning of my pregnancy last year, when — needless to say — I was a cauldron of intense, sometimes competing emotions. Fear, excitement, trepidation, sorrow, depression: they were all stirred up and I was just all over the place. At the core (and still at the core, really) was a fear of having no idea how to take care of, nurture, guide and shepherd another tiny, vulnerable life. Of course, everyone says no one has any idea how to be a parent until you’re actually one, but in my case — with a tumultuous childhood and lots of mental illness surrounding me — I truly had no idea if it was possible for people to be parents and still be happy. Parenthood for me is deeply and subconsciously associated with extreme mental suffering in a toxic, abnormal way. And so of course I worried being a parent would make me profoundly unhappy.

Having this dream, though, made me realize that though the landscape is blank and unknown, I still had inner resources of strength and tenacity in me. Polar bears are symbols of purity of spirit, an ability to navigate and thrive in harsh, alienating conditions. As good swimmers, they are adept at swimming in rough emotional waters. They are also a symbol of acceptance and surrender, and of power and strength and perserverance. And they also represent the ability to conquer and master fear, being essentially fearless creatures with no natural enemies except for human hunters. I woke up from my dream and also thought, “Duh! They call it ‘mama bear’ for a reason,” as if reminding me there was already an archetypal way to be a mother — that I wasn’t limited to the human examples around me. My own mother seemed restless and unhappy for a lot of my childhood, and I am always scared I will unconsciously recreate that. But the polar bear says maybe it doesn’t have to be that way, and while it won’t be easy, I can get through it.

Of course, this stage of my life is a process and I still grapple with the huge adjustment of becoming a parent. It has been hard, especially with post-partum depression and anxiety and those feelings of hopelessness, loathing, sorrow and grief that come with PPD. Sometimes I still feel lost and alone and set adrift in some strange, barren, isolating place; I don’t recognize myself at times and on the hardest, most sleep-deprived, exhausted days and nights, I feel drained of all the good things that made me “me” and worry I will never experience human joy or happiness again in my life.

I am still dealing with the “childhood home” feelings that parenting brings up in an intense way, and sometimes wandering in those rooms brings up painful fears and memories that can’t simply be logicked away. (If it were so easy to “snap out of it,” then that’s what I’d do, duh.) But that’s when I remember that there’s an inner polar bear — proud, strong, pitiless, stoic, tenacious — tucked away within me somewhere, an ally I can draw upon when everything is at its bleakest to help me endure. And that’s also why dreams are so important to me: they’re a way to make your subconscious your ally instead of your saboteur, if you only learn to listen to them.

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