Again and again, I dream of families. Often the dreams involve some awful encounter with one of the members of my family of origin. My brother is attacking me. My mother is coercing me to care for her at the expense of my own wants and needs. My father is ignoring some plight I have. They are disturbing and upsetting dreams.
At other times I dream of other people’s families. In these dream families, everyone is perfectly kind and loving to each other, no matter the circumstances. In one dream, my friend’s husband breaks his leg, but he goes on with his family’s outing with no regard for his dire situation. There is no hospital visit, no screaming in pain. Rather, he is a perfect husband and father who continues to take care of his family in spite of his broken leg.
The dreams of my family members make me think about how awful they were and how much I have suffered because of them. The dreams of other people’s families make me think how wonderful it is that there are such loving families in the world – just like my dream families – and that if I had had one of those families, my life would be so much better!
As I have worked with my dreams, I have been shown how they are trying to upend ideas I have about family and how our lives unfold. First, it is pointed out to me that there are no perfect families in the world who always treat each other with kindness and with respect. There are no real families who are always serene and don’t have fights. Everyone’s family has difficulties and there is pain and suffering in each of them.
It is also revealed that I have an idea that if only I had parents who were more like the storybook parents I imagine raise happy and healthy children, I would not have had to struggle, and my life would have been so much better. Clearly, this is an idea that is stubborn, as I just had another dream showing me my ideas about families still need attention. The dream involves my real-life neighbors. They have a 6-year-old daughter who I adore. In the dream, their daughter is tenderly cared for by her parents and the surrounding community. It is a beautiful story of a perfect childhood.
It’s clear to my dream teacher that I have a tight grip on this perfect family fantasy, so she finds a creative way to help me see the folly of my thinking. She tells me to write a fairy tale about my life. To create a different family for myself. One that is caring and considerate. Parents who are nurturing rather than abusive and disengaged. I get to create the perfect family for myself so my life can turn out in a more satisfying way.
I’m excited about the task and am looking forward to how this might play out. I am imagining what a positive and optimistic person I will be – never depressed, never playing the victim, not falling into my woe-is-me Eeyore state. I will finally be able to have an intimate and loving relationship with a partner at the end of the tale.
I set to writing. Along the way, there are decisions that have to be made by these amazing parents, who, it turns out, have their own needs. Each decision has its own consequences, and everyone is not happy and content as I expected. There is no avoiding discord. There is disappointment. I see that I will have to heal from some other hurts and difficulties, even from this perfect family of my imagination. At some point, I have a good laugh, and give up writing my fairy tale.
When I look at what I thought I wanted – a family that didn’t cause me to have to work so hard at being relational, I see I would have missed out on all the rich journeys of my life. It seems almost every calling in my life that mattered deeply has required me to develop relational skills, and I was often pulled into communities where I ended up becoming a leader. As I have been considering my fate of having been born to a family where not one member had much capacity for empathy or intimacy, I can see my life through a broader lens, which tells a more hopeful and interesting story.
I was called to be a teacher in my late 20s and ended up teaching for more than 30 years. My first year I drove into the parking lot and cried because I couldn’t believe I was going to be a teacher. Even though it was an impossibly difficult job much of the time, I am grateful that it was my profession. It was so rich and varied, calling on every possible skill I might bring to the table, and forcing me to develop those I didn’t have.
The teaching profession is truly a cauldron for working on relationships since you come in contact with so many different personalities – literally thousands of them. And while students are great at calling you out on your imperfections, they can also be sweetly forgiving when you apologize and let them know you made a mistake – that you are human and will try to do better next time. You are exhorted to remind yourself that tomorrow is a new day and there are new possibilities with each and every student. So much of what I have learned in navigating relationships has been taught to me by my students and my time in the classroom.
The same year I began teaching, I started practicing Aikido. I tried out almost every martial art before choosing, but Aikido was the only one that involved partner practice at its center, and it was the only one that inspired me. This Japanese martial art involves blending with each partner, and redirecting the attack. You have to find your own center and then connect to your partner’s center. You are asked to face your fears of falling and being thrown. You have to develop both trust in yourself and in your partners. It is a perfect and complex physical activity for developing intimacy. I practiced Aikido for 23 years. The practice itself was critical to my development as a person. My relationship with my Sensei was complicated and difficult and taught me how to show up for myself and my needs. While I couldn’t feel it at the time, looking back I can see how much I was an important part of the community. I was integral in that dojo and appreciated and loved most of the time.
I trained until I was 50, when my body, with all the injuries I had sustained, made it clear I had to move on. Then swing dancing called. I saw the movie “Strictly Ballroom,” and decided to search out a swing dancing class. One of the teachers at my middle school fortuitously attended dances at a studio in Pasadena, and she showed me the basic moves in her classroom during one nutrition break.
Swing dancing became my next passion. I was struck by the difficulty of looking into the eyes of each partner for a 3-minute dance, and was moved by the vulnerability of the men trying to learn how to lead. Swing dancing continues to teach me how to show up and be a good partner with each lead, all of whom bring their own physical and emotional qualities to the dance floor.
While my family members were not capable of deep intimacy, I sought out friends who were. Little by little, as my capacity for intimacy grew, I gained new friends who were also able to be intimate. There is no way for me to express my gratitude for my friends and all that they have taught me about relationships.
And the work is ongoing. A recent dream shed light on the complexity of family, friends, and intimacy in my life. In the dream, I am throwing myself a birthday party. A fabulous chef has taken great care to create beautiful, delicious slices of cake, with gorgeous pink and white frosting. I appreciate his artistry and his efforts, but am only concerned with bringing a large piece of cake with sweet pink frosting to my mother, taking a small piece for myself as an afterthought. Clearly, I still have work to do about my ideas about caring for my mother (and probably others) and not taking my own portion. My mother has been dead now for almost a year, but the internal work continues. The dream highlighted that I couldn’t celebrate my own birthday. All I could think about was the cost of the party. No one else in the room was really interested in celebrating my birthday either.
It was pointed out to me that none of my actual friends were in the dream. If they were at my birthday party, it would have been a different story. My dream teacher told me, “Your actual friends adore you.” It is somehow embarrassing for me to write this and to know that it is true, but I can’t deny it. The more I have exposed my fears, weaknesses and needs to my friends, the more they have poured the love on. The way my friends have loved me in spite of all my human frailties, breaks down my defenses and tenderizes my heart in a way that is beyond anything I could have imagined for my life and my relationships.
Mythologist Michael Meade talks about Carl Jung’s teaching that the genius hides behind the wound, and that by working with the wound we uncover the gifts we were brought here to give to the world. My family is all on the other side now. But I am still here. I can’t say that I’m not sad and even angry sometimes that I didn’t have a nuclear family that felt safe and warm. And there are times I grieve that I haven’t yet created a traditional family of my own. The wound does not go away, and is not ever completely healed. At the same time, though, I get to continue to learn how to bring myself to the world with all of the qualities of being able to engage in intimate, honest, empathetic and tender relationships that I was motivated to pursue, not in spite of my family, but because of them.