Day 267 3/20/14: Shark Dreams & Devil’s Teeth

If you love great white sharks, and haven’t read Susan Casey’s book “The Devil’s Teeth” a riveting account of studying white sharks in the Farrallon  Islands a place thirty miles west of San Francisco where “thirty knot winds, blanketing fog and fifteen-foot seas are standard,” do yourself a favor for GOD’S SAKE and order a copy!

You’ll uncover the fascinating history of this stark, forbidding island of stone, and learn all kinds of odd, fascinating facts (white sharks can actually get sun tans). You’ll meet sharks like Cuttail and 17-foot fish like Betty, Mama and Cadillac (collectively known as the Sisterhood)  and cranky 5,000 pound Stumpy who doesn’t like decoys.  Living in the rugged isolation of the Farallons, the logbooks that the researchers keep–records of feeding events, shark encounters, birds and other wildlife observed on the islands  “are the closest things the islands [have] to a native religion.”

The logbook also serves as a kind of dream diary.  51JVGXKEJHL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_

“For years, I had a recurring dream—actually it hovered on the edge of nightmare territory—in which I floated at night, surrounded by large, unearthly fish. I could never see them clearly, but I knew the water was alive with them, all these hidden creatures, sweeping and circling. When I saw the Farrallones…the memory of these phantoms vaulted out of semi-retirement and into my consciousness. This was some weird water. What was going on beneath the surface?”

After Casey sees sharks for the first time at the Farallons, her dream phantoms appear again:

“That night the water dream returned, but this time the image was clearer. I recognized the sharks gliding by: Stumpy, Cuttail and the unknown Sister with her monstrous tail. For once, though, the dream didn’t strike me as strange. Out here shark dreams were so vivid there was a section in the logbook devoted to recounting them;  Scot had confessed that he still had them every night. In my dream it was dark, and I was alone, drifting in a small boat. Once again, I looked down as shadowy creatures swam beneath me, just barely visible by moonlight. And all night, majestic and terrible fish cruised through the…bedroom in otherworldly silence.”

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Day 223 2/3/14: On Story and Healing

imagesI am privileged to have Deena Metzger as my teacher. When I read her recent essay What Story is And How it Heals, I thought FINALLY! an understanding of story that makes sense to me.

P.S. What does it mean to enter into a council with animals? Click here to read about Deena’s work with elephants in Africa.

Day 162 12/4/13: A Dreamer in Exile

“Dreams are the finest entertainment known…and given rag-cheap—-”   Robert Graves

I really need to re-learn the art of dreaming. The nights are too often voids, although sometimes I do wake up remembering an odd phrase or a fragment of a practical plan. I am grateful for these scraps like an amnesiac indebted to a kind stranger with a newspaper clipping that documents the fateful car crash, the scandal, the glorious career as a concert pianist–the world before forgetting. When I wake up, I want some talisman, some proof that I’ve traveled there and come back–wherever there is.

When I do remember a dream, it seems the plots are simpler—even if the dreams are strange. Here is a simple one:

I am walking down a road. I find a gray nest. I understand immediately what this means. I pick up the nest. I keep walking into the end of the dream.

But there was a golden age of dreaming–several golden ages in fact. One such age was a three-year period during graduate school. I read so much, and such an incredible variety of texts, that my dreams were ready-made stories or poems, or commentaries. I collected old oversized ledgers from antique stores all over the Northeast. I filled them with dreams. Nature dreams. Celebrity dreams. Once or twice I believe I crossed into the land of the dead. Nothing grand. Nothing scary. But a small empty house with a sliding glass door next to a dreamy, blurry wetland lit with fireflies. One by one the cats I’d lost showed up, rubbing against doorways, weaving around my legs.

Dreams recurred like obscure TV shows on late night snowy channels. Small mountain towns with haunted houses. I knew the roads that I had to take to get there. I welcomed the worn and familiar plots, the history behind the room with the four poster bed.

And of course, I dreamed of sharks. So many dark seas! So many Freudian wish fulfillments–seeing a dorsal fin rise just beyond the tidal line. A great white eyeing me with a steadiness too familiar to be pure malice.

I try to go back there. Sometimes reading just before bed does the trick. If I read Ted Hughes’  “Tales from Ovid,” I dream weird, frantic things an anthropologist’s home movie–a man dressed like a bird dancing and flapping his arm wings. If I read prose, I emerge from eight hours of unconsciousness with a vague armature of a narrative that quickly dissolves in the daylight.

Maybe a couple times a year, I will have a dream that is more than a dream. These dreams are vivid. They are strange and familiar.  I remember them with great fidelity to detail. But to write more about these dreams might  jinx them, prevent the capricious dream gods from ever sending me another.

Sleep without clothes. Abstain from the internet. Eat spicy food. Write down whatever fragments no matter how ephemeral, any residual impressions. What else can I do to encourage dreaming? I cannot lose my double life. There is something there that keeps me sane. Its chaos and jagged images, feel like the restoration of an essential order. Have I grown too old? Is my waking life too dull? What have I done to lose that elusive passport?

Maybe it’s time to pull out the old ledgers & read the old dreams.  Maybe the clues are there, maybe I can find some sort of map.

English: Lubok-style cover of a Russian dream ...

English: Lubok-style cover of a Russian dream book. The book is solemnly named The Dream-Book, or an Interpretation of Dreams by Sundry Egyptian and Indian Savants and Astronomers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day 78: 9/11/13: On Shark Dreams & Shark Cages

Today  in the darkness of the classroom, I remembered how pop culture is often a kind of vehicle for the spiritual, the sacred. It is easy to remember this truth in the realm of music, but easier to forget during things like movies involving killer sharks.

In the last fifteen or so minutes of “Jaws,” Hooper submerged in his steel cage, tries to escape the gaping, strangely feminine mouth and  battering ram of a body of the pursuing shark.  Students groaned as Hooper’s spear gun glided hopelessly away to the sea floor.  As the shark parted the bars of the cage and Hooper escaped into the sanctuary of a nearby reef, I said rather morosely, “I hope that doesn’t happen to me.” The class cracked up. I felt good not only because I’ll do anything for a cheap laugh, but because I sometimes remember: “Oh yeah, this whole project is culminating in my descent into the waters of South Africa in a shark cage!”

Often this truth flat-out horrifies me.

But today I started remembering my over twenty-year catalogue of shark dreams. I have been confronting sharks for years. Underwater, at the surface, sometimes flying through the air. But never consumed, never bitten or  tugged at, never even bumped or inspected.  I’ve watched for them at night, my binoculars trained on the dark water. I’ve lived in empty trailers on desolate beaches just to be near the seas where they swim unseen. So this descent into the cage, though foreign and terrifying in a physical sense, feels in some deeper, intuitive way, inevitable– the conscious version of the descent I’ve made for years in sleep, in dreams.

Day 67 8/31/13: Sharks, Shame &Oral Fixations

Preparing for my shark class, I started feeling anxious. Will I strike the right balance between fun and conservation? Will I inspire any one of my students to actually do something about the oceans?Regretting my unfortunate choice of textbooks, I felt on the verge of falling into a major shame spiral about my skill as a teacher, which inspired a kind of greatest hits medley of degradation.

For example,  the familiar domino effect of paranoia and self-loathing I’ve often felt in the course of romantic love:

I fear you will notice my hopelessness at chess, sex, sports, trivia, cooking, dancing, and abandon me. Exposure of my inadequacy will then lead to exile from the larger community, which sensing my lack of fitness, will leave me to perish alone like a deformed animal.

Or something like that.

Sharks evoke a curiously liberating kind of fear—the ring of teeth, the lurid jaw and cavernous throat are primal, immediate. The horror of being consumed by a large fish doesn’t ignite the tedious chain of psychological causes and effects that the proximity of an intimate relationship does.

My first therapist Joyce, was not only a beautiful ex-model who collected Jasper Johns drawings, but an astute Jungian. I’d always had a rich dream life. Lucid dreams. Even premonitions. I told Joyce that I’d dreamed of sharks since childhood, hoping she might seamlessly link my dysfunctional family confessions with some deep-sea mythos of the subconscious.

Instead she stared at my ragged fingernails.

“Well, you’re very oral.”

I  took exhaustive notes during our sessions.  The pens I wrapped my ragged fingers around were invariably dotted with teeth indentations, the caps deformed and squashed by my clumsy molars. As a child I obsessively chewed free library bookmarks, cupcake papers and lollipop sticks to awkward mush balls, a habit that evoked both pleasure and shame.

At the time, I felt disappointed at Joyce’s spare, more Freudian than Jungian response, but over 23 years later I feel grateful to her. Instead of spinning a narrative about submerged anxieties stalking me until I faced them, Joyce aligned me with the powerful creatures I feared.

In some strange way, she made me one of them.