I arrive, alone, in Vermont in the middle of March. The painters and writers and sculptors who got here two weeks earlier already know each other. I don’t know anyone, but before me stretches two weeks of no cooking, no folding laundry, no helping anyone with homework. All I have to do is write. My husband and teenage sons are home in Missouri, and finally, I have time to myself. After the welcome tour and quiet unpacking of my suitcase, I go to my studio. The heavy door closes behind me, and I turn the deadbolt. I arrange my books and pictures and lists on the shelves. Just out the window unfolds a view of the snowy banks of the frozen Gihon River. I sit at the desk and open my new, empty notebook. And I am already lonely.
Carl is one of the painters. He and I pass each other several times that first day walking in opposite directions across the bridge spanning the Gihon River. He is bright and sunny. Twenty-five, tall and broad-shouldered with impish blue eyes. Soon he is calling to me each time he sees me-drawing out the first syllable of my name and then the second so it sounds like something fun, exciting, not just a word for a middle-aged female writer shuttling over the icy, churning water to her writing studio.
Midweek, on a sunny afternoon, I stand on the bridge where my phone can get a signal. I call Karla, a dream therapist I’ve been working with for two months. One mitten is hugged under my arm so the fingers of my free hand can press the right buttons. My nose runs, I wipe it, and I begin pacing to shake off the cold. I don’t call her from my studio, where it is warm, out of respect for the other writers working quietly on their manuscripts.
Karla lives in Vermont, only an hour south of the artist colony. I email her my dreams every other week, and she consults with her teacher at North of Eden, a center for archetypal dreamwork in northern Vermont. Then, twice a month, Karla and I have a session, like this one, where we discuss the archetypal patterns in my dreams and what they are showing me about my life. I am giddy to hear her voice, to tell her how my writing is going.
“How is your homework going?” she asks, meaning the work she gave me the last time we talked, the dipping back into my dreams to re-experience feelings and images.
“I’ve been distracted,” I tell her. Traveling has kept me from thinking about my last dream, the one where a snake bit me on both of my hands.
“Remember,” she says, “the snake venom is an antidote, not a poison. It awakens you to what you need to see next.” What I saw next in that dream was a woman trapped on a hospital bed, her head in a metal clamp.
“It’s okay,” Karla says, “If you are struggling with your homework.”
I’m pacing on the edge of the bridge, careful of the cars swerving to miss the potholes in the crumbling asphalt. “I’m sorry,” I tell her.
She reassures me, her voice tender and quiet. “Being aware that you are far away from your homework is a big step,” she tells me. She asks if I’m ready to talk about my most recent dream.
“Yes,” I say, distracted by a twinge of shame at not doing my homework.
I continue pacing, wiping my nose again. Karla asks me if I can sit on a bench and close my eyes. I do, and I try to see the cave in my last dream, the friend who is descending to the bottom alongside me, a little manta ray hiding near a rock in a pool of water. My shame shifts to curiosity about the creature and about the water, cool on my feet in the dream. There are no artists walking nearby, no writers scurrying to the dorms. I close my eyes and hear the water rushing beneath the ice that encrusts the Gihon River. I sink into the dream, the cave, the little manta ray.
Karla gives me new homework: to step into the water and notice how it cools me after the heat of the cave and to feel my attraction to this small water animal. The friend in the dream is the feminine form of the divine, according to Karla, and she is walking with me as I find my way deeper into the cave, into the water. In dreams, water represents essence, our deepest self.
For days, I write, eat, sleep, think about my cave dream, and I write some more. Near the end of the second week, I get to dance with Carl. The session is almost over – everyone will be leaving soon – so the younger artists and writers are putting together a dance party. I buy a cheap bottle of white wine that evening at the little supermarket by the post office and bring it to the party. I sip my cupful slowly, waiting for what Margaret, one of the young writers, says is the right time to turn down the lights and turn on the music.
I’m here to dance. In any crowd, I’m the first to start moving, always impatient for the music to start, the lights to dim, the permission to get on the floor. My longing to dance infuriated my first husband. In our twelve years together, I danced only twice. In the first few months after he divorced me, I sprung from our marriage, freed from a trap. I danced, I went to parties, I swam in Ozark streams in Missouri by moonlight. Here in Vermont, though, years later, I feel shy, old, and out of place.
When Carl shows up at the party, he doesn’t wait for the lights to be dimmed as Margaret says he should. He doesn’t wait for someone to find good dance music. He has his own corny playlist on an iPod and he hooks it into an amp. He dances. Crazy, bent-kneed dancing, like a rooster. I join him. We spin, stomp, slip around until I can hardly hold myself up. His body is so young and strong-he can do anything on the dance floor. I try to keep up, feeling the weight of my own body tugging at me. Dancing with him feels like being carried by a version of my younger self. He isn’t attracted to me. I wouldn’t mind if he were – that would be flattering. But he doesn’t see me that way. It’s freeing.
Just before the big exodus when all sixty artists and writers will leave Vermont, Carl visits me in my writing studio. He has shown me his studio, has explained what gouache paint is and let me watch as he worked on a painting of a hippopotamus peeking from behind palm fronds, bits of paper taped to the wall nearby, torn edges and asymmetrical shapes. He has a philosophy of balance: the beautiful and the ugly, funny and sad. When he comes to visit me in my studio, we whisper about life and art so as not to bother the other writers in rooms nearby, musing on the Francis Bacon art book on my shelf left by someone else, talking of plans for our futures. He tells me he’ll be traveling my way in the summer, driving from his parents’ house in Maryland to an art school in Oregon, and he wants to know-can he stay with me? Of course, I say, never believing he really will.
My husband will be out of the country when Carl is passing through, and he is nervous, I think, about having this 25-year-old rock-climbing painter stay with me alone. In May, three months before Carl is due to arrive, I have a dream about him.
It is in three parts. In the first part, I’m sitting at a table in the restaurant of an old hotel under an archway connecting two rooms. A parade of people is going by-they are noisy, but I’m near the wall, watching as the crowd passes. Two police officers with guns and badges are checking everything-the dimensions of the arch, whether the furniture will move around, structural stuff. I hear a deep, low noise from far away and am instantly thrilled. I want to rise to my feet and go to the noise. I know the deep rumble is coming from a huge tiger in a cage. I’m exhilarated and terrified.
In our session for this dream, I call Karla from a parking garage back home in Missouri. I am closed up tight in the solitude of my car. I need privacy from my sons coming home from school, my husband coming back from work.
I rest my notebook on the steering wheel. Karla says that in the archetypal world, all is healed. “If something goes wrong,” she says, “it’s okay. You’re being called to the archetypal world by the tiger – it is calling your soul.”
She talks more, and I try to take good notes. The homework she gives me is to follow the tiger’s call; when I get into the places where I am feeling responsible for everyone else, go to the place in the dream of belonging, of being filled with excitement and terror.
The next part of the dream is about Carl: I’m up in the cab of a huge truck, sitting on his lap. He leans into me and I have my hand on his leg. We start kissing. At first, I’m thinking about being a good kisser, about technique, but then I realize we’ve been kissing for a long time. Karla explains that Carl is the animus, the male form of the divine-he is in direct relationship with me in an intimate way. He comes to me in this young alpha male character because I can accept him like this. This is about me, not about my husband or any other lovers. Karla says my intimacy with the animus is about my soul.
I don’t really believe in souls or god or the divine, so I take in what she says, write more notes and consider altering some of the words to fit with my view of the world. I want to do deep emotional work because I have stopped taking the antidepressants my doctor prescribed me for seven years, and I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to get sucked into the recurrent depression that has dogged me for decades. I won’t let the language come between me and the work I have to do to stay off of those pills. So I write down what she says.
In the third part of the dream, I’m driving on a highway at night and it’s starting to rain. I’m going to a rec center. I walk up to the side door, carrying Daniel, my son, in a car seat-he’s a toddler. I’m wet and he’s wet and it’s dark and I’m trying to get into this building. A guy in a long coat with dark hair in a ponytail walks up. He seems menacing, but he opens the door for me, and then he is walking away. An animal in the shape of a man with a smallish head is following him.
Talking about this part of the dream with Karla irritates me. She keeps asking about this creature, what he looks like, how I feel about him, do I like him. She points out that I called the small creature “inconsequential,” and she tells me that actually, this creature is the part of me that will do anything to follow the animus, no matter how ridiculous or needy. It is separate from me because I haven’t taken it inside myself. The dream is showing me my need to be with my soul self – the needy, inconsequential creature – in connection with the animus.
At the end of the session, I remember something I haven’t thought of in years, decades. It is a beautiful summer day and Jerry, a kid who lived down the street from me briefly when I was in elementary school, is lying next to me on the grass. My cat has just had kittens-they are old enough that she will let us touch them and hold them. This memory is one of few where I am young and feeling the sensuality of it all-the grass, the sunshine, kittens and soft fur, Jerry next to me laughing and caught up in kittens mewing and pawing at his neck-but it isn’t sexual.
I knew a lot about sex by the time I was in first grade: a young neighbor blackmailed me into giving and receiving oral sex. When I confessed to my mom, waiting in the car with her while my big brother went through drills on the football field in front of us, she didn’t punish me. I hoped she would forgive me, and she did-she told me I never had to do it again. The incident, though, was one of dozens of sexual encounters during my childhood that ultimately warped my understanding of intimacy, sensuality, and sex. The memory with Jerry and the kittens, its lack of sexual undertones, is a rare gem unearthed by the dream work.
In the week following my session with Karla, part of my homework, to hear the call of the tiger from the first part of the dream and the terror and excitement, releases more memories of childhood. My family is from New Orleans, but we moved to Texas when I was two. We traveled back to the city often, especially for Mardi Gras. My grandmother and her sister dressed up and waited all day in folding chairs for beads and doubloons, no matter the weather or the crowds. I lived for catching someone’s eye on a passing float, snatching a set of beads from the air thrown directly at me. And I lived for the St. Augustine marching band. Every member was black, with metal helmets and shiny purple and gold uniforms, playing music in unison and marching, yet each one moving differently-saxophones swinging one way, clarinets another, trumpets shot out into the gyrating crowds, snare drums and bass drums and cymbals beating out a rhythm that was unstoppable. That was my experience of terror and excitement-the drumming and music of St. Augustine. So I think about it whenever I can, leading to more memories, like my first husband never letting me dance, calling it a public display of sexual desire. I recognize now that when I left home with him at sixteen, I didn’t know I was also leaving behind the thrill of dancing and music.
As I continue my homework, I see that when I am lonely, I project onto men qualities they don’t possess, qualities I find attractive. The wake up call comes from a conversation during the summer with a photographer. We are talking about his next book, ideas for how to arrange his photos and his essays. We keep going back and forth-I say something like, what if you chose a handful of photos and then wrote an essay connecting them.
“What do you think?” I ask.
He tries to say it back to me. “You mean, do this?” he asks, and he rambles for a moment.
“No,” I say. I try to explain what I mean again. But he doesn’t get it.
“Well, maybe you already know what you want to do,” I say. “You just need time to let it come forward.” And then I realize he is attracted to me and can’t hear me because he is projecting something onto me, an image of someone who isn’t me. He can’t see the real me or hear what I am saying. I’m getting a taste of what it is like for men when I project onto them-I don’t see them for who they are, but rather, who I want them to be.
When it is time for Carl to arrive at my house in August, I devise a few safeguards-I have my kids come home from their dad’s house; I make Carl’s bed downstairs, in my studio, far away from my own bed. I’ve planned for us to go to Six Flags-something fun and intense to match his fun, intense personality, but then one thing after another goes wrong when I get home from my own travels on the road, and I’m not ready to have that much fun. I scale our excursion down to a small swimming hole nearby. But I am exhausted and on my period, bleeding so heavily I don’t even feel up to a little swim. We go to my favorite bakery for breakfast, with my sons, and then we go home and Carl and I sit in the creek bed at the edge of my backyard and talk for several hours. I still notice how strong and young his body is-a version of who I’d wanted to be when I was young. There is the possibility of sexual attraction-of knowing myself and how I’m always checking out guys. As a result of my dream work, though, I am aware of my own projections. And again, like at the artists’ colony, I know it just isn’t there for him. He isn’t attracted to me in that way. Instead, there is a different kind of vulnerability that comes with talking, asking questions, telling each other our stories. I feel connected to him.
At one point in the conversation, I mention I never intended to get pregnant. I have two kids. He asks what happened. I go on for too long about my ex-husband and our lack of contraception. Carl is attentive as I speak, and the story is interesting, so it isn’t until I’m done that I realize he’s asked because he really needs to tell me something. He waits a minute, throws a few stones across the creek bed, and then sighs and smiles into the shade of the branches hanging over us from the trees along the bank. He tells me he is worried he might have gotten a girl pregnant. He always wears condoms. Always, except for this one time. No one else knows, besides him and the girl, and now me.
It is a huge burden to carry alone. I’ve been in situations where I was vulnerable and advantage was taken, like when my neighbor pulled the covers over us and put her head between my legs. Carl is so young, not yet fully formed. Even though he is over six feet tall and could carry me on his back up the side of Half-dome, I have fifteen years of life experience that he does not. He is on my turf. His confession makes him more vulnerable.
I don’t take advantage. Instead, I just see him, a young man who needs someone to talk to, and I realize how the old way I had of projecting onto men could have been disastrous. He could never have said what he needed to say. He wouldn’t have been safe with me.
A new possibility is opening up before me-I touch a rock lying next to me in the dry creek bed, feel the ridges of a crinoid’s indentations, then look back at Carl, seeing him not as a sexy twenty-five year-old, but as a vulnerable human being who needs to unload a great burden. I’ve been doing my dream homework, and I am changing.
Carl leaves my house that afternoon in his packed station wagon, headed west to begin work on his MFA in art. He plans to make stops along the way, maybe in Colorado or at Kleinshmidts near Odessa, Missouri, for cowboy boots. He texts me two weeks later: not a dad.