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Posts Tagged ‘dreams’

Her endeavor was misguided and wrong and maybe plain crazy, akin to someone waking up one day and deciding he’s going to scale Kilamanjaro because he can’t stop imagining the view from the top, the picture so arresting and beautiful that it too soon delivers him to a precarious ledge, where he can no longer turn back. And while it’s easy to say this is a situation to be avoided, isn’t this what we also fear and crave simultaneously, that some internal force which defies understanding might remake us into the people we dream we are?

Chang Rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea

The spirit buckles your knees even as you grip the rung of disbelief.


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Sleep. . . knits up the raveled sleave of care.
 
From Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2

I follow him along the circumference of the earth. The globe bends under us. A rusted iron chain strewn out loose on the ground guides our hands, our feet. We walk near the shore then into the surf which licks our ankles as it rises. Soon it sweeps us up, the surge, and I clutch at my father’s back while he swims hard for a distant city on stilts. It is all that is left of our land.

Dazed and shivering, we climb to the rickety boards and look for a place to rest. A man squats against a corner of railing and hisses out the rates. Six to a room, he tells us. Fifty cents extra to use the loo.

All night and into morning, the brine clings and the heat swells. My father gives way to the other one, the who knows me as equal no matter much I long to be less. We have to find a place for our children on the sick earth. We have to fashion them a refuge, even if we are its only walls.

These choking and sumptuous images careen across the terrain of my imagination. I have seen such places only in glimpses, only when far from home. Kissed by spray from the Zambezi, I leaned over the precipice of Victoria Falls. Two decades have failed to dull the breeze lifting my pink skirt, to damper the white roar slamming geysers upon arrival.

I made a vow then: If I ever choose to die, it will be here. I will soar from this arcing explosion.

I have kept few promises in my life. This one holds, at least so far: I am allowed an escape hatch only of extraordinary proportions. I know that the effort involved and the miles covered will force me into new life.

Now, the stone edge of that Zimbabwean river is etched into a vein of recollection where the cliffs of Cape Breton gather around the New Forest’s scraggy tangle. The faraway place is memory, which means now I travel in dreams.

Sleep is a ticket to a steady body and a capable mind, but it is also a free ride to the outer limits. Just four bouts of it now — four dead zone nights following four decaffeinated days — have spun me along gilt-edged galleries and coursed me through sea caves, then pulsed me back out into the clutches of grinning dystopian warlords.

Through glass walls of a time-warping rocket, wrapped safe in a cloak of gravity and linen, I see worlds that maybe were and those that maybe will be. My soft spine arches as I clear the next mountain rising between the two. From both above and below, I watch as the laws of physics clash and spring against spasms of turbulent time.

 

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Choose work
not body.
Commit to the quiet
desire.
Commit this small
suicide.

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“Do you ever have nightmares?” He is soaking in a too-hot tub and hasn’t yet worked up to dunking his head under.

That’s easy. “Yep. Rising water.” I trail the washcloth across his knees.

“What was the worst one?”

I remember it too well. His blonde mane disappeared under the surface of a brown lake and I couldn’t get to him. My hand plunged down and I tried so hard, his hair slipping out of my fingers. “It has you in it. Do you want to hear?”

He shakes his head. “No. The worst one about you.”

I describe leaping off the bow of the ship into the open ocean before realizing my folly. “It’s not really about drowning,” I say. “Drowning is a metaphor.” We’ve talked about analogies often enough but he still gives me a blank stare.

“Remember? You and I rushing out the door in the morning is like stepping on firecrackers.” He nods and returns to poking his fingers up through bubbles. I try to explain that the dream of water probably has something to do with feeling like I have too many chores and I can’t keep track of everything.

The shampoo is a blue jewel in my palm. His hair a gold fish slipping past. He buries his eyes in a dry towel. “What’s your second worst dream?” He mumbles through the terrycloth.

“The test,” I answer without a beat. That endless, infernal, always-on-the-brink-of-failure test. Exam time, class I forgot to attend, no studying, clock ticking, panic mounting. . . How many decades of this? How many millions of us? I laugh as I describe the dream. “When you get older, I bet you and your friends are going to talk about having the exact same dream.”

“What’s the test?” He dunks his washcloth all the way to the bottom and lets it float up under his knees.

“Algebra II. Always with the Algebra II!”

“What’s that?”

Damned good question, my son. Here is the sound of evasion: “Well, it’s a class I failed and had to take over. Get this.” I reach back to a basket of magazines by the door and pull out an old Harpers. “This guy Nicholson Baker has a whole story in this famous magazine that even your grandparents read. It’s all about how hard Algebra II is and how it’s taught so badly people all over the world hate it.”

I open to page 31 and start reading about the elegance of mathematics lost to a global loathing for the subject. Baker sums up the misery and bafflement of generations of students by quoting a middle-aged college professor who admits to taking algebra unsuccesfully three years running:

I have no idea, to this day, why I find math, and algebra in particular, so excrutiatingly hard, but I do. I admire those who can learn it, but I could no more master algebra than I could leap off a roof and fly. The experience of being made to reenact your inability, over and over, is deeply warping. . . If you continually ask a one-armed man to play guitar, he’ll either come to hate himself or hate you.

The piece goes on to explore curriculum reform of the early 20th centry, the rise of New Math, and the push to place even stricter requirements on schools and students. Baker implicates the arguably misguided, myopic advocacy of such “Standardistas” as Arne Duncan and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Instead of making math more accessible and enjoyable, they support the expanded reach of such texts as the Algebra II Common Core which Baker describes as a

highly efficient engine for the creation of math rage: a dead scrap heap of repellant terminology, a collection of spiky, decontextualized multistep mathematical black-box techniques that you must practice over and over and get by heart in order to be ready to do something interesting later on, when the time comes.

Baker makes a strong case for revising the standards and adapting instruction to make math simpler, more applicable, historically richer, and fun. Introduce everyone to the basics, he argues, and allow those students who are so compelled to explore it further. Stop requiring Algebra II for college admissions.

Forcing every child to suffer the Iron Maiden of an advanced mathematics they are very unlikely to need doesn’t create a numerate citizenry. Quite the contrary. It produces one generation on top of another of innumerate citizens who despise and fear all things quantitative. They will assiduously avoid all through their long lives any endeavors that may require math, no matter how compelling or lucrative those endeavors, because of a firmly planted perception that they are genetically incapable of understanding it.

This issue of Harper’s has been in the loo for months but this is the first time I’ve given it more than a cursory glance. As I flip through, a flood of relief rushes over me. Their bellies may have had stars, but I wasn’t the lone Sneech with no stars upon thars.

The tide goes out just as quickly as it had come in. All that’s left is a little eddy of regret. It’s far too easy to become blind to the elegance of mathematics because of some noxious residue that clings even decades after clawing out of that 10th-grade hell.

The road to math conversant is a rutted and unmarked. It is especially tough when you’ve bitten your tongue raw trying to shape a grammar the blackboard neither translates nor palliates. But I’m not mute yet. Defiance and a little luck has created a world in which Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea resides on my bedside table. On a good day, I can almost hold up my end of a conversation with an engineer who happens to be smitten with the Fourier Series.

I realize now you don’t have to suck at something or master it completely. You have every right to mess around with any art or science that strikes your fancy. Knitting? Tantric poetry? Give ’em a go. History of fertile crescent? Read up. Hydroponic tomato farming? Dig in. It is possible to enjoy a subject as a dabbler without dragging six extra tons of emotional baggage into every encounter with it.

Which is why at this moment I stop reading out loud.

I glance over the steam-wilted pages at my son who is now regarding the whorls in his fingertips. Bug really doesn’t need to hear about a mass aversion to any area of human experience. My job is not to help close doors. Bug’s fondness for the puzzles of mathematics has pretty strong roots. I hope they are more stubborn than mine.

Into the pause he asks, “What is algebra?”

I show him one of the equations on the page. “Like that stuff your granddaddy is always writing.”

“But what is it?”

Geez. Fine. I close the magazine and punch through the wall of resistance into the place where learning cobbled together some kind of a permanent residence.

“It’s like this: the letters are called variables. They mean something else.”

This is also that.

His hair is a silk drape caught on a current. His eyes are the wall of a cresting wave.

“The letter stands for a certain number. Let’s say X equals 2. What’s 2X?”

Bug thinks for less than a beat.

“Four.”

“Exactly!” We both break into wide grins. “Baby, you are on it. If X is 2 and Y is 3, what’s X plus Y?”

“Five,” he says. “Duh.” He tries not to smile.

“Yes it is.” I hold up my hand and he slaps me a wet high-five.

I help him from the tub and wrap him in a turqouoise towel he’s about to outgrow. I used to lift him to the mirror after baths and we would look together at the little pointy hooded face peeking out. “You are a blue fairy. A red caboose. An ice cream cone,” I would murmur.

“What else?”

“A butterfly. A galaxy.”

“What else?”

“You are a kitty cat. A mountaintop. A blind cyclops. A book.”

“And?”

Every time, we ended there: A kiss into his damp hair. A whisper, “And you are my beautiful little boy.”

This is that.

Solve for X.

Math is magic. Algebra is pain.

The variables do not remain constant.

You are your story.

Metaphor is fate.
 

“Wrong Answer: The Case Against Algebra II” by Nicholson Baker can be found in the September 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
 

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I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied

from Sea Fever by John Masefield

In the dream, I lean over the bow. Something doesn’t fit. The water is too distant and the progress slow and I feel landlocked. Maybe the ship is smaller than my wandering feet. Maybe it’s bigger than anything I could possibly steer.

Or it isn’t wrong at all and I am just too impulsive for my own good.

In any event, I jump.

And then I am plunging into an upside-down and roiling sea. Momentum carries me further in than I had anticipated and deeper than is safe. Kicking hard up, up, my lungs try to wring the last bit of air from that last scanty breath. Light wobbles. With a surge, I break the surface just as the white plates of a looming hull flash past. This angle resolves all distortions from my upper deck perch. They don’t call them cruise ships for nothing. Keel slices water. Spume and churn.

Uh oh.

Did I think I could go out for a dip and then just mosey back on board? Did I bother to scan the horizon for some other fitting shore?

Did I figure I’d grow gills?

Is it too late for a do-over?

Hollering is useless. My voice bounces across waves and ricochets off the unblinking steel scales. Now the only thing is to swim harder than ever before on the slim chance of closing the growing distance. If I make it (and that’s a mighty big If), then what? The slick walls offer no peg, no crack.

Defeat has no voice here. With every stroke, I force behind my eyes an image of a handhold and a body still surging with the strength to climb.

I have exactly one shot.

Questions boil in my waterlogged throat:

Is he the ship or is he the ocean?

Which is courage?

Which is home?
 

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Waking up is relief even if it is to the dull edge of January dawn.

He is there, a red T-shirt and splash of white stripe, resting at the bottom of the swimming pool. It is too late. I know this but I dive in anyway and haul him to the concrete. Pressing air through tiny lips. The taste of chlorine. The taste of silence. Over and over and over. No tears. Breath. Press. Breath. No pleas. Just this single determination. Pushing out water, pushing in oxygen. He stirs but it is only me, my desire, my exhalations inflating the sodden puppet.

Then he turns. Just a little. Eyes crack, lips part. What are you doing, Mommy? Concern bends his brow. Wariness, too. Before he can resist, I tuck him into my arms. Gather him like fallen limbs. He is only three and still so very light.

Just taking you home, baby.

I stand with my son bundled and dripping against my chest. Warming him. Warming us. I step away. Up the passageway, past the closed doors and towards ours which must be somewhere that way. Somewhere else.

I stand knowing this is me leaving me. Me walking away from the woman on her knees bent over her drowned son. Me choosing madness over truth. Myth over pain.

The unutterable facts:

He is gone and I am the one who lost him. I turned my back. Let him leave the car at night while I hefted grocery bags and backpacks. Forgot to give him the key. Me. I am the one who saw the door was still locked and he was not in the corridor waiting. I felt the fear rising; I did not run for him then and there. I took 30 seconds too long dumping the grocery bags and backpacks. Another 30 seconds trying to find a warm coat to put on him because he hadn’t brought his home. I was the one who wasted those fateful, final 30 final looking with widening eyes down the dim hallway and up the shadowed stairwell of our complex instead of hollering his name at the top of my lungs because of. . . Decorum? Pride?

The unbearable facts:

I lost my son. The blow of awareness is sudden and blinding. My negligence is the cause, I am the cause of his death and so the blame for my suffering falls on me alone. This knowledge is itself a source of staggering shame. It seems I care more about my role in the loss than the loss itself. Me, me, me. It’s always about me.

Then, back around around again.

The impossible knowing:

A life without this boy in it.

Too much.

So I gather him up. Forever now three, complete. Just his light boyhood, his lift, his easy willingness to be carried without protest. I carry him close and walk in great strides away

from sincerity. From courage. Poised at my moment of choice,

I abandon my moment of truth.

The one closest to me wonders if he should fear my break with reality. I do not say out loud yes you should. That it is not a possibility but a certainty, but in any event, it is far from a clean split. It is a spiderweb. A slow shatter.

I wake in the dark but it is close enough to light. The house is quiet but for dog on her pallet by the sliding glass door. Cracks at the seams expand as temperatures contract, peeling back the illusion of solidity. Out there in the space between, my son, like my sanity, straddles dimensions. We are Schrodinger’s cat. Both of us are completely intact. Neither of us is entirely home. We cannot touch

and I caused this.
 

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O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.

–  W. H. Auden

I do the worst harm to the one I love the most. The dreams crafted with crayon and glitter begin to crack. His flavor sours. His voice slips off key. I fidget under my sheets and try to sink back to the breathless place. I lift my eyes to the receding ceiling, carve a hole, and slip out without looking back.
 
Flight and stars. I careen over rooftops. This works until it doesn’t. Gravity always wins.
 
Nearing the middle of life, only now I am waking up?
 
In the half-place where I still squeeze my eyes shut and cling, I feel the grit against my shoulder, against my scuffed shin. I finally achieved flight, and yet I lay there with my wings limp on the earth and think, That’s it? That’s all it is?
 
He will never be better than the man he is right now. I am what I have become. It is this, not the next thing. Not the up there, out there, over there. Not door number two, three, or four.
 
This. Right here.
 
The moon does not bend to us. The night is not a swelling sea. He does not tuck jewels under my ribs. I do not hear the choir sing.
 
Does anyone else here hate the lover for this betrayal?
 
The abuse of disabuse. We are all battered. Notions no one ever named out loud (silver sprites and dappled light) reveal themselves as a worn felt hat. A trick deck. All face cards, an overabundance of Queens of Hearts.
 
Enchantment lingers, the coin tossed 100 times until the bets are off. Until the game is over. Forfeit? No, just bored with it. The aged ones are ready to move on. Their loves are pedestrian arrangements. We believed ourselves so much better. I will never speak so cruelly to my beloved. We will never sit in opposite corners of the house chasing down our solitary pleasures.
 
We believed ourselves truer.
 
At least I did.
 
Do I admit it now?
 
I hid the third dimension. He was satisfied with the point and line and didn’t lift the corner to feel around underneath. I tilted. He failed.
 
The angles were off. The roof gave way.
 
I re-wrote history. I razed the love I must (surely) have once occupied. I used a wrecking ball. Then an x-acto knife.
 
I claimed it was the wind and poor calculation.
 
How could I have possibly believed it would be easier without the lean-to we had erected? What did I think would be here outside our feeble shelter?
 
The fantasy fulfilled? Dreams in flesh at last?
 
Foolish girl. It is just exactly what was there before only without the micrometer of certainty to keep the storms at bay. Only with a lot more toil. Only truth (for what it’s worth).
 

And surely in time we will start to confront the failures of understanding and the disenchantment familiarity brings. In time we will face the knowledge of what we can never, never expect from one another.

– Judith Viorst, Necessary Losses

Waking up is not without pain. Nevertheless, raw skin and all, it beats the alternative.
 

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