Given that I worked with the unconscious through dreams for the last twenty years of my career, I should not have been surprised when forces and images beneath my awareness showed up in my waking life. I started this writ with a clear-ish sense of what was up, what was knocking, and maybe even a way to approach it. Instead I found myself both curious and surprised to be angling in from a completely different direction as if guided by circuitous subterrain pathways towards an unanticipated destination.
My mother was just 19 years old when she fled Nazi Germany, leaving everything and everyone behind; family, friends, studies, home, language, culture. There was a German official in the room as she packed to ensure that she did not attempt to smuggle anything of value out with her. Nothing was permitted save one suitcase with clothes and toiletries and a few personal mementos. She strode out with the bravado that sometimes only youth can provide, away from her known world.
Her story as a young penniless girl in Johannesburg, South Africa is the heroic/tragic immigrant story. Tiny triumphs, baffling disappointments, confusion and the slow but inexorable climb into membership and after some years, a semblance of stability, hard earned and fraught with anxiety.
She got her first job through some pulled strings in a leather factory sewing gloves. As a child I knew her to be both creative and handy. She could and did crochet beautiful table cloths that were veritable pieces of fine craft. She would also sew our clothes and crochet precious little animals for my sister and I, which were often long-time faithful companions and the solace of lonely childhood years.
My eldest granddaughter has just passed her 14th birthday and I would have to stretch into the most uncomfortable places to imagine what life could present her so that in a mere five years at 19, she would be ready to make such a solo exodus as her great grandmother did. Necessity forces and requires many things of children much younger, driven by need and impossibilities, in the dream of arriving on the shores of some unknown place that might offer a sliver of safety and a shred of hope. My mother had her hopes, her dreams of a better life, a safer life as do most immigrants, which is why they are willing to risk their lives for the possibility of reaching safer shores.
Her wages in the factory were meagre and she like many today, had to decide between food or rent, food or heat, food or a movie. As a middle-class kid, she was not used to any of these hardships, but she was certainly game.
Worse than any of these conditions was her psychic state of being which was deeply troubled. In those times, trauma was not talked of or recognized. I suspect that she was terrified by all she had witnessed and been subject to prior to leaving Germany in 1936, as well as separation anxiety and the knowledge she had fled leaving her 56-year-old mother behind, alone to cope with whatever her fate would be. She felt the burden of guilt.
Every night she would return to her mean little room exhausted and would be awakened by the same nightmare which left her shaking unable/unwilling to return to sleep. She dreamt that she returned to Germany to find her mother, to the old family house which had been emptied out. She cautiously climbed the stairs to her mother’s old bedroom where she saw to her great relief her mother alive and sitting on a single simple armless chair in the middle of an empty room. Her mother was silent but attempted to communicate with her eyes, indicating urgently that she should not enter the room. Of course, being who my mother was, even in her dream-state, she did enter the room. However, as soon as she crossed the threshold, she discovered the Nazis waiting behind the open door ready to capture her too.
Just one month of such dreams had left her exhausted, hollowed out and very thin. The liaison officer for German immigrants arranged for her to see an old German Doctor who was more kindly than skilled. He hypnotized her, several times, until the nightmares stopped. Regrettably so did her dreams. She never dreamt again until shortly prior to her death.
She told me this story only as her mind was fraying, as her well armored defenses were weakening. She told me again and again how she had no choice but to leave her mother who had refused to leave. She told me again and again how hard she had tried to get her out. She had what today we would call ‘survivor’s guilt’ which only deepened as after the war she learnt the fate of her mother, who had died in the camps, and of her many relatives who had scattered beyond reach or who had died or been murdered. The kindly Doctor had taken her nightmares away, he helped her close that painful psychic door at the expense of her dreams. At the expense of all that painful material which never had the chance to see the light, resolve or integrate but instead lay dormant eating away at her internal well-being.
The sun burst through the clouds after the rain that had been our constant companion on our journey south, after a Covid-cautious summer spent up in Canada. The closer we got to Southern Oregon, the more I considered and felt the devastation that had befallen our Rogue Valley just some two weeks prior. A relatively small but very destructive wild fire had stormed through the valley burning some 2,300 homes and businesses in a very short span of time, just outside of the town of Ashland where we live. The whole community was reeling. I wondered how we would feel when faced with the devastation that would be evident in the land, its structures and people.
I wondered, and not for the first time either, whether we humans could ever contrive to witness or experience trauma and suffering (on either an individual or a collective level), without closing down, or taking it all on, without forgoing our dreams as my mother was unwittingly encouraged to do. I wondered whether I could meet calamity without looking away and without having survivor’s guilt.
I realized too, for the very first time that I had devoted so many years of my therapeutic career to working with dreams and the unconscious, maybe as a compensation for my mother’s lost dreams and the realization of what it had cost her. Maybe it is the natural rebalancing that so often occurs between couples and intergenerationally as we attempt to heal our wounds and those that get transmitted down to us by our parents.
As we approached Ashland, Oregon, we were able, even from the highway, to see large tracts of completely burnt out neighborhoods, flattened grey, with errant pieces of roofing or sheet metal protruding from the rubble at odd intervals. I felt a twinge of survivor’s guilt as I wondered how it would be to return to our intact home, in an intact neighborhood, in an intact town simply because on the morning of September the eighth when the fire started, the very strong winds had been blowing north, rather than northwest, thus sparing the whole town we live in. But how would we meet this community grief, even as we ourselves were unscathed?
Food, water, clothes and other essentials had been gathered and school gymnasiums turned into distribution centers, all while attempting to work safely within the Covid safety restrictions. Everyone was in tatters and on edge, in a sort of collective trauma as the winds picked up again over the following days, as people opened their homes to those who had none, even as they were packing up in readiness for a potential new round of evacuations, they helped in all the ways we do when we are at our best.
As we rounded the corner of our street, I saw something white and gleaming that was not there when we had left some three months prior. We edged the car forward slowly and saw un-mistakenly, the white statue of Kuan Yin. Kuan Yin is a Chinese adoptee from the Sanskrit goddess Avalokitesvara, who is known as the bodhisattva of compassion, that rare capacity to feel into the dilemma of another without judgement. The Chinese translation of her/his name is: The one who perceives the sounds of the world, or who hears the cries of the world.
While she is actually an androgynous figure, or gender fluid, she is often depicted as she was here, as feminine. Her crown carries the image of her teacher Amitabha, who herself is the buddha of comprehensive love who works for the enlightenment of all beings. She is often depicted holding a jug in her left hand and her right is open, often pointing down. It is said the jug contains pure water capable of relieving suffering, although for some reason, I rather like the notion that she gathers the tears from the suffering of the world in her jug and returns it to the great ocean which can absorb them. I may have made up that rendering to suit my notion of compassion and while it certainly suits the imagery, I have not actually seen this rendering written up in any of the tracts that I consulted.
Still, there she sat, maybe 14 inches high, set on a small peninsula of garden. Where had she come from, who had placed her there? When we met our closest neighbor, Sage, the following day, he told us that it was he who put the statue where she now sat. “It belonged to my grandmother”, he explained. “Her house was burnt down in the fires just two weeks ago. Nothing survived, not one thing, except her,” he said pointing to the statue, luminous in that moment as the sun shone down upon her. We asked about his grandmother Joan and why she would even have had such a statue. He was a tad perplexed, since his grandmother was a staunch Catholic, was 89 and was by all accounts, very unsentimental, which is why she choose not to keep the only remaining possession not consumed by the fire which has taken her home of many decades. She had instead, scooped the statue up from the rubble and placed it in her grandsons’ arms, he in turn placed her in our garden which adjoins his.
She now sits as the greeter for all who visit our short cul du sac, a reminder of the possibility of bearing witness without shutting down, of transforming tears and suffering back into the oceans which are deep enough to hold them and her gift of offering appropriate help when called upon. Given that she can hear the sounds of the world, given that she can hear the cries of the world without closing her ears or heart, she does not need to forfeit her dreams or ours. She greets all who walk or drive up our short street, this unlikely but shiny example of what might be possible in these uncertain and scary times. At least if nothing more, she is an homage to a tiny miracle that arose from the ashes.
what is exempt from
the concrete march
not the delicate lift
of the blue heron
as she bats her wide
wondrous wings above
the rising tide knowing
her name will be ticked
a check in the box
not my granddaughter
as she skips lightly
over slick salty rocks
knowing her children
may never see a polar bear
or eat fresh salmon caught
from the open sea.
not the ancient stand
of grandmother trees
the otters or great grizzlies
what stretches the fabric
of my heart so tightly
is this need
to keep watching
without giving up