Once, In A Lifetime
When I was in my early twenties, I had a man tell me that if he had more lifetimes, he’d give me “at least two.” Because I was young and living without the responsibilities that come when one decides to hunker down and build a life, I didn’t fully understand what he meant by that. I’m older now. I’ve got much less time on my hands. I made a decision to have a family (one I don’t regret). Only now, in this, the busiest time in my life, when my time belongs to everyone but myself, do I truly understand the significance of what this man said.
Two lifetimes ago, before I met my husband and had my daughters, I was, for many years, deeply involved in a relationship that was, well, I don’t really know how to describe it. I can tell you that during one of our worst fights, when we were living in separate states, he smashed his beloved guitar, and then put it back in its case, got on a greyhound bus, and travelled hundreds of miles to lay the thing on the doorstep of my apartment. When I came upon it, he told me, “This is what you did to me.” Horrible, yes? But when you’re young and you’re an aspiring poet, one who understands the power of metaphor and imagery, beautiful too, no?
We were young. I was 19 and he was 21. We were both artists. Something in us was fueled by the chaos that we created for one another. I have a line from a poem in my book that pretty much sums up the nature of our relationship:
You tore into each other just so you could clean/ the other’s wounds.
This relationship ended many, many times. And, five years later, when it ended for good, with him calling from many states away asking to come back, and me, threatening to call the cops if he did reappear, I thought we were finally free of each other.
But this person has been showing up in my dreams for the last 12 years. It’s not uncommon for me to wake up in a cold sweat because, all night, I’ve been dreaming that I accidentally married this person. Sometimes, in the dream, I’m not married to this person. Which is a relief. Until I find out that I’ve cheated on my husband with this person and thus am about to lose everything that matters to me. These dreams are scary as hell.
My husband prescribes to the Jungian idea that the people and things in our dreams are really just reflections of different parts of our psyche, different parts of ourselves. Recently, I can across this excerpt from an article in The Sun Magazine (which I no longer subscribe to because I think its subtitle, “Personal. Political. Provocative. Ad-Free,” should actually be, “Personal. Political. Provocative. Ad-Free. And Depressing As Hell”). I found this from an interview with Jeremy Taylor:
At another level, everything in the dream is a reflection of the dreamer’s own psyche: these menacing characters are in fact representations of repressed aspects of the dreamer’s own self. While the dream is occurring, I might be absolutely convinced that these unpleasant figures are “not me.” But the fact that I am creating the dream means that it isall me. The more I think of figures in the dream as “not me,” the more likely I am to be projecting my own problems on others in my waking life.
Last night, I dreamed of this person again. This time, we were in a bar in my hometown (where I no longer live) and, for some reason, I was a waitress at this bar (not because it was my job, but because it was fun). My ex walked in the door, saddled up to me, and smirked, “Wow. Looks like you’re doing AWESOME. You’re 35 and you’re a waitress.” To which I replied, “Actually, I AM doing AWESOME. This waitressing thing is just for fun. I actually teach at a university and I just had a book of poetry published. And I’m married with two kids, Asshole.”
Guess what happened next? This ex, this MONSTER who has made a regular job out of making a regular appearance in my dreams and treating me like shit on a regular basis for THE LAST 12 YEARS, begins to tear-up. He then pleads, his voice shaking with emotion, “But who was it that pushed you to write? Who told you you were a great poet?!” And I answered, as loud as I could so that the whole bar could hear it, “It was YOU. You are the one who pushed me to become a poet. I’d never be where I was if it wasn’t for you.” And then I woke up.
I’m halfway through Patti Smith’s phenomenal autobiography, Just Kids, which chronicles her time with the now famous (and deceased) artist, Robert Mapplethorpe. I’ve found myself both stunned and heartened by the way this woman navigated a very difficult relationship with a man who was her best-friend, her collaborator, her lover, and who also happened to be gay, something he discovered during the course of their relationship.
The book is beautifully written, and one of the reasons I think I’m so taken with it is that Smith writes of her relationship with Mapplethorpe in a way that allows the two of them to be fully human; Patti Smith is able to write about her past with this man, outside metaphor, and her rendering of the time they shared growing as artists is not oversimplified or romanticized. Her memories of their time together are woven with such care and such attention to detail, that when I think of holding that book, I think of holding a bird’s nest, something that is delicate, yet incredibly strong; A thing that is both beautiful and functional.
Reading this book before bed each night, I believe, is what finally allowed me to have a fruitful confrontation with this ex.
My time with this man was very productive for me artistically. When I think of our time together, I think of the broken blinds and the overturned coffee table; I think of all the nights we spent crying and screaming; I think of how beautiful we were when we were apart, and how ugly we were when we were together; but I think, too, of a moment when he sat our our bed looking though my first chapbook. He read the book all the way through, then looked at me and said he didn’t know what to say. Half-smiling, half-shaking his head, he finally said, “You’re good. This is good. This is really, really good.”
During my time with this person, I began to believe that I was “good” and that I could, indeed write. I began to think of myself as a writer, an artist.
This ex is no longer the person he was when we first met all those years ago. He’s evolved as have I. But he represents a time in my life and a part of me that is an integral part of who I am as an artist. I don’t think this ex, when he appears in my dreams is my ex at all, I think he’s the part of me that is an artist, the part of me that looks at a shattered, splintered guitar laid with such care on my doorstep, and thinks, “That’s horrible. That’s beautiful” –all in the same breath.
I’ve spent the last ten years building a very practical life with a man who I’ll love until the day I die. I’ve spent the last ten years doing everything I could to shake my tendencies to fall in love with men and ideas and places and lives that are only beautiful because they are broken. But now, maybe it’s time to acknowledge the fact that the parts of me that are scared and ugly and broken and lost and absolutely impractical are, in fact, practical.
A student once e-mailed me from a psychiatric hospital he’d been placed in by recommendation of his doctor. This student is an incredible poet, the real deal, you know? I e-mailed him back and told him something along the lines of, “Whatever you’re going through, it’s part of who you are and it’s part of what makes you an incredible artist.”
I’d like to think I was telling myself the same thing in my dream. Whether in waking or dreaming, when we encounter some part of our past or present that’s broken or strange or lost or ugly, maybe we ought to look at it and speak to it. Maybe we ought to tell it what is gave us.