One day this week, I woke up with a dream still swimming in the semi-conscious soup-state between sleeping and waking. Excited, I grabbed my journal and jotted down images, conversations, and choppy sequences before they vanished. Many of my friends will likely roll their eyes in acknowledgement that I relish in sharing dreams and listening to others' dreams. Some are delighted to share, others patiently listen and offer interpretations, or at least open their ears to my dream tellings.
Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets, so clearly describes the elusive nature of dreams in her poem, Dreams:
the dark buds of dreams
In the center
of every petal
is a letter,
and you imagine
if you could only remember
and string them all together
they would spell the answer.
It is a long night,
and not an easy one—-
you have so many branches,
and there are diversions—-
birds that come and go,
the black fox that lies down
to sleep beneath you,
the moon staring
with her bone-white eye.
Finally you have spent
all the energy you can
and you drag from the ground
the muddy skirt of your roots
and leap awake
with two or three syllables
like water in your mouth
and a sense
of loss—-a memory
not yet of a word,
certainly not yet the answer—-
only how it feels
when deep in the tree
all the locks click open,
and the fire surges through the wood,
and the blossoms blossom.
You see, being someone who finds meaning in many natural occurrences, I find special meaning in dreams. Even if they are a collection of random chemical or electrical firings, they seem to hold a mirror to our minds. And if there's anything I've learned in self-reflection, it is that our minds are vast, unknown landscapes to us. Even in believing you have yourself "figured out", (as I explore in this past post), you soon discover a new facet of yourself that remains raw, unpolished, and surprising.
Carl Jung, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of analytical psychology, was extremely invested in dreams and their meanings.
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
Dreams unveil our desires, our fears, and our obsessions. While I could go on about my recurring hiding-from-bears dreams or being-repeatedly-trapped-by-a-giant-wave dreams (I know, I know, still working on feeling overwhelmed by everything), I would much rather spend time on the dreams of desire. And no, I'm not explicitly speaking of sexual or romantic dreams, though those are important and valid indicators of a certain kind of our desire. Instead, I speak of the pleasant feelings in dreams that mirror what we desire in our daily lives. In last night's dream, I was part of a community. Though scraps of the "plot" remain, it resembled a sleep-away camp, with everyone sleeping communally, cooking meals together, and coming together to talk and sing. This reminded me very much of the backpacking hostel culture in Europe and the albuerges of El Camino de Santiago. While I did spend time in said dream walking around the beautiful desert/ocean landscape, I spent most of my time around others. This feeling of belonging to a group seemed so natural and warm, I could hardly believe it was created in my mind upon waking. Almost painfully, I admit my desire to find a community in my conscious hours is unsatisfied.
Humans are social creatures. We know this. We can find it in our evolution; a key factor in the survival of species amidst hostile, predator-laden environments. We can find it everywhere in fact--people desire to be around other people. Even introverts like myself. Acceptance, I would argue, is the number one motivator in most of our actions. Friend groups, clubs, teams, unions, political parties, nations....We swear allegiance to a group that accepts certain aspects of our nature. And while I'm grateful for my work community and my scattered circles of friends, that pull for a group acceptance remains strong, and if I'm honest with my needs, remains absent from my life.
Is it wrong to ask for this, appearing ungrateful or naïve or delusional? In my culture, yes. I won't speak for the nation, or other ethnic groups besides the culture where I come from but I find a lack of this open honesty about our needs everywhere. I am just as much a perpetuator of this culture as the next person. We are molded from Puritan ethics in New England, seasoned with the weather, changing seasons and harsh winters. Even among close-knit, small-town communities which I witness everyday at my job, there appears a distance and unwillingness to discuss and ask for certain things. These unmentionables that we strive for: acceptance and love. Could it be projection of my own lack of these? Yes, it could. But what I see mimics the popular media, culture, conversations, and lack of effective communication in our local and national politics. To be honest about what we need: love and acceptance, is seen as weak. One reason I feel I can write about this without seeming delusional is that I am not the first to mention it. We joke in New England about our temperament. I've had frank conversations with friends and colleagues about it. And while between individuals the traits of warmth , generosity, and open-mindedness vary greatly and are often present, the collective culture does not appear to be interested or invested in such traits, nor open to talking about them.
bell hooks, who I must have found at just the right time (thanks Theresa and others!), plants this seed of questioning in my mind. In her book, all about love: new visions, she describes with clarity my longing for acceptance and frustration at my own pursuit for it.
"So many of us long for love but lack the courage to take risks. Even though we are obsessed with the idea of love, the truth is that most of us live relatively decent, somewhat satisfying lives even if we often feel that love is lacking. In these relationships we share genuine affection and/or care. For most of us, that feels like enough because it is usually a lot more than we received in our families of origin. Undoubtedly, many of us are more comfortable with the notion that love can mean anything to anybody precisely because when we define it with precision and clarity it brings us face to face with our lacks---with terrible alienation. The truth is, far too many people in our culture do not know what love is. And this not knowing feels like a terrible secret, a lack that we have to cover up."
So, what definition of love does bell hooks provide? After admitting a long search for a definition, she found one in a 1978 book called The Road Less Travelled by psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. He defines love as:
"the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth."
Now, those who find themselves shaking their heads to this as they do not belong to any faith nor feel themselves spiritual, not so fast! hooks addressed this:
"Some folks have difficulty with Peck's definition of love because he uses the word 'spiritual.' He is referring to that dimension of our core reality where mind, body and spirit are one. An individual does not need to be a believer in a religion to embrace the idea that there is an animating principle in the self--a life force (some of us call it a soul) that when nurtured enhances our capacity to be more fully self-actualized and able to engage in communion with the world around us. "
Now, if you're still shaking your head, so be it---you are absolutely entitled to reject this as anything I or anyone writes. But this could also be described as the part of you that reacts when someone hears your innermost thoughts and validates them. The part of you that is normally hidden but flourishes when finding an activity that gives you fulfillment and pleasure---one that connects you with other people to create the bond we call acceptance. If that is a definition of soul or spirit, then surely most if not all of us have a spiritual growth which is nurtured by ourselves and others. And that nurturing is defined by hooks, and by me, now, as love.
The search for this love, this acceptance of soul or spirit, has rarely been answered in my life. It is the warmth you feel when someone listens to you and interacts with you, seeming to see the hidden parts of your soul or mind or whatever you want to call your "essence". I've known this with few people in my life-both in romantic and platonic relationships. It remains a treasured experience, and an emotional one.
Now, all other quests for this love that don't meet the criteria fully are not meaningless or without lessons learned. Many are lifelong quests; within our own families or communities. I have learned many lessons from my experiences with unfulfilled love. I found myself in unrequited situations which felt so painful at the time, but upon reflection there was no way for intimacy to occur and thus no way I could be truly hurt. Being hurt by someone who loves you back, from the definition of love which Peck describes, is unbearable. I consider myself lucky to have found a love under this definition. I recall throughout that first real relationship and in perhaps only one other relationship of romantic caring/love how uncomfortable I felt when the other person gazed at me and listened when I spoke of hopes and fears close to my soul. These fragile declarations were being heard for the first time and were accepted. My fear of being rejected in those moments was so real that I was in near panic, incredibly emotional. I felt ashamed of these emotions, one never used to crying in front of others as I learned in my family and culture. The thoughts were not foreign to me at all, but sharing them with another human was terrifying. It still is. I guard myself, we guard ourselves, from rejection so carefully. I feel these admonitions are rarely shared. But the desire to share them is strong. Luckily, though I wish it was more commonplace, the people who heard these words did not reject them, but made me feel as though I was safe and heard. This feeling, I can imagine, is not felt by many who find themselves in relationships without love and acceptance. Is there a way we can teach and learn this collectively?
Now, admitting that we are lacking or that we are not going about love in a way that is mutually beneficial and transformative is hard. It lives everywhere; the conflict we have with others is one we have with ourselves. In fact, as Carl Sagan said in one of his Gifford Lectures on the questions of God, human nature, and our uncertain future:
"Another way of looking at this is as a conflict within the human heart, as a conflict between the bureaucratic, hierarchical, aggressive parts of our nature, which in a neurophysicological sense we share with our reptilian ancestors, and the other parts of our nature, the generalized capacity for love, for compassion, for identification with others who may superficially not look or talk or act or dress exactly like us, the ability to figure the world out that is focused and concentrated in our cerebral context. Our survival is (how could we have imagined it to be anything else?) a reflection of our own nature and how we manage these contending tendencies within the human heart and mind."
Our survival of our relationship with ourselves is tied to how we resolve conflict within ourselves. What we learn and accept about ourselves, we then extend to other people. And learning about yourself means seeing where you are coming into conflict and discovering ways to critically examine and change the behaviors that lead you to self-loathing and self-sabotage. When we don't resolve these within ourselves, we project them on others. It is so common to have a fixed mindset when we come across these conflicts.
hooks echoes this in a statement about the popular acceptance of our cultural standards and practices of love:
"It is particularly distressing that so many recent books on love continue to insist that definitions of love are unnecessary and meaningless. Or worse, the author suggests love should mean something different to men than it does to women---that the sexes should respect and adapt to our inability to communicate since we do not share the same language. This type of literature is popular because it does not demand a change in fixed ways of thinking about gender roles, culture, or love. Rather than sharing strategies that would help us become more loving it actually encourages everyone to adapt to circumstances where love is lacking."
Hello, growth mindset.
Now, in a rather interesting twist, I am discovering how my own psyche has stayed stagnant and evolved in a personal project. I am rereading old journals as a way to find my old poetry and edit it for future creative endeavors. I find this immensely satisfying in seeing how much I've changed and also how similar themes cross my mind throughout the past 10 years that I've kept a journal. I'm just now reading through the spring of 2012, and in particular one week when I visited my never-before-met family on my paternal grandmother's side. Thanks to my uncle who keeps in contact with the family, I was put in touch with my cousin Chiara and bought a train ticket from Milano to Piacenza, the city in Northern Italy where they live. Most of the family lives between two buildings, with three generations under the same roof on several floors. They share a courtyard and family businesses. Overwhelmed by the welcome I received, I could barely write cohesive thoughts at night, worn out but feeling loved at with all the attention by the end of the day. I wrote this:
"This might be an overstatement or exaggeration, but after being here among my distant family, I feel that all our problems-with drugs, alcohol...all our problems period, come from the need to close the gap between ourselves and other people. The gap is formed by culture and family structure. I see it here; children brought up with so much love, surrounded by family. A family where everyone picks up the newborn child and showers it with love."
During a dinner on my second night, I asked my second cousin Matteo if he ever wanted to travel or live anywhere else. He thought about it for a moment, then told me: "No. I love it here. My family is here. Why would I leave?" Exactly. Where you find your community, you stay. When you feel love and acceptance, there is no reason to leave that comfort.
Now, I find as well as then, that community doesn't exist in a fixed place for me. I am still searching for it. I ask myself: how do we build our connections, strengthen our relationships, pursue communities where we are accepted or better yet, increase our likelihood of acceptance by practicing love daily? As bell hooks proclaims, we need to learn how to first find acceptance and love with ourselves before finding it elsewhere. She describes this process of self-love through another writer's work, Nathaniel Branden's Six Pillars of Self Esteem:
"The practice of living consciously, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, living purposefully and the practice of personal integrity."
This process is ongoing, and not solved overnight. (And is any "problem" really every "solved"?) I am bolstered with resolve and hope when I see other humans pursuing this practice of self-love. Zine culture, (which I've written about here) is a place full of writings, drawings, instructions, and recollections on self-care and self-love. Two creative humans create such zines which you can find here and here.
I love that more and more people seem to be sharing their thoughts on love. February brings these conversations out into the open, as we encounter the inevitable consumerization of love. We can meet this holiday with cynicism or try to go deeper. Despite my mixed feelings on Valentine's Day, I find it a wonderful opportunity to be open about love. When we are open, we learn the commonalities between ourselves and other people. When we are open, we accept the complexities about ourselves. We can relearn and redefine productive ways of loving. We can be honest about what we need to change in our understanding of love, taking responsibility for our happiness.
I'll leave you with this video from Humans Of New York, an episode on relationships. It captures the cuteness, humor, attraction, miscommunications, and deep respect found in multiple phases of relationships. I wish you love <3