I don’t normally remember my dreams but I had one recently that has stayed with me.
In the dream, I’m standing next to a river with my great-grandmother. I never really knew her. She died shortly after I was born. I have a memory of a black and white photograph of her: she was a short, wrinkled mestiza with a tired smile. All families tell stories and one story my family told was how my great-grandmother knew ancient native secrets. She was a devout Catholic but, also, had spoken with the spirits that haunt the desert.
In the dream, she wore the same tired smile from the black and white photograph. I was happy to see her again even if I was meeting her for the first time. And so we stood there, together. I think the river may have been the Rio Grande but I’m not sure. I don’t know whether we were in Texas or Mexico, either. It was sunny and hot and the sound of cicadas buzzing filled the air. She pointed across the river with a brown root for a finger. I stared across the water and at low hills in the distance.
When I turned back she was hugging me. She whispered words into my chest that I couldn’t hear because the cicadas were buzzing louder than before. If I had spent years sleeping in the dirt I’d be singing at the top of my lungs too. I don’t know what she was whispering into my heart: a prayer, a spell, advice. I think she was speaking in Spanish and, in the dream, I felt guilty for not knowing how to speak it. I never wanted my mother to teach it to me when I was growing up. Then she slowly stepped back with tears in her eyes and I was a tree. In the dream, I thought “I am a tree.” I don’t know what kind of tree. A mesquite or a cypress? I couldn’t see myself but I could wiggle my roots deep in the dirt. When I woke up my first thought was “I am a tree.”
I sat under a tree in a park in New York City the other day. I don’t know why I did that but I did. I closed my computer and put my phone in my desk drawer and went outside. One moment I was reading the words of an internet doomsayer and the next I was walking outside towards the park. On the way to the park, I saw a man try to fight a bus. He was frothing mad and stood in front of the bus and screamed at it. I didn’t stick around to see what happened but I bet the bus won.
I found a tree and sat under it and immediately felt better. I needed a break from the fear and anger and hate. The fight against evil is, first and foremost, never-ending. It is an exhausting struggle. It begins with a hard look in the mirror and ends with eyelids slowly closing on a broken world and then it happens all over again.
But this shouldn’t discourage those who want to do good. Eventually, love will win. I don’t know if I will live to see that happen. That is not the point, though. Sometimes just means are the ends. And this is not me being some naive hippie. I am not a hippie. Although in retrospect, I don’t know why people are so hard on hippies, all they really want to do is spiral dance and not bathe.
It is hard work being kind and compassionate and helping those who ask for help. Taking a break, here and there, is important because, as I have already written, doing the right thing is a longterm commitment.
This is why I decided to unplug from my phone and computer. Usually, when I’m stressed out, I reach for whatever has extra cheese. Once upon a time, long ago, I’d light up a cigarette or six and puff away. But both those choices are not what medical professionals would call “healthy.” So instead I went out in search of one of the green oases 19th-century urban planners decided would be nice to build because living life in a concrete maze can get dreary.
The tree wasn’t special in any way. Average. A tree you’d find in a motel room painting. It had a strong trunk and leaves and branches and all that good tree stuff. It wasn’t particularly comfortable to sit underneath. But it supported my back and offered shade and for a few minutes, I was plugged into life. The leaves drank in my every exhale and I watched a child run to his mother, laughing. Trees are Mother Nature’s monuments. They reach down into the ground and up towards the sky. Trees sway in the wind and stand strong against it at the same time.
This is a busy life so I didn’t sit under that tree for long. I collected my bones and stood. I took another moment before leaving and put my hands on the bark of the tree. I stood with the tree. I held it up.
It felt good to go outside. I highly recommend it. That’s the sort of simple advice we’re taught as children that is even more applicable in adulthood. Hug your friends, eat your broccoli, go outside. Touch something green. Reach into the ground and up towards the sky. Turn your feet into roots and let leaves unfurl from your fingertips. Soak in sun. Yield to the breeze but stand up to the tempest. Then return to the world and do what needs to be done.
After the park, I went back to work and filled up a spreadsheet. I read the news and donated some money to an organization that helps people who need help. I even laughed at a joke someone made during a meeting and it was a real laugh and not a pre-programmed chuckle. During my commute home I found a subway seat and that made me feel like I had won a very small lottery. I picked up a chicken quesadilla from my favorite Mexican restaurant because extra cheese does help. Then I went to bed and dreamt that dream about meeting my great-grandmother beside a river.
I’m sure those handfuls of minutes I spent sitting beneath the tree in the park had been growing in my subconscious or I could blame the cheese. I like to think maybe those family stories were true and she was reaching out to me from another time and place.
I told a friend about the dream the next day and she asked me what I thought it was about. Anxiety? Insecurity? Growing older? I didn’t have an answer for her and I still don’t. I don’t remember my dreams and those I do remember I do not understand.
I’d like to dream about my great-grandmother again. I guess I’ll have to sit under more trees. I’ll have questions for her this time. I’ll ask her about my great-grandfather who helped the revolutionaries and my grandfather who had to defend his garage on the outskirts of town from wild dogs and my grandmother who dreamed fiercely and my mother, my young mother, who drove the nuns crazy. I will kiss her on the forehead and whisper “I am a tree.”