When I was in third grade, my class took a field trip to Kirby Cove, a small rocky beach just west of the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. To get there, we had to walk—or in my case, slide—down a steep dirt trail. I don’t remember it as a trail at all, but a horrifying sheer, wide fall of hill, brown-red and slippery with pebbles. I was a klutzy girl, all arms and legs, with my center of gravity somewhere, as my younger and more agile brother once put it, above my forehead. I was rather in shock that our teachers expected us to get ourselves down this hill. Couldn’t I stay on the bus and read?
No, I couldn’t. So I slid down on my butt, in the plaid seersucker shorts I wore. (It was a rare hot day or I’d have been in Danskin pants.) When I got to the bottom, the thin fabric was ripped, my Carter’s underpants rust-red from dirt. All in all, a recipe for huge, indelible, elementary-school misery.
Why had we gone to Kirby Cove on a field trip, anyway? Who knows. I recall no lesson, no educational takeaway—nothing—of that field trip but the excruciating slide down the hill and my mother’s face, a few hours later, when she picked me up at the school parking lot and saw my shorts.
Last night, I dreamed of that day. In the dream, I was staring at a narrow rocky ledge and wondering how I’d get across it. In the dream, I recalled those shredded seersucker shorts. In the dream, I imagined that if I were a lizard, I could negotiate the precipice quite well.
About ten years ago, I fell into a deep trench of despair. For more than a year—I can point to the day it started but not, exactly, to when it lifted for good—I existed at the bottom of a place out of which I thought I’d never, ever climb.
Every now and again, I dream that I’m back there. The dreams are vivid, unrelenting, heavy as lead. There is no pushing out of them. When I wake, in that split second of waking, my entire being suffuses with relief. Thank God. It was just a dream.
But why? Why am I dreaming of that place? What are dreams like last night’s telling me? My beloved husband sleeps beside me, a re-financed mortgage keeps a solid roof over our heads, my students just handed in the best work yet of the term.
Let’s see. Here are two possibilities: yesterday, I attended a requiem eucharist—a funeral I wept at the hymns and the homily, in mourning of the generous, strong woman who’d died, but also of my mother, my father, my brother, everyone I’ve loved who has died. A funeral service alone, however uplifting the final hymn, however ever-present the message of resurrection, could make me dream of loss and despair.
Possibility #2: a few nights ago, I listened to my writers’ group say that they were ready for something to happen. On the page, in my novel. This didn’t come as news; I knew myself that it was time for some action, time for the characters to act out. I just wasn’t sure how. My readers made some wild suggestions—lose the point of view of one character, have another character do something tawdry out of desperation. Not so wild, as we thought and talked about them. Well worth considering, and trying.
But here’s where I freeze up. I have, stashed in computer files, umpteen versions of this novel, earlier incarnations of the characters’ thoughts, interactions, behavior. Considering something new—something large-scale and new, not just a different word here or a tighter syntax there—throws me.
Think of it as fun, one of my group said. An adventure. Maybe this will be the piece that makes everything fall in place!
I’m the girl, remember, who wanted to stay on the bus rather than go down the hill. What if I fell? What if I hurt myself?
My dream answers the question. Yes, you’ve been hurt. We all have. You survived. Put yourself back on that precipice. Slide on your ass or crawl like a lizard—you may rip your pants, but you’ll get where you need to go. And, maybe, just maybe, you can make your characters get up and run, slippery pebbles be damned.
What dreams have recurred for you? What risks do you need to take in your writing?