I had this dream upwards of a year ago. But still it clings like cobwebs in my mind, refusing to be brushed aside or forgotten. Every second of it is crystal clear in my memory. And only recently did I realize its full meaning.
I tread cautiously up the twisting rickety staircase to the attic. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but I know it’s up here somewhere. Creaking as I ease it back on its hinges, I open the door and enter the small room.
The only light comes from the little gable window opposite me. The room is almost empty, and smells of old dust. A vase of fake flowers stands limply off to one side, a broken lamp beside it. Varying pieces of artistry to varying degrees of skill lay scattered on the other side, forgotten and lonely. Beneath the window, instantly grabbing my attention, is a chest. Old, wooden, leather bound, haloed by late afternoon sun, it beckons to me.
I pick my way over to it and drop to my knees. It doesn’t look to have been touched in twenty years, maybe longer. Like Eve plucking the forbidden fruit, I snake out my hand and try the lid. Surely it would need a key… But it opens without resistance, and in a mixture of eagerness and trepidation, I peer inside.
The first thing that draws my eyes is a stack of books, no, journals, bound together with string. I’m drawn to them, why exactly, I don’t know. Did they strike a chord of familiarity? Carefully I unwind the string and begin to turn the pages, flipping quickly in some places, reading slowly in others. Pain. Heartache. Bitterness. They stare up at me in stark words from the pages. Threads even of fear, vengeance, rebellion and despair creep in through the all too loud voice of insecurity. My own heart torn as the words cut deep, unprocessed by my mind but felt by my heart, I return them to their resting place. I can’t read more. It’s too much.
I reach for the lid but instead pick up a sheaf of photographs. Faded, framed with heartbreak and anger. I shuffle through them. Little children playing on a bright carpet. Building snowmen. Being read to. Over and over again, the same children, the same girl. She was growing up. Her smile was changing. I watched in horrified fascination as it went from joyfully childish to spunky teenager, and then to something that stung like a blow. Sadness, depression, anger, hurt… A broken heart burning from her lips. My hands shake as I hold the pictures, unable to comprehend the depth of pain scrawled on her face. But the harshest is yet to come.
At the bottom of the collection I find two torn pieces of a picture. Hardly daring, I line them up, squinting to make out what it had been. A man, broad-shouldered and laughing, his eyes sparkling like the sea on a bright afternoon. The little girl sat on his shoulders, clinging to his head, a hand covering one of his eyes, a chunk of hair caught in her mouth. She was laughing too, eye-squeezing, belly-wrenching laughter.
“No,” I whisper, choking on a sob. I shove them back in the chest, struggling to force myself to close the lid again. I can see more in there. Anguish unspoken trailing trough the interior, resentment lurking in the shadows, darkness, hurt and loneliness only finding voice to cry out here. In this chest, crammed with buried memories. They reach up to me like ghosts, crying to be brought back to life and light.
I hear a sound behind me. Before I can move, a woman is there, slamming the lid closed. She slides a key in and locks it. Turning, she leaves me without a word. Scrambling to my feet, I run after her, feeling the urge to explain, despite the embarrassed guilt burning in my cheeks, feeling the need to ask questions and have them answered.
She shuts the attic door behind me and leans against it. I try to speak, but my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth and I can’t manage a word. She flashes me a look that pierces my heart. And then I know. I know everything.
I never really bought into that “dreams telling you stuff” or “revealing your true subconscious thoughts” or any of that. But this probed so searingly, so truthfully revealingly deep, that I was forced to notice. I don’t know exactly what I believe about this dream, whether it was actually telling me something from deep in my subconscious, or something else, or nothing at all. But here is what it made me realize.
I was trying to bury my past. Locking it away in a chest, somewhere deep inside me, where I can deny its very existence. Memories locked away, hidden and denied. When I climbed those attic stairs, I was journeying into myself (Inception style… actually, very much like that, come to think of it), seeing my own deepest secrets, searching and probing my own pain. I was inside myself twenty or so years from now. I was witnessing where the road I was taking would lead. The brokenness, the denial, the damage. I would be unreachable, my vulnerability protected by a guardian who would allow no one to open that chest. The journals? Absolutely real, every word I said about them, everything I felt about them in the dream, the truth. The photographs? I made them up. I don’t really remember what each one looked like, only a sense as I went through them of what they made me feel. The last torn picture was not a real picture from my life, but was taken directly from the dream. It symbolized everything I’d lost when I buried those things. When I locked away the good with the bad, the happy with the sad, the beauty with the pain. Better to keep and treasure it all than to lose everything.
When we villainize our past, we lose the good in it. All the lessons it taught, how it shaped us and brought us to where we are, and how it is making us what we will become.
Denying our past does not stop it from affecting us every day. I was actively denying my past, consciously inventing my own reality to replace the one that existed. Imagination has its place, but when it threatens to damage or destroy us, we must draw the line. We must say, “no further!”.
Here is the scary truth about denying your past: It can cause you to forget the reality. Your little bubble of a dream world becomes your reality. Like Inception. Remember, never work with memories? “Because building a dream from your memory is the easiest way to lose your grasp on what’s real and what is a dream.” I’ll tell you: I have about… maybe four or so years just gone from my memory. I remember certain events that happened in that time frame, but only vaguely. Any emotion attached to those memories is just gone. MIA. What I thought, what I felt, how I saw the world, little moments and memories like I have at other times in my life are just not there. It’s all smudged out with distant feelings of incredible loneliness and hurt. I built walls around my heart (I actually said something like this in my journals at the time; see above about consciously denying and reinventing my past). I forged a shield to protect me from all outside forces. I swore that no one would ever hurt me again.
And now that I finally realize that this isn’t going to work, as I probe that chest of memories, I find how much is lost already. Blotted out willfully by my own hand. Torn in two by my raging hurt.
I’m trying to put the pieces of myself back together, because if there’s one thing I don’t want to become…
It’s the woman I saw in my dream.