Sometimes at night I dream that my children and I are lost in a stormy sea. Our boat is overturned and we can swim, a little, but we are no match for the currents. The water is fierce and deep and keeps pulling my children from my grasp. I grab one child, hoist him up over the bottom of the boat, then turn just in time to see another slipping away. I lunge with a mother’s determination, seize an arm and hold on tight. None of us is lost during the course of the dream, but by the end, I am despairing — knowing that someone will be, that I cannot keep everyone afloat forever. I wake in a panic. The dream feels too real. I don’t want to go back to sleep.
I first had this dream right about the time that my husband and I introduced our children — then two toddlers and a preschooler — to swimming, shortly before the Christmas tsunami of 2004. I think often of the mothers in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, Thailand and Somalia, especially after the dream strikes, especially this time of year. I cannot imagine how they felt as they tried to rescue their children from the waters, as they made impossible decisions about who to grab, about which way to turn, to run. It occurs to me that my subconscious is trying to work this out: what would I do in that situation? How would I make sure I saved everybody? As if such a thing would be possible, if only I planned properly.
It’s also a reasonable assumption, I think, given my worries and sadness about the war in Iraq, that my dream relates to my grief about the young lives being lost in the Middle East. I feel helpless to do anything to stop the violence. I wonder if the generals on the ground, if George W. Bush, if the mothers and fathers of the soldiers serving there now, are ever haunted by a similar dream.
And then there is a third dream interpretation — more subtle, less dramatic, but one that is important especially, I think, because it represents a threat to my family I may actually be able to do something about. In this version, I am not just the rescuer; I am also the child. One theory of dream interpretation holds that every person in a dream represents an aspect of the dreamer. Yes, I am the mother, the rescuer, the one who tries to keep everyone safe. But I am also the one being buffeted by an overwhelming force, the one in danger of slipping away, of drowning in a sea of things that choke and buffet those I love.
This is the image that comes to me on Christmas Day, as I gaze at the ocean of wrapping paper and plastic packaging that lies discarded on our floor. There is no room to walk. And this was the year that we decided to scale back, to take it easy, to get a grip on Christmas commercialization in our family. Two or three presents per child, in addition to the tangerines and yo-yo’s and dot-to-dot books in our children’s stockings. It seemed perfectly reasonable. So why, once the presents were opened — and the radio-operated dinosaur and dragon were roaring, and the puzzle pieces were strewn about the floor — did it all feel so overwhelming?
This example is trivial in contrast to the potential real-life drowning of children. It is also very, very tangible and immediate. Some days, it feels like things are, in countless small ways, squeezing the life — or perhaps just the patience, the once-pleasant disposition — right out of me. No wonder monks and nuns take vows of poverty. Who could be holy while managing several people’s mountains of crap? “You know the value of every article of merchandise,” writes my beloved Rumi, “but if you don’t know the value of your own soul, it’s all foolishness.”
As a family of five living in a two-bedroom bungalow, we’ve always struggled with space. I bought the little house in 1995 for myself, thinking I’d live there a few years before moving on to something bigger and better. But then I got married, and then we had kids, and then our children made wonderful friends their same age, who live right on our street. As it turns out, we can’t imagine anything “better.” But bigger, we need. There’s no quiet space in this house where I can work, no room of her own to which we can send our daughter when she loses her temper and a needs a place to cool down.
So my husband and I recently decided to embark on remodeling. The architects are finishing our plans; we’re about to choose a contractor. Soon, we’ll move out for the duration and have already begun the initial packing up. As I dig through the detritus of the playroom — broken crayons and plastic Polly Pocket dresses, old Tak and the Power of JuJu toys from Happy Meals and smashed plastic fruit for the play kitchen — I think, How did we get here? The basement is filled with hand-me-down furniture from my parents (what to do with the old wooden cradle I slept in as a baby?), games with missing pieces (and random pieces with no games), a busted puppet theater and broken play fishing rods with piles of plastic fish, and years’ worth of paperwork to be sorted and filed. In the kitchen: junk drawers crammed with missing buttons, curling 32 cent stamps, dead batteries, rocks collected on family vacations, and plastic thing-a-ma-jigs that look important, that surely must go with something. Everywhere I turn, there’s stuff that has to be stored somewhere, and nowhere to put it. It’s no wonder I feel like I’m drowning. No wonder, no matter how much I long to connect with the Sacred, I find it hard to slow down, to find a quiet spot; to relax, center, to be.
And so, while I tend to dismiss New Year’s resolutions as gimmicky and generally unhelpful, I also find myself facing 2008 with a sense of quiet resolve. The Year of De-Junking, I will call it. Or The Year of Pitching the Crap. I may be fooling myself. I know that a clutter-free house is not a prescription, per se, for a richer inner life. But I also know that I feel tired and overwhelmed, and that my spiritual development is the least of Madison Avenue’s concerns.
“Mama,” my son Will instructs me, after watching TV. “Don’t use scissors or craft cutters. Use Craft Light Cutters, and it comes with six craft liner cutters — things you can cut, and there’s zig-zag, too. You should really buy it. It’s really good.” He is a big fan of commercials and loves to tell me which air freshener, which laundry detergent, which lunchmeat I should buy.
“But it’s just a commercial, honey.” I tell him. “The people who made it just want me to buy what they’re selling. It doesn’t mean what they say is true. They’re tricky.”
“It really is good,” Will insists, and walks away, not believing my stubborn ignorance.
Rumi writes, too: “The mind is an ocean . . . I and so many worlds are rolling there, mysterious, dimly seen!” That’s not all that’s rolling there. As I pack for our remodel, I think about the Texas-sized “island” of garbage in the Pacific that I heard about not long ago on NPR — the plastic bags and useless paraphernalia thrown out by people like me, who have so much, and yet who keep on buying more. While filling bags and boxes with objects to sell, to give away, and to throw out, I think about the commercialization of kids, about the savvy marketers, and about my soul’s fight to stay afloat amidst it all. I think about a statistic I recently heard: that 99 percent of the products we buy become garbage within six months. I make fresh vows to stay out of the mall, not to buy another thing I don’t really need. I murmur a silent prayer that the new space our family is creating will remain spacious; that we will refrain from filling it with more junk — most of it produced by people who themselves have too little, whose lives are made worse by every inane purchase. And with each item I toss, I feel like I am reaching out a hand — to save my family, my children, my world. Myself.