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She Who Dreams
A Journey into Healing through Dreamwork
By Wanda Easter Burch, Katharine Farnam Conolly, Carol Venolia
New World LibraryCopyright © 2003 Wanda Easter Burch
All rights reserved.
dreams have been an active part of my life for as long as I can remember. My dreaming, and my sense of the magic of dreaming, arises from my childhood in the South. For me, there has always been a magic about the South that I never found in any other part of the country — a connectedness with ancestors, with a remembered past, with traditions that go back to times before memory, and with the indomitable pull of the land itself. That magic surrounds a southern child in music, art, speech, song, and religion — in the way things are approached, in the way things are done, and even in dreaming. Being southern is more than a geographic statement; it is an inescapable state of mind, even when a person born in the South moves away. Some part of the heart or soul remains in the South and travels back to its southern past to find answers to problems, to find healing, and to find the magic that originally brought harmony to life.
My dreams were cherished and encouraged by the people I most loved. My great-grandmother, a woman I met only once, passed down to my maternal grandmother her strong belief in the reality of dreams and visions as well as her knowledge of roots, herbs, and the healing properties of woodland plants. My grandmother embraced her mother's gifts and shared them with me. In her sharing, she became a spiritual presence in my life, not only while she was alive but also after she died and appeared as a guardian and guide in my dreams.
My grandmother was a strong, proud Irish-American woman, intensely independent and resourceful. Her life combined the rigid tenets of a rural southern Protestant upbringing with Celtic and southern hill-country magic, ritual, and a gift for healing. The link between me and my grandmother seemed more genetic and intense than any of my other familial bonds. An important gift from my grandmother's past was born into me — an imprint of generations of southern women healers that seemed to skip her own children and become part of me. We were both aware of the transmission of that gift, which created an invisible, unspoken connection between us from the moment of my birth.
My grandmother was part of my birth and my growing. I was born in a small hospital in Cullman, Alabama. My mother, one of nine children, lived with my grandmother for the first year after my birth while my father looked for a job and a place for his new family to live — not an easy task in the years immediately following World War II. My parents had met in Mobile, Alabama, during wartime. My father worked as a mechanic on the Memphis Belle, a military aircraft, and my mother tested bomb connections in a munitions factory. They married as the war was coming to an end, at a time when housing was scarce or nonexistent and jobs were even harder to find. My mother was also ill; my birth had been difficult and not well-tended. My grandmother brought me back to her house in the Alabama mountains, bathed me and rocked me during the first year of my life, and sang lullabies to me as my mother regained her strength.
When I was one year old, my parents moved to Memphis, Tennessee. My father had found work as a mechanic in a new GE lamp plant, where Christmas-tree lights were made. Our house was in the rural outskirts of the city, a cotton-market boomtown steeped in the traditions of the Mississippi Delta: blues, Beale Street, rock 'n' roll, and the Peabody Hotel, the social embodiment of King Cotton. I grew up at a time when the city was swept away by its infatuation with one of its more famous residents, Elvis Presley — a tangible icon who signed autographs and passed out presents to throngs of children in the local five-and-dimes.
The home I grew up in was a small, government-built house that my parents purchased before the landscaping was even completed. Engulfed by the sprawling city of Memphis, the property had originally been surrounded by dirt roads, fields, and the large old sweet-gum trees that now bordered the new driveways. One of those massive sweet-gum trees grew near the end of our driveway, where a gleaming white concrete sidewalk had just been poured. One of my earliest memories was of watching the tires of my tricycle crush the bulbous green seed bouquets of the sweet-gum tree into the white grains of the new sidewalk. The new driveways glared against the remains of the old forests that had once comprised the larger landscape of the Otsby Plantation. The plantation, already reduced to the size of a large city lot when I was a child, disappeared by the time I grew up, giving way to low-income housing, an indifferent kind of slavery perhaps just as insidious to a neighborhood as the slavery that provided the livelihood of its earlier population.
playmates in paradise
I was an only child, growing up in this close-knit suburban neighborhood of other families with solo children, all living in a maze of backyards bordering each other in a quilt-like configuration. We were a strange tribe of children, with no siblings, no stories of rivalry, no dramas of first-born, middle-born, or last-born, and no one to blame but ourselves for our joys and follies. At the time, I never considered the odds of there being so many single children in one neighborhood, all within playing range of each other. There were seven of us with interconnecting backyards — a giant jigsaw puzzle of landscape that allowed us acres of space, endless choices of climbing trees, and the push-and-shove "dare-you" joy of wriggling through the grates of the underground ditch that became our secret passageway from one yard to the next.
As a group, we were loved by our parents and abused by no one but ourselves — and then only over important things like land boundaries or the directorship of the latest play, copied from popular children's magazines (I was always the director). We constructed sets from leftover lumber scraps, set up kitchen chairs, and made costumes from scarves and old clothing, even using the huge sycamore leaves to weave head-dresses or what we perceived to be native garments. I was the "middle child" of our strange community of only children, and I could out-manipulate all the others. I shouted orders, corrected lines, and even attempted to settle disputes over who was going to play what role. We put on the plays with our makeshift sets and peculiar costuming to an adoring audience of parents. We played out endless episodes of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, gender not being an issue, and we married each other in mock ceremonies using bouquets of Queen Anne's lace.
At least three times a week, we went to the local Baptist church as a group. By the time I was twelve, I could sing every verse to every Baptist hymn. We all sang in the choir, struggled in our total-immersion baptisms, and suppressed giggles as the latest revival minister sprinted across the stage in his white-patent-leather loafers declaring his devotion to a Maker who wouldn't allow us to dance together but had the power to snatch this man or that from the bottle, or from drugs, or from wicked women, or from whatever fashionable hell was the latest style for summer saviors.
There were no air conditioners in the early fifties — certainly none that a simple working-class family could afford. Midday was too hot for hard playing, so in the heat of the day I would sit in front of the electric floor fan quietly reading the piles of books I'd checked out from the bookmobile. The droning hum of the fan blew air across my body and flipped open pages from the topmost books. Sometimes I read aloud while my mother crocheted intricate patterns of lace and flowers that became doilies and antimacassars. My father worked odd shifts at the lamp plant, and I would wait for him to come home and read to me as I curled up on the old maroon chenille sofa decorated with large white feathery plumes. As he read, I traced the plumes and grooves on the ornate wooden arms with my fingers. During the day, my friends and I read together, too, sitting in backyard swings or small sandboxes, huddled in patches of shade cast by newly planted trees. By the age of twelve, I had read every book I could borrow from the library or the bookmobile.
When the sun moved out of the midday sky I romped the neighborhood with two girlfriends who lived on either side of my house. We were more like sisters than friends. We biked and skated and played house from one porch to the next, arguing incessantly, breaking ranks only to buy ice cream from the traveling Good Humor man whose horse always stopped automatically under the large sweet-gum tree. We raced toward those wagon bells every day as though our lives depended on it. The Good Humor man waited patiently as we scrambled to mothers for dimes and nickels to buy confections on a stick that began melting before we even pulled the paper away.
There was an unspeakable sadness among us when the horse was replaced by a twirling, carnival-like ice-cream vending machine. When the horse left, the black vendors who cried their wares on the streets, with huge baskets of tomatoes and other vegetables balanced on their heads, also seemed to disappear. It was as if an era simply ended the last day the horse stopped under the sweet-gum tree. The black ladies dressed in silk and organdy, with colorful hats peppered with artificial and real flowers, also stopped singing and dancing their way to their Baptist church. The icebox disappeared and the iceman stopped delivering the huge kegs of block ice, carefully pulled out of his cart with the large black tongs. The milk bottles with paper caps and three inches of heavy cream on top disappeared from the front porch where they had always been placed in the early morning before I awoke. And an image of myself, dressed for church in white dotted swiss, sitting on the front steps bellowing with laughter at some unknown piece of joy while squeezing candy in my small hands, also disappeared. Like a special dream, I still can fill in the details missing in the photograph that captured forever the child wearing the dotted-swiss dress. I was about five years old in that photograph, the age at which I began to have dreams that I would recall in adulthood.
the ritual of dream-telling
Every morning when I was a child my mother would ask me, just as she had been asked when she was a child, "What did you dream last night?" However, the question was asked only after certain conditions were met — conditions that seemed to bear important consequences if ignored. The dream-telling could never be before breakfast; the meal had to be completed, or else some sort of bad luck would result from the improper timing. I never knew what bad thing would happen, but I never questioned the condition. And I understood that if I waited until the proper time for the dream-telling, a bad or frightening dream could not come true. On the other hand, recounting a good dream was like acting it out; the telling seemed to solidify its reality.
When I became an adult, I met people from Australia, Italy, and other cultures who recalled similar rituals of telling dreams at the breakfast table, usually after the meal. Like many such rituals, the reason for waiting until after a morning meal seems to have been lost. Even today, my own family sits down with tea, coffee, and muffins before we begin to share our dreams from the night before. Perhaps we digest dreams in telling them the way we digest the morning meal — a refreshing beginning to the day if it is a pleasant dream, an opportunity to explore and share the dream if it's disturbing. I recently became aware of the continuation of the ritual of dream- telling in my own family when my three-year-old grandson toddled in from his bedroom, sleepily stared at his morning pancake, took a bite, and then with a huge grin asked if I wanted to hear his dream. We recall dreams best in the morning when we wake up. In fact if we do not write them down, hold them in our thoughts, or share them we lose them, so we wake up, come to breakfast, a common experience for most of us, and tell the first story important to us upon waking, which is probably a dream. The habit of telling a remembered dream before it slips away then becomes a ritual.
Attaching disaster to breaking the order of a ritual — the bad thing that might happen if I told the dream before breakfast — appears over and over in the rituals of our lives. I recall, like many children, the rhyme "step on a crack/break your mother's back," chanted as we leaped over sidewalk scoring lines. At first the rhyme was silly, then it took on a realism that was threatening if I stepped on a crack while thinking of the rhyme. I would cautiously check on my mother when I came home after a harrowing two-block walk over multitudes of sidewalk lines. No wonder I still wait cautiously until I have at least taken a sip of tea before I share a dream.
My father scoffed at the daily ritual of dream-telling that my mother and I enjoyed. He never shared our enthusiasm and was reluctant to tell his own dreams. Instead, he joked about dreaming or casually quipped that he had "dreamed he was awake but woke up to find he was asleep but dreaming still" — possibly a statement that revealed more about his dreaming than he was willing to admit.
As I grew older, I became aware that my mother told her dreams because she was always expected to tell them, not because she was particularly intrigued or moved by them. Dream-telling was a tradition in her childhood home, a part of her life when she was growing up, but the individual elements of each dream held no interest for her. The importance of dreams was instilled in her by her mother, my grandmother, but she usually remembered dreams only in general terms. However, she was aware of the precognitive nature of some of her dreams, and when I was a child she shared a favorite dream of a yellow dress. When she first moved to Mobile and met the man who would become my father, she dreamed about her first date with him and the purchase of a yellow dress for the date. She left work and went to the local department store where she found the dress from the dream. She was so stunned that she traded hard-to-come-by sugar-ration and stocking stamps to buy the dress. I loved the dream of the yellow dress, not only because I was intrigued by a dream that could play itself out in such a magical fashion, but also because my mother had saved the yellow dress. In my young mind, the physical presence of the dress was the same as waking, like Sleeping Beauty, into a dream. It was a magical dress. I would play dress-up in the yellow dress and pretend that I was dancing, winning beaus on the ballroom floor or finding the man of my dreams, who was dazzled by the dress that had emerged from a dream.
discovering meaning in dreams
My mother believed that if she dreamed about someone, the dream indicated illness or other bad news about that person. This notion may have been translated into the southern mountains from the Celtic tradition of tragic ballads and stories. In many of these songs and stories, dreams of people spun themselves out alongside visions of owls and doves as omens of death and disaster. Lovers would see each other in dream graves or murdered in visions, then appear in the ballad or story as post-dream apparitions in bedrooms, parlors, or on gloomy hillsides on foggy nights. In my grandmother's old house, cousins often gathered at night in the warmth and light of the enormous parlor fireplace and spun tragic yarns of death and woe, reminiscent of an ancient Irish or Scots bard telling a story or singing a family ballad that inevitably ended in death and despair. After all, life was difficult on a small cotton farm in the hill country. Doctors were only available when they made their rounds; families lived miles apart; and tragedy played a major role in every family's life. I heard my mother tell stories of children who died in flu epidemics and farmers who were killed in terrible accidents with old hand-plows pulled by irascible mules, and the story of a young girl who choked to death because her brothers couldn't get her back to her family in time to save her.
If my mother's dreams were precognitive, they may have described the pain and sorrow of the families who worked difficult land in a time of economic depression and war. Pleasant dreams were incompatible with hoeing cotton in the hot, rutted fields of small, self-sufficient farms. That self-sufficiency, a seemingly sweet goal, was hard-won by the families who toiled against bad weather, insects, and the cursed invasive kudzu vine, planted across the south by order of a well-meaning president.
Excerpted from She Who Dreams by Wanda Easter Burch, Katharine Farnam Conolly, Carol Venolia. Copyright © 2003 Wanda Easter Burch. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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