The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.” — Mary Oliver
I enjoy Mary’s Oliver’s prose — as much or more than her Pulitzer-prize winning poetry.
Even when the full meaning of a particular passage is beyond me — like that last line about habits and dreams — I take pleasure in what I do understand. Like a small child at a Disney Pixar film, I don’t worry that others — with wider experience and better minds — will receive more than me. And who knows but that maybe, in some mystical way, my spirit absorbs what mind fails to grasp, since Oliver’s words fill me with hope of a better world. And a better me.
Sometimes it’s good to tarry over words, to not speed-read through life. Sometimes I linger over language with little choice — as I do every time I encounter a sentence that unites any form of the words ‘dream’ and ‘reality.’ Who knows why I wonder. What is it about these words — that their combined weight stops me in my tracks, at least within my interior world? And this, no matter how used and arranged to convey thought. Yet, I take comfort that in the exterior world, a blinking yellow traffic light cautioning me to slow down works to similar effect.
This hasn’t always been so. A reminder of a different reality sits on my desk, near my computer — an old photograph of Cousin Deb and me, taken by my Aunt Carol. As most old images do, this one bears a date stamp in the white frame surrounding it telling its age. It reads September 1957. Deb was three. I wasn’t yet two. And poor Deb’s doll, probably younger than both of us, looked older than its years.
This wasn’t the photo Aunt Carol wished to give me last August, the one Sis and she and I spent hours looking for. But I suppose she gave it to me anyway, to serve as an icon of remembrance — to help me remember myself as a young child. Perhaps even to help me remember her. But most of all, to help me remember her favorite, oft-told story of me that — though she tells it better — goes something like this:
One day, when I was not much older than that pictured child above, I turned up at her front door unexpected. She opened the door. Stepped outside to see who had brought me. To find no one. When she focused her attention back on me, I told her what had brought me. “I’ve come to play with my cousin.” As if running away from my young father — who was busy visiting with the shopkeeper of the local fruit stand a couple of blocks away — was no cause for alarm.
Strange how Aunt’s Carol’s recounting her memory of that day stirred my own to life, for I now remember walking down the street from the market, then crossing a bridge, wondering if I was on the right track. But too young to fear — too young to know I was throwing caution to the wind — I plowed on, knowing all would work out. Because the line between dreams and reality is all but invisible in a young child’s life.
Running away to chase a dream was something I did more than once as a child; it wasn’t difficult with Daddy left in charge. Unlike Carol, who was always immersed in reality, Daddy lived in a dream world of his own making. But no matter how different, they were close in other ways that mattered more. Surviving a tough childhood, they had learned to watch after one another. And in some ways, that never stopped — as I learned a few months after Daddy’s death — when Carol shared how Daddy was always after her to give up smoking. If not for her sake, then his, he told her. He didn’t wish to be left behind.
It took years. But Daddy’s hopes and dreams waited for Carol to catch up. Only later did I learn she quit smoking the day Daddy quit life. She went cold turkey, as they say, without special aids. Without much rhetoric. Without thought of consequences. Why the way she let go of that habit — to allow her reality to converge with Daddy’s old dream — was almost childlike.
Maybe this scrapes at the reality of Oliver’s dreamy last sentence. But if not, those words with their weighty meanings will wait for me to catch up.