The taste of chaos in the early morning
rises in my mouth—an acrid mix
of iron casings, blood, and salt
Rows of houses collapse in dust
rusty shanties, rib-marked refugees
poke in the rubble for lost
children, whole cities fall into the sea
I run through outdoor markets,
gunshots at my back, fly down stairwells
stained with blood, jump on ships,
on trains, trying to evade
every kind of last catastrophe—
and quakes—all-out attack
by a faceless force
that cannot be escaped—
rape as an act of war—
A skull neatly sliced in half
with a machete, like a melon—
on top the open
dead eyes. On the bottom
the voiceless scream
I saw the towers fall
before they fell. They toppled
down in one fell swoop
I ran to call my agent
as if there was still some time left
to be normal
I dreamed the Virus
before 1981, before Kaposi’s
I couldn’t speak of it
I dreamed the seasons
out of joint—winter summer
spring—then fall, all
disordered—the sun’s too bright!
and casts its light—a nauseating
yellow—on a toxic world
The phrase climate change
had not yet been invented
Perhaps it is the destiny of every human being
to learn to live with catastrophe,
while only some dream
like Cassandra, as a warning—
dreams that show up
in the morning news, the stains of history
that will not be removed
The I of the dream is not an I.
I am not the dreamer. Nor are you.
The dream itself searches
for a fertile place to break through
With no protective skin she takes in
everything—her eyes wide
black holes of innocence—
I fear she’s gifted
with a burdened legacy
The guns of night
shattering her mornings, propel her
to questions of theodicy—
Mommy why do people do bad things?
Why does God allow it?
They say she’s mentally disabled
but I know better—she’s a shaman
of the ancient secrets—
Dreamkeeper of the sacred archive
of human pain and strife—
I suspect she’s one of the thirty-six
hidden tzaddiks called the Lamed Vav
who preserve the world
through their oversized capacity
for tears. Who justify humanity
in the eyes of God
In dreams I am awake—
pulled down, then thrust
panting into morning, amazed
that I’m still here, and the world outside
my curtained room stays put
At night I see what my mind
refuses in the light. I find the gifts
the spirits give to those who see
in the dark
Gentle Wolf guides my steps
across the rough terrain
bright-eyed Snake, sleekly striped
red and black shows me how to dance
around the living Tree.
Tawny Leopard with the golden eyes
sits steadily at my window, teaching me
to sit with fear and make it my ally
These gifts the spirits bring
in dreams—to help me
make my life an offering
instead of a scream
Seeing in the Dark
When I was a child, my father listened to my dreams. When he asked me “What did you dream?” I understood him to mean that my dreams were important, worthy of my complete attention, and that they contained some valuable nugget of information to help me live my life.
Years later, I realized how rare it is to have a parent—much less a father—treat a child’s dreams this way. Jacob was an uneducated man from a small stetl in central Poland who, along with my mother, survived the Holocaust. Perhaps it was his lack of ‘higher’ education, in part, that enabled him to take dreams seriously in the way that he did. He was the first Dreamkeeper I knew.
From the age of fourteen on, I wrote down what I dreamed. Not in a pretty little dream journal, but on scraps of paper that I kept in a manila envelope hidden in my desk drawer. No one suggested I do this. It would be decades before dream journals became popular. It was 1961 and I was living in Queens, dreaming every night—often vivid, terrifying nightmares. I dreamed of people scattering in the face of a nameless Onslaught, of murderous forces approaching that would wreak unspeakable carnage. I dreamed of trying desperately to pack a single bag in time to board a train and escape. In these recurrent dreams, I was always left standing at the end, the sole survivor.
I was dreaming the Holocaust. And, more particularly, I was dreaming the contours of my mother’s story before I consciously knew it. What I dreamed, my mother lived. She and my father packed one small rucksack and left Lodz, escaping to the Soviet-occupied eastern section of Poland. There they were sent by cattle train to a Siberian gulag where people perished of hunger and illness, worked to death in the labor camps. When my parents returned to Poland, their families and their world were gone. My mother was the sole survivor of her family.
My dreams carried this history. They intensified after my parents told me a white-lie version of their survival—something about being hidden by a Polish farmer. But my dreams actually started before I was told anything.
How is this possible?
Dreaming in the Eternal Now
As far back as I can remember, I have been a dreamer of the dark. I have dreamed repeatedly of the suffering of human beings far away and unrelated to me. I have dreamed the past, the present, and the future. Through years of dreaming, I have come to know the feel of clairvoyant, prophetic, or shamanic dreams, to distinguish them from more idiosyncratic personal dreams.
In my early thirties I had a waking dream of a world-wide virus that would infect and kill millions. When I told my friends, they were alarmed—not by the vision but by the fact that I’d ‘seen’ this when clearly it is not something that could be seen. The year was 1979. Two years later, HIV was finally named, but only after years of the government and medical establishment looking away. More recently, the morning of April 14, 2013, I woke up with these words blasted like a headline across my consciousness: Terrorization across the globe while harrowing events strike here at home. The next day two pressure- cooker bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Dreamkeeper is a poem that documents some of these dreams and visions of destruction and catastrophe that I have experienced for the past four decades—the mayhem of war, the displacement of refugees, the AIDS virus, the collapse of the Twin Towers, and climate change. The poem’s imagery comes directly from these dreams and visions. In a sense, the poem is a record of memories. The memories are not solely ‘mine.’ They are memories of humanity and of the earth itself.
Not all of these dreams were about events that had already happened. Some were memories of the future.
The first time I realized that I had ‘pre-cognitive’ dreams, as they are called by those who study so-called paranormal phenomena, was after a dream I had in my early twenties about my father. In the dream, he lay on the ground as a fast-moving car came rumbling towards him. He looked totally panicked as he saw that any minute now, he would be crushed under the wheels. I awoke in a sweat but couldn’t call home because I was on a Caribbean island and it was long before the days of cell phones. A week later, when I returned to Boston, I immediately called my parents and asked if Ta was ok. I told them my dream and my mother told me the following story:
About a week ago, your father was standing on a train platform waiting for a subway from Manhattan to Queens when he dropped his eyeglasses on the tracks. Like a fool, he jumped onto the tracks to get them. As he looked up, he saw the train approaching and panicked. A young man jumped in and dragged him up just before the train came into the station. If not for that man, he would have been crushed.
In my dream it was a car, not a train, and the dream cut off before the heroic rescue. There was enough similarity, though, to give me pause. But the real surprise came when I asked my mother to tell me when this happened. My mother was a stickler for details and had a memory like a steel trap. The date she gave me was a day after the night of my dream. So my dream came before the event.
How is this possible?
Mother’s Second Sight
When I was young, I understood dreams like this as a kind of psychic fluke. But becoming a mother considerably ramped up my awareness of the seemingly impossible ways of dream and vision.
I was thirty-four years old when I had my first child, Aaron. A year before, I’d had a vision while in the yoga corpse posture. I saw bright blue blazing eyes and felt a terrible jolt of fear. I heard the words, These are the eyes of your son, your firstborn.
I shivered the vision away, wanting to forget. But when Aaron was born, when he was limp and unresponsive, when the nurse whisked him away, when the doctors said that he seemed to have suffered some intrauterine event that damaged his brain, and especially when I looked long and hard into Aaron’s bright blue blazing eyes, I remembered my vision.
I remembered ,as well, the dream I’d had in the eighth month of my pregnancy, that this baby would be a boy who came early. He would be beautiful, long, and pink, and there would be a question of whether he had an infection, whether he would live or die. In the dream the baby was perfectly calm and omniscient. He spoke with his eyes and said, Don’t be afraid. I’m alright. The dream ended with great joy in my living child.
Much of what I saw in dream and vision came to pass: Aaron was born early, beautiful, long, and pink, with bright blue eyes. I prayed that the end of the dream would be realized as well.
But Aaron did not live. He died in my arms, never having left the hospital. The night before his death, I dreamed that menacing dogs were barking at him, as he lay encased in a box with clear plastic around it. The next morning the doctor was puncturing his spine with a needle, worried that he had an infection. He was taken to the ICU and placed in an oxygen tent: a small boxseat with plastic around it. I insisted he be removed so that my husband and I could hold him while he died. It took Aaron as long to die as to be born: six hours and twenty minutes. He died at 4:48 in the morning, the same time, to the minute, that he was born, 66 days before.
The morning of his funeral, as we placed his small casket in the ground, I heard the words, as though whispered in my ear: You are looking in the wrong place. My attention turned from the casket to the open sky, which was blue and cloudless. And I saw there what I can only describe as a magnificent radiance, the light of Aaron’s eyes, magnified. His communication was clear: Don’t be afraid. I’m alright. I was flooded with a kind of bliss that cannot really be described, certainly something one doesn’t expect to feel while burying a child. I was an agnostic, a humanist, a social activist, not a true believer or religious person. Yet, in this most unlikely place, putting my baby’s body into the earth, I discovered a world inhabited by spirit—a world that no doubt had always been there, but that I hadn’t been open to seeing.
Pregnancy and childbirth amplified my ability to dream and to see. I saw that my next child, Anna, would be a girl and would be born with the first January snows. I knew that she would be fine. And so she was. I saw Esther a month before her birth, a gentle soul with clouds hanging over her head. Esther was born with multiple congenital disabilities both physical and mental. The clouds are still there, but she, more than anyone, has taught me to see the sun through the clouds.
In the Tungus language of Siberia, the word ‘shaman’ means one who sees in the dark. In my reading about traditional shamanism, I have learned that a shaman is often initiated with some dark, life-threatening illness or near-death experience. It is not unusual for a shaman to dream of her children before they are born or even conceived. Motherhood at the extreme, at the portal between life and death, was my initiation into shamanic ways of knowing. And motherhood has been my continuing education course.
I didn’t choose Dreamkeeping or shamanic ways of knowing. I didn’t decide to see Aaron’s eyes before he was conceived or born, or to undergo my own ‘near death’ in accompanying him through death’s doorway. What I have chosen is to not turn away from what’s been given to me. It has taken me years, decades, to accept the gift of seeing and dreaming; to overcome my resistance to restructuring my entire understanding of reality. Years of fear—the fear of being ‘different,’ of being seen as crazy by professionals in my field, of bequeathing the capacity to dream and to see to my daughters, knowing how much they might suffer from this kind of sensitivity.
But the spirits have never let me off the hook. They keep on teaching me and I keep learning as best as I can, reluctant mystic that I am.
While cutting-edge quantum physics hypothesizes about parallel universes and the simultaneity of all time, I can report from my own experiences of dreaming and seeing that time is a convenient illusion, and space is not what we think it is. Our conditioned way of perceiving time and space limits us to what is right in front of us when we are in fact capable of seeing the past and the future, of dreaming events that have not directly happened to us, of healing at a distance, of knowing beyond the five senses—through dream, through vision, through communing with and listening to the spirits that share the earth with us.
In many ways, a child’s social conditioning and learning about the world can be compared to a kind of repetitive hypnotic suggestion. We are hypnotized to consensual ‘reality’ as children, and from then on can only see through our very limited frame. Or, to use a scientific metaphor, we are like a small number of brain cells that get turned on by social learning, while the vast majority remain unused.
What we do not learn as children, or unlearn as we grow up and develop a conventional ego, is our interconnectedness in the web of life—the connections between ‘me’ and what some call the world soul or Anima Mundi. Some indigenous peoples believe that we dream the world collectively, that the reality ‘out there’ is what we have interwoven together from our dreams and nightmares. While this may the case, the Dreamkeeping I speak about in this poem is not about ‘creating’ reality. It is about being interconnected, for better and for worse, in the collective realities, the communal dreams and nightmares of humanity and of the earth.
Another way of putting this is the simple phrase I heard from a mountain in Vermont: Everything is spirit. And in spirit, all life is interconnected.
Everything Is Spirit
Through decades of dream and vision, I began to apprentice with spirit animals and plants, to learn from living animals, to work with herbs and stones. In every instance, these allies and teachers came to me when I most desperately needed them, as well as in more ordinary times. Some of these are animal spirits mentioned in the poem: Snake introduced me to shamanic power and made it clear that it was not ‘my’ power but could be used to serve others and for the purpose of healing. Wolf has carried me through many difficult passages. Tree in the poem came in a dream. I am also very grateful to a Camperdown Elm I met in an open field, who tapped me on the shoulder and made it clear that inter-species communication is of great benefit to both humans and non-human sentient beings. Leopard came in a vivid dream to teach me how to sit still and not scatter in the face of fear for my child’s life. Grandmother Spider, who doesn’t appear in the poem, has been a stringent teacher of patience and faith in the midst of grave dark nights of the soul when my older daughter became ill. My prayer to Spider is the one I repeat each day: Teach me to listen. Teach me to see. Teach me to know. Teach me to be.
These spirits, and the blessed spirits of my father and mother at their deaths and after their passing, remind and reassure me that we are not alone.
The Open Heart is the Doorway
The doorway to vision and to spirit—known to indigenous people, taught to me personally mostly through the examples of my father and my daughter Esther—is the open heart.
The heart’s way of knowing opens the door to the stars, to non-limited seeing and healing. This form of perception and cognition is not recognized in our culture and is often pathologized. Ours is a culture of hyper-rationality and pseudo-rationality that masks an underlying, profoundly destructive irrationality. The Final Solution was considered, in Hitler’s Germany, a rational solution to the nation’s problems, a way to rid itself of a national poison. “We had to bomb this village to save it” made sense to the Pentagon during the time of the Vietnam War. Wall Street’s madness, which would bankrupt the whole world for the greed of a few, continues unabated. And ecocide—human beings destroying the ecological underpinnings of the earth that sustains us—has brought us to the brink of the unthinkable.
The crisis of ecocide demands no less than a total rebalancing of mind and heart, reason and emotion, spirit and body, light and dark, in order to see, to know, and to feel what we are actually doing to the earth, to the animals and plants, the air and water, and to ourselves.
Whether humanity will rise to the occasion is an open question. Hope for many may not be possible, but faith is necessary.
Faith in ways of knowing and seeing in which we connect to the spirits of the earth seems to be one of the most critical things being asked of human beings today. What I call “carriers”—people who carry the memories and collective experience of sentient beings in this age of ecocide—are in a sense carrying this consciousness for the world. The more fragmented, dissociated, benumbed and addicted we become, the more out of our bodies and hearts human beings get—the more carriers and Dreamkeepers have to carry. In my experience, it is becoming more difficult to be a ‘sensitive’ at this time in the history of the world. It is getting harder to breathe, to live in balance and stay attuned to the spirits in a world that seems hell-bent on every conceivable kind of destruction and distraction.
I see this in my daughter Esther, who has the most open heart and exquisite sensitivity of anyone I know. Esther, it seems, was born without the filters that most of us humans have, the blocks and walls we use to compartmentalize, deny, and rationalize in order to live with the unacceptable. Esther dreams frequently of violence and sorrow. Fortunately, she has never known any personal violence. She dreams of guns and death outside her own personal circle of experience. Every act of destruction, every mutilation of the spirit, every unnecessary death affects her—she feels them in her heart and they haunt her dreams. When she cries, it is not about being disappointed or frustrated personally—though her life is riddled with disappointment and frustration. She cries for the dead, and for their families. She cries at every anniversary of 9/11 and at every mention of war. “My heart hurts,” she will often say.
As she grows older, her hurting heart becomes more of a problem. Her anxiety has increased from year to year. Her unprotected, open heart is beginning to constrict, the pure sweetness tainted by the world’s suffering and evil.
So it is for all of us, though perhaps not so obviously. As I know well, sensitivity in the interconnected web of life can have its drawbacks. It can lead to illness, to being overwhelmed, to being diagnosed as mentally ill. It can take its toll on our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
Still, we who carry the dreams of the world—seers, visionaries, and mystics—if we are to remain true to what is real, must not be tempted to engage in a spiritual bypass of the darkness on the planet. We must take care not to be seduced by the kind of spirituality that says only light is real.
More than ever, we are called to carry together the massive destruction of the times in which we live. What we know, what we remember, what we dream is no less than the collective travails of the earth. And from these dreams—I hope, though there are no guarantees—we will be given the gifts of insight, wisdom, imagination, creativity and energy we need to help heal ourselves and the planet.
Seeing in a Time of Ecocide
Some may ask, what good does it do to dream? To live with a heart open to the broken heart of the world? To see and feel the collective suffering on the planet? To be able to foretell terrible events?
Will feeling and knowing that we are all connected in Spirit and having the ability to communicate with spirits save the world?
No one can answer these questions with any degree of certainty. This much I know: by some mysterious cosmic calculus, what we dream and see, what we carry, and what we do—the acts of love, however small, to which we commit ourselves, and how we commune with the spirits of the earth and the cosmos—make a difference.
What will come of these communications cannot be predicted. But I choose to place my faith in the essentialness, the urgency, of these connections. And I know without a doubt that there are gifts that come to us when we know how to see in the dark.
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About the Author
Miriam Greenspan, M.Ed., LMHC, is a psychotherapist in private practice, consultant, author, and internationally-known workshop leader. A pioneer in women’s psychology and psychotherapy (author of A New Approach to Women and Therapy, 1983), her work, for more than two decades, has focused on a holistic mind/body/spirit model of emotional healing. Healing Through the Dark Emotions: the Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair (Shambhala, 2003) was a Boston Globe bestseller and won the 2004 Nautilus Award in psychology for “books that make a contribution to conscious living and positive social change.”