Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Secret Garden, A Bad Dream

Monday, September 17, 2011—Irvine, CA

Hanging out on the IVC campus, killing time between my last class and the start of a talk I’m going to be attending this afternoon. The talk is on Andy Warhol as a portrait painter and is being given by Amy Grimm, a friend of mine here in the art history department. I’m really looking forward to it. The four o’clock starting time is a bit awkward (two or six would have been better), but it’s still doable. However, the minor hardship should be worth it: I’m really interested in the topic and Amy really knows her stuff.

The last several days have been a bit quiet and odd; I’ve been quite solitary, even by my loner standards. Part of this is because I’ve still been fighting a cold. It’s also been so hot and unpleasant (it got up to 103 in Long Beach a couple days back) that I haven’t been in the mood to do much other than struggle thru things I have to do for work and basic survival. Still, I’ve added a bit more to the third Backwaters book. I’ve also managed to study a touch more Greek than has been the norm of late. I’ve also been reading some interesting stuff. On a whim I picked up The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, from the Santiago Canyon College library last Thursday. This was perhaps my favorite book I read as a child. I’m about halfway thru it and I’m enjoying nearly as much as I did when I first read it at age seven or eight, (though in somewhat different ways).

In retrospect, I understand exactly why I liked the book so much when I was a kid. The idea of their being a secret place, a place where you an experience and create the beauty and hope that is not in the rest of your life is extremely compelling. But The Secret Garden is more than just that—it's a place where you can understand what beauty and hope are, and why these things matter. For me it was a way to help forget about, and in some small way attempt to transcend, all the things around me that were dragging me down: abandonment, divorce, forced relocation away from most of my family, psychological and emotional abuse (unintended for the most part), lies, raging ego, fear, being unwanted and completely misunderstood (or aunderstood—I don’t think anyone then ever really tried to figure me out) … I felt so much like Mary (the book’s protagonist), starting at about age six. I too was taken from the only place I’d ever known and placed with people who I didn’t really know and didn’t seem to have much interest in me (beyond the surface level at least). I too had to come to my own understandings about life with little in the way of adult help. I too found friendship in odd places, in my case (the occasional housekeeper, with whom I interacted with when my mom and stepdad were at work, sort of like Mary does with Martha). I didn’t find a secret garden, though—just a book about one. The magic of that book meant so much to me because my life had no magic—I just fought thru each day and was happy if nothing scaring happened.

Reading it today I realize that I’m still looking for my secret garden, my place where I can grow and matter and feel pure. In other words, I understand this book differently today because I’m coming at its truths from different angles, not because its truths have changed (by definition “truths” cannot change). In fact, in some ways I still feel like how Mary is first described before her transformation: ugly, plain, sallow, alone, unloved … As I read this book the last couple of days, I realized that the reason I’ve been so unhappy most of my life, am still not anywhere near as happy as I think I can be, is because I’ve thus far failed to fully become myself. I’ve yet to find the key to unlock my secret garden—I’ve found lots of keys and doors, but I never been able to put the right two together …

On a less harrowing note, rereading The Secret Garden has made me realize that I’m not comfortable with the way books are labeled as being for children, “young readers,” or adults. While maybe kids aren’t going get much out of James Joyce or Henry Miller, there is no reason why an adult can’t be enthralled by books like The Secret Garden or, say, A Wrinkle in Time (another one of my childhood favorites I plan on soon rereading). Growing up, by definition, is the process of trying to  come to grip with the wonders of the universe, both those enchanting and terrifying. I think a lot of us get lost emotionally beginning around our early teens and in a sense forget (or never fully learn—that’s probably more accurate) what growing up is—we begin to substitute the fears of those around us for what we know in our hearts to be true. By this I mean that we tie ourselves to notions of survival and leave the wonder of living behind, as if it was some juvenile misconception. I’m coming to believe that readers should return to their favorite childhood books periodically thru life, not as a way of hiding in the past, but as a way of reconnecting with fundamental truths of life. There is nothing to do with life other than live it. And there’s nothing more important in life than the warmth of the sun on your face or the feel earth or water running thru your fingers. Growing up is to take this knowledge thru all your life and use it as the basis from which you grow. Most kids get this, until they get it beaten out of them (sometimes literally) by adults. So to be truly adult is to avoid becoming an “adult.” Good “children’s books” are usually in some sense about this attempt, or at least the preparation for this attempt.

Had a very disturbing dream last night; I woke up at four this morning feeling confused and upset, a little lost. Some of the details are quite fuzzy now, but the dream was centered around what seemed like a kind of horseshoe-shaped set of buildings (where these builders were I can’t say—at one point they seemed to be in Hawai’i, but later I vaguely remember something about them being in New York). Some of the buildings are apartments, but others are businesses, all of which appear to be car repair shops. I’m in an upstairs apartment in one of the buildings. From this apartment I can see my old friends E— and S—. I’m looking down on them as they’re wandering thru the car repair places. I can tell that’s there is something wrong with them—they both seem to be severely mentally disturbed. The images at this point fragment. I remember S— rolling around in a parking lot next to a car that is being worked on. Later I’m talking to E—. I can tell he’s completely gone. I’m not sure about the reasons. He’s working a ridiculous number of hours; he’s so tired and burnt out that he basically work drunk. I remember as I’m noticing this he’s telling me how he’s just gotten another job. He’s also proudly wearing the work shirt from this new job. I’m not sure why I know this, but I’m aware that what’s also causing a lot of his troubles is that his marriage is falling apart. Is he working so much as a way to hide from this?

The situation for S— seems worse. He’s gone completely over the edge. He’s speaking gibberish, while wandering thru the various car repair areas. I somehow know his marriage is falling apart too, and that there are other horrible things going on in his life (what these are I either never knew or don’t remember). Later in the dream he’s basically raving. I’m in a car with him. He’s driving. There’s a roadblock and he immediately swerves the car into a detour that soon has us driving into a lake filled with milky, light-brown water. The car’s sinking and I have to pull him out the driver’s side window and drag him to the shore to save him (how I got out of the car I don’t know). By this point he’s making no sense. Later we’re dry and in some building, a restaurant or coffee shop or something. The cops come in and take him away. They’re treating him like a criminal and I don’t get why—he’s just sick and in need of help. For a moment his wife is in the scene. She looks like she did when they first got married, twenty years ago or whatever it was. She’s in her twenties, still has long hair. I don’t know why she’s there or why she’s so young. Other stuff happens that I don’t remember, which all revolves around the crack up of my two friends. Then I wake up.

What I found/find most disturbing about this dream is that the way E— and S— were cracking up was just how I know it would be with them if it ever happened in really life—I understood every emotion they were having , understood exactly how their issues were interacting with their basic personalities. It was incredibly painful watching these people I love go down like this. I tried to help, but could never seem to get thru to them, which also hurt. Life suddenly seemed very fragile when I first woke up from this dream. More disturbingly, it also seemed preordained—thru this whole dream I felt that I always knew this would happen to them and it had just been a matter of time. I don’t know what any of this means (I did when I woke up, to some degree, but now it’s nearly all gone).


helicopter steve (Estabrook) said...

Wow dude, totally disturbing dream.
Y'know I actually first read the Secret Garden fairly late, like 18. Now I want to read it again too as it had much the same effect on me. A Wrinkle in Time was always a favorite. She really conveyed the wonder of the universe in that book. Something I am trying to get back.

Rob Woodard said...

I hear ya - I've lost track of the wonder for a very long time.