“For Tree Mother talks with the Forest People while they are asleep more often than when they are awake. They do not remember the words in the morning, but they remember the meaning.”
-Ethel Cook Eliot, The House Above the Trees
The House Above the Trees is a heartfelt tale of childhood and growing up, of finding that we can see, realizing that we are loved, and choosing that we will love others. When my niece is older I’ll take her out beneath a tree (or climb her up into one) and read it to her.
In the book, Tree Mother cares for the Forest People who live “past the edge of the light.” I love that she usually speaks to them in dreams. (In The Apology, Socrates describes his conscience as a voice that sometimes tells him, “No.” It does not tell him what to do: but when he is about to step wrongly, it urges him against it. I’m not sure I agree–I think I do feel a positive push, a push to help–but the idea of an almost-silent guide, never explaining but sometimes pointing, sticks with me). Words are difficult. Words get me wrapped up and tangled, because I want to believe something that sounds good. But beneath the words there is a quiet push, a meaning, whispered in our dreams.
I don’t think this dream-whisper always leads where we should walk. I sometimes wake up with a quiet meaning that pushes towards anger, or selfishness, or greed. There is an ache in my heart that wants desperately to be set above others, to be better. But I also wake up with a quiet meaning that pushes towards kindness, curiosity, and effort for us all. When we can feel all of these dream-whispers, deeply feel them, and balance them in our hearts, I think they guide us true. We need both selfishness and selflessness: if we didn’t care for ourselves, we wouldn’t be able to care for anyone for very long. A bear defends her cub with her love for him, but also with her anger for whatever would hurt him. When the balance between them seems impossible, we need to start deeper: we need to return to the dream-whisper and remember what it said more clearly. When I do that, I think the push to set myself above others was really the push to be loved, the push of greed was really the push to reach into the world and find it rich, and the push to hurt others was the push to find a safe place–for myself, and for us all.
“Remember” comes from the Latin re- (“again”) and memorari (“be mindful of,” itself from memor “mindful,” which reminds me of Memir, the Norse giant who guards the Well of Wisdom and knows all). These dream-meanings are the seeds of my life’s garden. Uncared for they can grow unbalanced. Unthinking, I stumble out into them, clutching at the thorns not the flowers, tasting the branches not the fruit. But if we let our hearts still like water in the creek’s pool, if we are again mindful, then we’ll know how to water these dreams. We’ll know which parts are thorns for our protection (good in their place, though ready to cut us if we try to eat them), and which are fresh fruit.
In the silence after sleeping, before the rush of argument and opinion, we can hear the meaning if not the words.