Recently, I shared a dream about a hawk, and explored ways of working with dreams that present us with our “problems.” Since I wrote that article [“Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Finding Meaning in Problem Dreams”], more hawks have appeared both in my dreams and in my waking life. They seem to be heralds of a new way of seeing and being, presenting me with a challenge to open my eyes, my mind, and my heart to new possibilities.
The hawk in my previous dream was a juvenile Sharp-Shinned Hawk: a small hawk that generally hunts in forested areas. Within a week of that dream, I saw a hawk exactly like this in two different places. Both times, the hawk appeared unexpectedly, landed close to me, and seemed to look straight at me. Up until then, I’d seen many adult Sharp-Shinned Hawks, but no juveniles. I knew from the field guide that juveniles have different markings—plain brown and white, rather than the more detailed adult markings—but I’d never encountered a juvenile up close (except in my dream). Seeing these juvenile hawks when I did seemed significant. At the very least, it suggested to me that my dream was both meaningful and currently active in my life.
Then, I had a second hawk dream about a different kind of hawk: a Kestrel. A Kestrel—also called a Sparrowhawk—is a very small falcon with extraordinarily colorful markings. Kestrels hunt by hovering high in the air, beating their wings rapidly in place (like “treading water”), looking for their prey below. This dream also includes my deaf black cat, Toby, who died of a neuro-muscular disease (not too different from the neuro-muscular disease I’m coping with myself) last year, while he was still quite young. He was a sweetheart, very brave and innocent, funny and affectionate—I’m still wrestling with his death, not fully able to accept it.
Toby Wants To Fly: Toby’s on a leash outside with me, and I need to get him home safely. I lift him in my arms, holding him tightly, and hurry. It’s a long way. I have to get across a large, busy intersection and traffic circle. We’re surrounded by loud trucks, car horns, shouting voices, city sounds… I’m so afraid that Toby will get spooked and struggle to escape, but then I remember that he is deaf, so of course it isn’t noisy for him. He’s alert in my arms, looking around with calm curiosity at everything.
We get beyond the city, and I have to climb a little hill covered in low, heather-like shrubs. Suddenly, a stunningly beautiful Kestrel flies right up to us, and hovers in the air at head-level, just a few feet away—looking straight at us with a piercing gaze. Toby struggles to get free, to leap after the Kestrel. I cling to him, desperately determined to hold onto him. I can’t let him go. I know that if I let him go, he will die. I notice that there’s a second Kestrel in a bush nearby.
Having subdued Toby, I continue on over the top of the hill and begin to descend the other side. Now, it’s getting dark, and the downslope is treacherous because there are white plastic garbage bags full of some unspeakable, dead, rotting stuff scattered everywhere in the shrubbery. It’s difficult to pick my way through the shrubs, without stepping on those bags. Toby’s still wriggling. Perhaps this is a place where people come to do drug deals or shoot up, a real “dead end place.” I’m not scared, but the downslope is ugly, grim and sad. I need to get Toby home.
Because of his deafness and his obliviousness to danger, Toby would not have been safe outside; he was an “indoor cat” his whole life. I never took him out on a leash (except in this dream). But I loved to hold him in my arms, whenever he would let me, and I wished I could have held him like that forever.
Throughout the dream, I’m motivated by seeking “safety” and “home.” I’m apparently willing to ignore the powerful invitation of the Kestrel, because my strongest need is to get Toby home safely. When members of my peer dream group pointed out how clearly the dream was offering an opportunity to let go, I insisted that if I let go, he would die. Maybe I would die.
But the contradiction is evident: Toby is already dead. And this is a dream: Anything is possible. If I had been lucid in this dream, aware that I was dreaming, I would have realized that I could release him—he would go free, maybe fly into the air after the Kestrel. He could not be harmed. He is already home, safe. I’m the one who’s afraid. I’m the one who’s deaf to the call of the Kestrel, and who trudges on, “over the hill,” in the bleak landscape of decay and death.
This dream, like most of my dreams lately, reflects how I’m dealing with my own mortality and health challenges, and also how I’m seeking meaning in my life.
I have a disease (Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome) that makes me vulnerable in some of the same ways that Toby was vulnerable. I long for a safe place to rest, but, at the same time, I understand that my physical symptoms and uncertain prognosis put me in a situation that is potentially a spiritual opportunity. Every moment of every day, I’m meeting the unknown. I don’t know how quickly the damage to my upper spine and heart will progress—and I don’t know whether these conditions will cripple or kill me, sooner or later. I don’t know how to proceed with my work commitments, since my ability to undertake long-term projects is entirely unpredictable. I’m holding on, desperately, to the things I treasure about my life, afraid that the clamor of the busy world around me will sap my remaining resources, or distract me into wasteful, exhausting digressions. But I know from many years of inner work that this open-ended experience of not-knowing gives me a chance to question my assumptions, release my need for control, and surrender to the freshness of a life without agendas and absolutes.
Yet my dream tells me that I’m not as open as I truly want to be. I’m holding on tightly, believing that death, or at least a painful loss, is the inevitable outcome of a leap into the unknown.
What if I let Toby leap after the Kestrel? My dreamworker friends also mentioned the phrase, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The second Kestrel waits “in the bush” nearby. Both Kestrels are wild and free. My “bird in the hand,” my beloved cat, wants to be wild and free, too. But I’m holding onto him. I wonder… How am I holding myself back? Do I think that possessing my life is more important than living it?
On one level, my life is filled with unanswerable questions, and I’m thrilled by the prospect of living into the unknown. On another level, I somehow foolishly believe that I’ve got a grip on what’s in store for me, and I’m hanging on as long as I can, trying to keep the inevitable from happening. I believe (or I “know”) that everything is going to fall apart, the losses will accelerate, and then I’ll die. We’re all going to die, of course. We don’t know when, but we know that, no matter how hard we hold on, we will certainly die eventually. Still, we really have no idea when or how we will die, and no idea what “dying” means.
When I’m discouraged, I imagine dying as a certainty, a “dead end”—the inevitable “downhill” where, after all of the distractions and dissipations of a difficult lifetime have played out, we go “home” and it’s over.
However, ultimately, I can’t know this or anything else. I don’t know what death is. I don’t know what is going to happen to me, or to anyone. Not knowing is spooky, but the open-ended nature of life and death is much more real than my limited notions of “being realistic.” In hospice work, I’ve been with hundreds of dying people, and I’ve seen both of my parents, many of my friends, and several dear cats, come to the ends of their lives. But I’m deluding myself if I think I know where they have gone, and what death—or life, for that matter—really is. Our mortal lives are mysterious, wild, and wonderfully strange. The body is identified with the person—and then the person is gone (how? where?), and the body is empty. Maybe those Kestrels come to remind me that I really don’t know how much I don’t know. How is it even possible that “I” am here to question my own existence? How could someone as precious as Toby come into being, share his life with me, and then fly away into nothingness, completely out of my reach?
Honestly, I can’t hold onto anything. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, or to anyone. And that’s good. I’m trying to live, day to day, as if I were hovering, with rapidly beating wings, engaging with the world, really seeing and feeling my life, rather than trying to pick my way through a minefield of old, rotting assumptions (packaged up in neat, white plastic garbage bags). I keep seeing hawks in my dreams and in waking life, so I need to pay attention. Maybe you’ve been invited to pay attention, too? What invitations have you received and refused? Would you like to be free to make a leap into the unknown?
The Kestrels are calling all of us. Toby can fly, and so can we.