I’ve been looking at one of my recent dreams from different angles, and writing about that process here, exploring the theme of homelessness. In the last post, I considered this dream as a literal description of the suffering involved when a homeless man must be separated from his beloved dog. Now, I’d like to take another approach, and try to understand the dream story in relation to my own life.
In the dream, a cold and ill homeless friend comes to our door, and we offer him food and shelter for the night. He is no longer capable of caring for his little papillon dog, and we must find a new home for her in spite of his unwillingness to lose her. The dream left me with many painful ethical questions about homelessness, autonomy, and responsibility, and I considered some of those questions in the last post [see “Dreaming of Homelessness, Part One”].
But the dream was especially poignant for me not only because it brought up literal concerns about other people who are homeless, but also because it evoked my own relationship to home, personal losses, and helplessness. Situations from the dream directly reflect the fact that I was far from home when I dreamed it (at the IASD conference in the Netherlands), and had just completed a difficult two-month pilgrimage, walking 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago.
During that journey I came to appreciate the intensity of the challenges that homeless people must face. At times, the relentless days and restless nights brought me to my physical and emotional limits, and exhausted my inner resources so that I felt profoundly vulnerable. When I finally came to the end of the long walk, I still felt dislocated and unclear about what I had learned, and so I dreamed of homelessness and helplessness represented by a dream figure with whom I could empathize. The painfully unresolved nature of the dream reflected many of my own unresolved feelings about my pilgrimage, and about other experiences from my past.
For me, “home” is a safe place—within myself and outside myself—where I can truly rest. It is a place where I am recognized and understood, a place where I trust my sense of self and my relationships with others. It is a place that offers physical and emotional security, and a certain amount of predictability. Archimedes said that with a long enough lever, he could move the earth—if only he had a place to stand. For me, home is a place to stand—and when I have that place to stand, I can live with strength, wisdom, kindness and courage. Without a home, I don’t know who I am or what I can do.
Actually, however, this definition of home sounds skewed. It’s certainly possible to feel insecure even in the happiest home. And how important is security anyway? What does it mean to be understood or safe?—I barely understand myself (thank goodness there’s more to me than I can rationally understand), and “safety” is conditional when we’re all mortal. Besides, needing to be understood and safe creates limitation rather than a true home. The kind of home that supports strength, wisdom, kindness, and courage actually arises more from shared acceptance of uncertainty than from having a solid place to stand.
Nevertheless, although I acknowledge the importance of vulnerability and openness, of having a home that’s more like a good pair of shoes than like a castle… well, this is my “growing edge,” which sometimes feels like the crumbling edge of a precipitous cliff. I’m not yet comfortable standing there!
“Home” is a big deal in my life. In my late teens, my family fell apart and I was homeless (in a way) for some time—never to the point of living on the streets, but dependent upon friends and strangers for temporary places to stay. I had few possessions (without a home, you can’t keep much), unstable health, little control over my circumstances, no luck getting work, constant uncertainty about finding food and shelter from one week to the next, and plenty of shame because others had to help me. So, even forty years later, it makes sense that when I undertook an extended pilgrimage in a foreign land my fears of homelessness surfaced right away—in my dreams and in my waking life.
Here’s an example of one of the more difficult, dream-like days on the Camino:
I wake up disoriented in a crowded hostel, with the sounds of snoring and stirring all around. It’s still dark, and I turn on my phone inside my sleeping bag to see what time it is, and to read my list of names and prayers for loved ones (my morning ritual). Then, I grope around to gather my belongings, and make my way out of the room, stumbling over other people’s gear scattered between the bunks. I slept in my clothes, so don’t need to get dressed. I just stuff everything into my pack, find my boots, and get going. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a chance to use the bathroom before too many others get in line. Soon, I’m out in the rain, hoisting the heavy pack, coughing painfully because I’m still getting over a respiratory infection and have a cracked rib.
There are a few people I’ve gotten to know leaving with me as it begins to get light, and we greet each other, but I soon lose sight of them as we make our way up the first steep hill, slipping in the mud. It’s six kilometers to the first small village where I might get breakfast, and it’s too wet to set down my pack or sit, so I press on, soaked with rain and sweat, along a highway, through pastures, past orchards and shrubby woodlands, until I come to a cluster of old stone buildings—many of them vacant and boarded up. There’s one bar/cafe here, but it’s not open. I trudge on. After a couple of hours, there’s another village, and a bar that’s jammed with pilgrims and all our wet ponchos and packs. I eat some toast with margarine and jelly, and use the dirty bathroom, then walk on for another four or five hours.
Finally, I come to the village where I’d planned to stay the night. There’s a long wait outside before the hostel opens; I’m chilled and shaky by the time I check in. It’s a big concrete bunker of a place, and I’m assigned to a small room in the damp basement, shared with five others. I’m given a tissue paper sheet, which I spread on one of the narrow bunks (to discourage bedbugs). Then I lay out my sleeping bag to save my place, and hurry down the hall with my dishrag-sized towel, to find the shower. The bathroom has a wet concrete floor, an open shower (no door or curtain, no hot water), two toilet stalls, and two sinks—to be shared by about forty people. No one else is here yet, so I get a bit of privacy.
After a cold shower, I look for the utility sink outside where I could wash my clothes, and the line where I could hang them to dry if it weren’t raining… I decide to skip laundry today, since being dirty is better than being wet. I hope it will be dry enough to do laundry tomorrow. Now, I have to go out and search the town for a grocery store (I find one, but it’s closed). I find a bar where I can get some heavy (but satisfying) food and a glass of cheap (but good) red wine.
I eat as much as I can hold, and exchange a few clumsy words with kind people who don’t speak English. They are patient and polite with me—with my rudimentary Spanish, my damp and bedraggled appearance, and my over-cautiousness about what things cost and what the words on the menu mean. I’m desperate to call home (my partner will be just getting up), but there’s no Wi-Fi because the electricity keeps going out. Three guys are standing in the open doorway smoking cigarettes, blocking air and light. There’s no cell service either… The lack of connection to home and family makes me almost panic. But I finish my supper, and go back to the hostel, and find my chilly bunk, and crawl into the sleeping bag, keeping my passport and cash and phone in my pockets, because losing them would be the end of the world. Overnight, I hardly sleep, and remember only fragmentary, confusing dreams.
Boy, that sure sounds bleak! My way of describing the day reflects how the world seems when survival and basic comforts can’t be taken for granted: it’s hard to appreciate the good things when the necessities of life require so much effort and energy. Most days were not quite that hard. And every day had something good to offer, in addition to the difficulties: Thoughtful and generous strangers; beautiful vistas and birdsong; small luxuries like finding a restroom that provided handsoap, or a bar with delicious, inexpensive food, or the occasional spacious and comfortable hostel. Still, it wasn’t home. And my fears of homelessness weakened me, making the challenges more difficult to handle, and the goodness more difficult to fully feel.
It’s evident that my dream about the homeless man was charged with the atmosphere of my personal associations. (See “Part One” for the full dream.) In the dream, I am not homeless myself, but must respond to the needs of this homeless dream figure. He is my friend, and I do what I can for him. I offer him the kinds of comforts I most needed when I was on the Camino: soothing food (soup), a warm bath, clean clothes, and a sleeping bag like the one that sheltered me every night.
But, in the dream, I also recognize that this homeless character is a troubled guest, who might have reason to blame me for separating him from his dog. He could be tempted to steal from me—so I remove my precious possessions while he is sleeping. Those possessions constitute my identity, personal history and resources (my passport and cash)—the same things that I protected so carefully during my pilgrimage journey. There’s a danger that the fearful, desperate part of me (the homeless man) could steal my identity, my self-possession—and I can’t let him do that.
Finally, in the dream, I seem to betray the homeless man in an effort to save him and his dog. I find a new home for the dog, and will be responsible for separating them from each other. Again, my personal associations are key here. If the man and the dog are both homeless aspects of myself, then I must take painful action to find a home for at least one of them. Perhaps the part of me that is the little dog will heal and be happy in her new home, but the part that is the homeless man will be wounded and may never understand why it had to be so painful…
I’ll explore the images of the man and the dog further in the next two posts, but for now I’m just aware of the poignancy of their separation in the context of my own life experiences. There’s suffering coming from fear and a sense of homelessness, and there’s a part of me (the homeless man) that feels victimized by the efforts I’m making to heal that fear by facing it directly. Through facing the fear and working through some personal pain and shame, another part (the dog), has a chance for a new way of life, a new home.
During my pilgrimage, I stepped into a kind of homelessness voluntarily in order to learn to relate to it differently. I wanted to free myself to be at home in my life, without depending upon absolute safety and predictability. In the process, I encountered everything I feared, and pushed myself very hard to cope with those fears, so I would no longer need to identify with them or be controlled by them. Gradually, I discovered that I am capable of surviving, appreciating, and even loving my life. I know I can feel at home with myself even when life is precarious, physically challenging, lonely, or scary.
At the time of the dream, right after my long walk, I was still bewildered by what I’d put myself through, still unsure of whether it had done more harm than good. But now, a month or so later, it’s becoming more and more clear that the painful journey opened up my world, giving me a new freedom, and a much larger sense of home. When I associate my experience of this transformation with the tone and atmosphere of the dream, I find that the dream resonates meaningfully, if painfully, and suggests the potential for deep healing.
But every dream has infinite potential, and there’s still much more in this dream that I haven’t yet explored. Maybe you’ve already noticed that the little dog was a papillon—and that “papillon” means butterfly? In the next post, I’ll look at the dream’s language, images and metaphors, which will take us beyond my personal story, through many more metamorphoses.