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This old photo of me captures a moment with our family cat. I was in college, studying literature, and I was home for Christmas. People from my small upper Michigan hometown are forthright folks. When I’d first left for college, crossing the border to Wisconsin for freshman year, they freely shared their opinions about studying English lit. Most thought it fine, but one person memorably furrowed his brow and asked, “Why would you study that?” Then he counseled me to take a class in shorthand so I could support myself. I didn’t do that. I wanted to be a writer. So I went off to study what other writers had done. My favorite thing about a university is that you meet people from everywhere. I loved taking my more urban college friends to my hometown, driving up from Madison in the wee hours. I’ve been thinking a lot about one of those trips. The memory is a mess of emotion, tied up in love and loss, and lately, in realizations about the thin line between generations. I should warn you—there are flying saucers involved.
My father loved a good flood. Where I grew up, along the Michigan/Wisconsin border, there was a lot of open country for a flood to roam. Of course, floods aren’t always well mannered—they’ll hollow out the ground beneath roadways, roil and crash through a town. Still, there’s something beautiful to see when water summons its power, washing away all in its path, bringing life and renewal. My parents had grown up in the area, too. The photo above is of my dad. Notice that the road behind him is covered with water. He and Mom were on their honeymoon and had just bought that new car. My father was raised on a farm, was practical in the way of someone who knows the earth’s cycles. He’s been gone from this world for eight years now, eight years of missing him, especially in the spring as the snow melts and waters gather.
When I was small, I began having a recurring dream. I was on my own, with no adults along, traveling the world aboard a wooden sailing ship, the sort of ship that billowed its sails through the Errol Flynn, seafaring movies my parents used to watch. The crew of my dream ship was a happy group of penguins. The birds could talk. They were charming and kind, pointing out dolphins or seabirds overhead, roughhousing, getting into exuberant tussles. Each wore a sailor’s cap and a belt—no pants, just a belt. The only thing the cook knew how to cook was spaghetti! That suited me fine. I loved my mother’s spaghetti. I would have eaten it morning, noon, and night, just as my sailing penguins did. In the dream, I felt loved, free. I had the penguin dream repeatedly, until at some point approaching puberty, the dream never came again. Some of the things I’ve written—poems, a narrative thread in a story or play—have grown out of my dreams, usually my wildest dreams. But recurring dreams are the most interesting. They offer powerful clues to what’s going on in the hidden self and, in my case, are a wellspring for art.