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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.
I gave the ball of dough a final pat, washed my hands, reached for my phone. My husband was nearby, playing with the dog. It was January 6th—Congress was tallying Electoral College votes, but our TV was turned off. I didn’t care to watch members of Congress object to certain votes, from certain states, making claims of election fraud without any evidence. I spent most of my working life teaching freshman composition. Wherever I taught—community college, private school, or university—even the freshest freshman-comp student knew better than to advance or accept unsupported claims. It’s a good life skill. You can ascertain a truth through evidence, but acting on feelings without proof is a way to get duped. Evaluating electoral counts certified by the states wasn’t Congress’s constitutionally assigned task, nor was it their right. I don’t believe that people in Congress are fools, so I had to conclude that something disingenuous was happening—something for show. I wanted to keep tabs on what was happening at the Capitol, but not get too preoccupied. So the TV was off and I was making an apple pie. As American as apple pie. It seemed symbolically right, on such a significant day in our national election cycle. But before the pie was in the oven, I was calling it my Insurrection Apple Pie.
It’s Christmas Eve, a day of gathering for my family. Please consider the hands in the image above. I took the photo seven years ago, at a family graduation party. Something about those clasped hands made me quietly snap a picture. The hands in white are my mother’s. The others are my Aunt Nancy’s. Here’s a poignant fact. My mother is at that table with three of her sisters-in-law. Now two of them, Fannie and Elsie, are gone. Only my mom and Nancy are left—and they can’t be together now, because of the coronavirus. Lately, I’ve been exploring my family history on my mom’s side, a kind of coping mechanism against the pain of the pandemic and this wild year of politics. (I shared stories from my dad’s side in an earlier essay—“Farm Boys: Lessons for the Pandemic.”) I’ve read historical accounts authored by, or contributed to by, a number of my relatives: my grandmother Hilda, Uncle Carl and aunts Mildred and Ingrid, and a distant cousin whom I’ve never met. As I expected, the reading has provided a kind of focus and relief from anxiety. What I didn’t imagine was how deeply that looking back would affect me.