Can I tell you a secret? I’m afraid of the dark. Growing up, I sometimes felt like we lived at the crossroads of Real-life and Crazy-Town, where most roads actually led to Crazy-Town.* Supernatural beings cluttered our house, and I was aware, from a very young age, of the reach of their collective gazes. I internalized them like some Foucauldian Panopticism. They settled like dust on the furniture, splayed themselves across corners like cobwebs and hovered faintly in the air the way last night’s dinner always hangs half-fragrant, half-rancid on the drapes. At night I shrank from those beings—good or malevolent—as I stared into the shadows that danced around my room taunting me.
We moved every three or four years because my dad was in the military, and each time, I hoped that they’d be left behind. My mom was, after all, a masterful packer and purger; she had to be with all of the moving. Somehow, though, those “spirits” seemed to follow us from house to house. If we argued on Sunday morning while our family prepared to go to church, it was always the “devil” intervening and staunching our joy in the process. On the other hand, whenever something good happened in our lives, whenever convenience and chance collided to produce some unforeseen outcome, it was always through the hand of God or the Holy Spirit. Wherever I turned, the supernatural world orchestrated our daily lives and decided our eternal fates.
It’s no surprise, then, that when we argued or when I took a position my mother found problematic, she leapt to demon possession. She didn’t mean to be cruel. She actually believed in the possibility. “Did you see that in her eyes?” she’d ask my dad in a heated moment between us. And in the midst of an argument I’d think, frantically, “What? What did she see?” Terrified, I’d scan my outsides and take stock of my insides, trying to ascertain what it was, exactly, that she had seen.
Later that night she would lay prostrate across my body, deadweight, her hot tears scalding salty tracks along my arm. When she left, I’d trace the length of them and count them in the lines—those lines of self-loathing and fear—that I’d carved into myself. In those moments with her, I held myself perfectly still and tried to take slow oceanic breaths, even though I was terrified, hoping she would think I was asleep. She prayed over me in Korean, demanding that the unclean spirits leave my body, seeking mercy for my soul and pleading peace for both of us. Perhaps if she’d prayed in English I would have rolled my eyes or laughed or told her to go away. But there was something about the urgency and ferocity of her prayers in Korean, that hard syllabic certainty, that cowed me into silence. Instead, I waited, wondering if that night would be the night that something horrible would exit my body, Exorcist style. Eventually, she’d drag her exhausted and fear-laden body off of mine. Sometimes she’d go off to her own bed, the click of her bedroom door serving as a Pavlovian signal of safety and sleep. Other times she’d return to those household chores that she’d put on pause as she attempted cast out my demons. Often, I’d lie there for hours afterwards, watchful and still, waiting for my body to betray me. After all, what do you do when the monster you fear most isn’t lurking beneath the bed or skulking around in the closet?
I wrote, in another post, about the productive side of fear. But fear is also, of course, incredibly destructive. It’s a master dissembler. It gives us lies in truth-colored wrappers. It transforms otherwise innocuous shadows into our worst nightmares. It urges us to flee though nothing pursues us. It prompts us to attack when there’s no danger to be found. Knowing now what I do about my mother and about her own difficult past, I’m able to understand a little better how I might have begun to take the shape of her fears. I became the specter of all her missteps, misfortunes and all her might-have-beens. When she looked at me, she saw all the lies that fear had fed her about herself writ large on my body, and she wanted to save me…from myself, but more importantly perhaps, from becoming her. In the process, however, we became monstrous together.
In the months that followed my mom’s death and in the midst of all the grief and disorienting chaos, I found that I was terrified again. Even though I don’t really believe in the spirit world, the nighttime hauntings of my childhood stayed with me. I was afraid to be alone in my house, especially at night. I was afraid to sleep. I was afraid to dream.* Drawing on cultural and religious confirmation, my mother treated dreams as sacred texts. They were signs that she lived by. For me, however, they were just dreams. Fodder for a creative life? Yes. The important symbolic working out of day-to-day glitches and deeper traumas? Sure. But signs and divine/prescient messages? No. So when one of my parents’ congregants told me that she’d dreamed of my mother—they’d met in a stairwell and my mother had assured this woman that she was okay and we shouldn’t worry about her—I was surprised to find that I was pissed. What business did this woman have dreaming about my mother? Then, I was hurt. Why had she visited this woman and not me? I felt instantly foolish because I didn’t even believe in those things, right? There was, I suppose, a small part of me that was still waiting for my mother to be right, for the spirit world to be blown wide open the minute I closed my eyes. If that were true, what other things would I have to accept? And then I just felt relieved that it hadn’t been me who’d had the dream.
*Among the many things my mother passed down to me, one of the most powerful is a rich and vibrant dream life. I remember my dreams on a weekly and almost daily basis. I’ve learned to slip back into them after waking in order to finish a narrative arc. I’ve discovered that I can change the landscape and rewrite outcomes. I’ve taught myself to fly in moments of danger. I can call up familiar dream worlds again and again.
I’m not sure how I survived the next five or six months. I stopped dreaming altogether. Probably because I stopped reaching REM sleep. I hovered, instead, somewhere in those four stages of NREM sleep, exhausted but safe. But as the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death draws near, I’ve begun to dream of her often and without fear. In my dreams, we are both exposed and remade a hundred times over, not into romanticized selves that we weren’t and would never be, but into selves that we’d forgotten and had begun to be to one another when she died.
The other night as my son and I looked for the moon before bed (his newest bedtime ritual), the cord from the blinds rustled in the breeze and cast a momentary shadow on the ceiling. Before I processed what it was, my heart began to race and I gasped involuntarily. “What is it, mommy?” my son asked, his voice tight with anxiety. I made my voice light and easy, “it was only the wind, sweetheart, rustling the strings. It just surprised me; that’s all.” I’m determined that our demons not be his. In these iterations to him—where strings are just strings, chairs are just chairs and shadows are just the product of object and light—the night has begun to take on less terrifying shapes. And in those small pockets of peace, in those moments of relief from the fear has that threatened to terrorize and consume me, I suspect that, after all, I’ve found the thing my mother wanted most for me.
(August 11, 2014)
It’s not my dream. I feel the foreignness as I slide into it, liquid and warm. It’s her dream. Flecks of gold fall from the sky landing on my eyelashes, caressing my cheeks and covering the ground. It glitters. It’s too bright to look anywhere but at her and even she is too much to bear as she shimmers in the mid-day sun. She is me and not me. She is the first face I can recall and the last face I see each night.
She comes to me across the field and offers me her gift, “this is all my love for you.”
I take the small, slippery pearl and swallow it whole; it fills up all the wells of longing in me. “Spin me,” I say.
Hands clasped in hers, she sends me soaring—arms outstretched, feet flying behind me. She spins us out of time. I am five. I am ninety. I am fifteen. I am ageless. I am dead. I am born. I am alive. I am all the things I’ll ever be and all the things I never was. And for a moment, together, we are enough.