After living in Australia for more than half my life, I found myself back in England last month, standing in front of one of my childhood homes. Although I had revisited a hundred times in my dreams over the decades, I hadn’t made the physical trip to the south coast to trace those early years until now.
We moved into this particular house when I was two, and left when I was nine, but it doesn’t look the same. It’s been done up, transformed, and probably for the best, but just a few houses along was the little triangle of grass that served as a meeting place for those of us that were big enough to be allowed to play beyond the second lamppost in the street. It wasn’t just any old triangle of grass. Ours was special because of the acorns that always seemed to pile in abundance beneath the oak tree there. I used to collect the acorns, make things from them – fairy cups, I think. But most of all, I used to sit under the tree and contemplate those acorns and the miracle of how a tiny acorn could become a huge oak tree.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered, last month, that the triangle of grass and the oak tree are still there, more than fifty years on. The tree was old and misshapen, but the acorns piled beneath it were as fresh and new and full of promise as those of half a century or more ago.
It’s a bit of a cliché, the acorns growing into oak trees analogy, but it was deeply meaningful and encouraging to me as a small child, and a model that I suspect is firmly rooted given my ability to plod through the millions of small steps it can take to grow big visions into reality. And the fairy cups are there too in the sense of magic and awe that breathes so much life into my everyday.
But of course there are other deep roots that formed for me in childhood, some good, some not so good, just as there are deep roots that formed for you too, whatever the shape of our different upbringings. The beauty of working with your dreams is that you get to discover those roots – those beliefs about life, especially the unconscious ones – to see how they still affect your life today, to enhance the nutritious ones and to do a little medicine on the more unhelpful or toxic ones.
Dream work can reveal the tiniest events – the seeds, the acorns – that grew into those deeply rooted firm beliefs. Such is the plasticity and vulnerability of a young child’s mind, eager to absorb, learn, and protect itself from harm.
My brother keeps a photo prominently displayed in his house of my sister and I cuddling a chimpanzee. I’m about nine, my sister is about seven, and my brother would have been about two at the time. The photo had been prominently displayed in our home while my brother was small, and for many years he believed he was the chimpanzee. Apparently I had told him about evolution, and along the way he believed that he started life as a chimp before he evolved into a boy. We’ve known this story for so long that, weirdly, we all refer to the photo as being of the three of us.
Last month we decided to reshoot the photo with my brother in place of the chimpanzee. It was hysterically challenging trying to recreate the same expressions, and I wish someone had videoed our efforts and captured the hilarity that led to the final result.
In the original photo my sister and I are in our best (matching) clothes, so it must have been a big day out, but where? I knew the photo well but didn’t remember where it was taken. I imagined we were at a zoo, but our family didn’t really do big outings. My sister remembers standing in front of a painted screen on a pier at the beach to have the photo taken. It turned out she was right when we searched through some old photos and found a copy with ‘Clarence Pier, Southsea’ handwritten on the back. Memories of the same event can differ, be imaginary, or, in my brother’s case, be totally and wonderfully surreal.
In a similar way, dream work can help us to separate the real from the imagined, to understand the origin and evolution of our memories and beliefs and how they affect our lives, and, once enlightened, to use dream alchemy techniques to reshoot and create new memories and better ways forward.
Oh, and talking of magical trees and the beauty of life and dreams, the header image is a photo I took while visiting Avebury, near Stonehenge, the site of the largest stone circle in Britain. After I took the shot I discovered it is a famous wishing tree: the person I spoke with said her wish was granted.