” None of us can understand what possible use we are in this world; it’s one of the deeper mysteries. Rarely, grace comes to us in the form of another person who tells us we have been of help. But usefulness is not something we can know, or claim, for ourselves…” (Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, pg. 208)
I had a disturbing dream about vocation, failure and limited usefulness this morning, only to awake and read the above passage.
In the dream, I was new to a job as sort of an executive assistant to a woman of much responsibility and limited patience. She reminded me somewhat of my godmother: a nice woman, but self-involved and notoriously controlling (a classic ACOA). At least I think that “executive assistant” was my job –not that the job description is clear… not like “plumber”. However, I was not clear on what my own responsibilities were to be.
I tried to subtly get it out of my boss, just what we were doing and what my part in it would be, but she was rushing from one mundane task in her office to the next so quickly that she barely paid me any attention. When I tried to ask how her weekend had been, just to be friendly, I got the equivalent of a blank stare.
So I went back to my own desk, partly to look for clues about “What next?”
Now this is where the surreal, dreamlike atmosphere kicked in. For when I opened a box on my desk, inside was a Western Ornate box tortoise, whose skin on his legs had somehow come off, leaving only exposed, whitish flesh and muscle. He was in very poor health– half-dead, really. But when I put him down he did try to walk away.
[I should note here that I have owned turtles as pets, as an adult, and the last one “escaped” from our yard due to my own stupidity and was lost to us from then on. And I should also note that the turtle is sort of my personal “totemic” or symbolic animal… so he was me, to some extent –a part of me that is once again being neglected or abused, like the malnourished lion chained in my garage from my dream two months ago.]
I felt guilty (a common theme lately, in dreams and in real life), like I had absentmindedly neglected this wounded, decrepit turtle for too long. I was also confused and upset, because I certainly would not have let him get like that if I had only known he was in there, that his care was part of my job. So it was a dream about powerlessness, mostly. And dreading how things can “get away from you” when not properly maintained. Then, when he morphed into a vulnerable, dying, malnourished runt of a duckling– just a day old, still sticky from breaking out of the egg — the feeling of powerlessness was complete. I was fairly certain the duckling would not make it.
Cut to a new scene, in which I am in my employer’s cluttered car, searching unsuccessfully for something under the passenger side seat, and amidst all the clutter on the floor. Meanwhile, she is in the driver’s seat. [And BTW, no, the implications of this image for a married man are not lost on me… ] There is not a feeling of dread at first, but of hope. I expect to find what I’m looking for. All I find is a broken mini-stapler, which is not what she needs. Then, while I am half out of the car, kneeling on the pavement, she begins driving. I try to act like this is all normal. I get up and slowly jog for a few paces beside the car, trying to say something to achieve closure, and trying to close the door. But I’m having a hard time closing it… whether due to the physics or my own weakness, I don’t really know why. So eventually I let the task go, and she drives away, with the door still flopping a bit, and me with no closure, no more sense of “Now what?” than I had at the beginning.
So that’s the essence of my latest dream.
The dream was partly coming from a place of wandering again, professionally speaking. Because I just finished my second term teaching writing at a career college — my first time teaching adults for pay — and found that I didn’t like it much. Partly it was the student body, and the “let’s just get through this” attitude they brought to this required course. Nor do I know if I was useful: I gave guidance and spread seed that did not seem to sprout in the sloppy, mediocre work the students were turning in, and I became discouraged myself. So we were all somewhat going through the motions by the end of it all.
Now I am thrown back on the shores of unknowing again: how and where will I be of better use?