We are lived by powers we pretend to understandW. H. Auden
I dreamt last night that I was on a large boat, a superyacht, with my father. We were standing on the top of the boat in a large dining/ballroom overlooking Sydney Harbour. It was dusk, almost night and the lights to the room were on. The room was panelled with polished wood, and carpeted in a royal red and blue plush with looping gold threads forming a Baroque pattern. It felt very luxurious. My father was complaining about customers who were renting the boat and saying that these overnight trips weren’t worth doing. He had a bottle of champagne that he was holding and he kept his glass full, forgetting to top up mine. He was moving around the boat in a distracted manner, belatedly moving to fill my glass whilst fumbling an apology, the dregs of the champagne hitting my empty glass.
When I woke from this dream my first thoughts were of the luxurious waterfront house we used to live in when I was a child. It was an obscene luxury. My expectation when I first sat to write about the dream was to be reminded of unhappy memories of that place, of nighttime fear and loneliness, of insomnia and sneaking down the stairs to watch rage at 4am, waiting for the dawn to banish my terrors. What unfolded instead was one of my most cherished childhood memories of my father. All of the family at the dinner table, in the dining room overlooking Sydney’s Middle Harbour, my father at the head of the table singing a silly song in a silly voice, laughter ringing out. This is one of my shining exemplars of ‘happy family memory’ and yet it was so long ago, maybe 1997, and in that expanse of time those happy memories, with dad in them, are sparsely dotted along that stretch of time.
I always thought and said to myself that I had a happy, ordinary childhood, but how true was that? There was such dissociation as a teenager: The TV, the playstation, the pornography. What was I trying to block out? Perhaps that is just how teenagers are, the changes and new drives in the body unbearable to wrestle with whilst trapped in the bonds of school and family. Maybe I just tell myself that I had a happy childhood because the opposite conclusion is unbearable. Whilst seeing a Psychoanalyst last year, I shared this belief of a happy childhood, in the guise of presenting a partial belief of having nothing to complain about in my upbringing, as though the comforts and privileges I was surrounded by removed any avenue for aggrievement. By removing this avenue I had frozen a cosmetic conception in place that felt like a betrayal to question or dislodge. Essentially I had erected a rigid taboo that stood as a critical judge against the psychological suffering that in the face of that taboo seemed inexplicable. It was only by questioning those assumptions that a crack appeared in the mask, allowing the beginning of some deeper insight to pour through.
Before my father left the family home, I never had any desire to leave Sydney. I had a deep love for the city all through high school and yearned to return whenever I was away on a family holiday or school trip. Coming back from a trip to a family friends farm and travelling north across the Harbour Bridge, I remember looking up at those iron arches and rivets thinking, ‘thank god we are home’. The desire to leave only came up at the start of Year 12, soon after Dad left. I remember coming home from school early one afternoon in Year 12, standing in the empty kitchen of a different, equally cavernous house and feeling a deep sense of emptiness and loneliness. At that moment, I remember thinking, “I have to get out of here,” and took a series of steps which wouldn’t see me properly settle back in Sydney again until my son was on the way fifteen years later.
What is interesting to note is the timing of this dream. I had a call from the head of a consultancy I applied to on Monday. Since finishing a terrible experience at a start-up in August last year, it has been the only role I have seen that interested me. I hadn’t expected a call back so soon and a part of me felt elated that they were interested in my application. I noticed two parts surface almost immediately: a somatically prominent tired part that felt drained and exhausted straight after the call, and an ‘excited/carried away part’, that ran off imagining grand possibilities and a return to some kind of status. A return to the world of performing, praise, recognition – of doing well! I wouldn’t have called it a polarisation at the time, probably because there was no wrestling internal dialogue, but in hindsight it clearly was. Exhaustion experienced somatically and excitement experienced imaginally; the former pulling down the latter up. Throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening I had an aching jaw. A deep ache, right at the back of my mandibles, in line with and just in front of my ear lobes.
I noted that the timing was interesting as the dream happened on the night following the phone call. I believe that my father in the dream represented the world of work and success in an imaginal or achetypal way. The luxury of the yacht, the view of the harbour, the pouring of the champagne, the apologies that he had nothing left for me. The waking flashback memory of the luxurious house, the image shifting as I wrote, to a rare imprint of a happy family memory with him front and centre. The dream woke me up at about the time they normally do, 430am, but there was no anger or sadness. Rather there was a sense of release and calm, an excitement and anticipation. Writing about the dream whilst my wife and son were still asleep, that happy image of dad, front and centre, fed into and was fed by the images and feelings from the dream. The memory I thought I was going to find when sitting to write (fear, emptiness, loneliness), wasn’t there, and instead I had the unexpected fortune of a cherished memory taking its place,
To come back to the champagne glasses, that image speaks to me as a symbol of my father saying in an apologetic way, “I gave you all I could. I am sorry that is all I had”. A wave of sadness came over me when writing that sentence and yet this is where the calm seems to emanate from. There was a recognition of a shift, an acceptance and forgiveness that says, “OK”, and says so in a non-begrudging way. Says it in a way that indicates that I have to live without his explicit guidance but that I have to hold the good of my father with me. The good that is represented in that image of him, front and centre, sitting at the head of the table, his back to the window, the harbour shrouded in dusk behind him and the sound of laughter ringing out.