Childhood, Dreams & The Inner Artist
by Ann Sayre Wiseman
I dreamt my birth.
I was probably about three years old when I became self conscious enough to recognize I was dreaming. Parts of this dream recurred many times throughout my childhood. I call it....
The Why? Of Life Dream
I am an entity floating on a tiny pillow in space.
Far out beyond any limiting dimensions.
This atmospheric space is a universe of light.
A gentle, kaleidoscopic changing scene of pastel colors.
As I float in infinite freedom out into this tranquil sea
of space,I begin to sense my flight is caught in a
wide vortex which, little by little, pulls me in and down.
As my flight begins to spiral, the atmospheric colors
become more vivid, more primary.
I am being carried by a force I’ve never experienced before.
And as it takes me faster around and down, the speed
is frightening and the colors soon turn into black lava.
In anticipation of an explosion, I lose consciousness.
When I awakened, I was blinded by light, the taste
of rust was in my mouth and I knew that grown ups did not know the answers
to the why of life.
This dream recurred throughout my childhood but only in parts. The taste of rust, I later recognized is also the taste of blood. I remember at three, sucking pebbles on the roof of The City & Country school play yard and how familiar this rusty taste was. Something would happen that re-acquainted me with the pull of that vortex which governed and restricted my freedom. The lava came back to me as I felt compelled to taste the warm tar bubbles on the road in front of our summer house in Old Tappan. Speed has always frightened me. And in early childhood, I never felt people — because they are adults — could be trusted to know “the why of life.”
At three, on my first day at the City & Country school in Greenwich Village, I was given a fat paint brush, 6 pots of primary colors and an easel full of big sheets of white paper. That was the moment when I became an artist. I have come to believe that the inner artist is also in charge of the dream language and we all possess that inner artist, because we all dream.
Childhood, Dreams & The Inner Artist
The inner artist, in the interest of urgency, creates
a dream that describes a collection of feelings and she has the wit and
innate skill to use the picture language as a short-cut for describing
a wide range of complex feelings. In the interest of clarity, she uses
the metaphoric picture to translate these feelings, which are too complex
to describe in words. And all of this she does in an instant.
To get this kind of message across to the conscious mind, she often has to create several versions until we catch on, until we become familiar with her use of the language of imagery couched as metaphor.
Why the metaphor, we wonder? But if we think about it, it’s much easier for the conscious self to hear a metaphor than it is to hear a direct comment, especially if it is critical. In the early days, most life teaching lessons were told as metaphors, like AESOP’S fables. We like to learn indirectly; it saves face and feels better.... as though we taught ourselves.
I like to think that originality of dreams is a gift from the inner artist. Who else could think of such amazing things? She has been inside of us from the beginning, but it takes time to get to know her.
Though I’d logged interesting dreams since my adolescence, it wasn’t until I was forty and immersed in psychodrama and the expressive therapy training that I realized what a wealth of insights dream images could be. In fact, why waste time with talk and personal histories when the dream will take us right to the essential issue that is demanding attention. It is as though the inner artist knows better than our brains where to dig for help.
As adjunct faculty at Lesley College where I’d been teaching Methods & Materials for creative learning by doing, my courses were soon absorbed into the newly designed Expressive Therapies Department. We were all fired up about the powers of art as therapy, sanity, problem expression/solving and healing. I became so interested in dreamwork, so excited by dream imagery — what I call the ‘dart in the bull’s eye focusing tool’ — that I was hot to demonstrate my findings. I created an independent Masters Degree based on my studies and workshops with the most interesting innovators in the field of therapy at the time, including Carl Rogers, Dr. Kubler Ross, Zerka Moreno, and others. We lifted therapy out of the medical clutches and opened the doors for creative self expression.
This new Expressive Therapies movement was full of artists, dancers, poets and theater people. The new department allowed me a format to explore the power of the image using the tools of gestalt, psychodrama, Psychosynthesis and art. It was a very exciting time at the front line of the Expressive Therapy movement, when the less understood languages of movement, sound, color and form were emerging into a new resource for self balancing and problem solving.
Out of my work with students who were training in this new field at Lesley College, I amassed rich material that proved again and again the power of this approach. I wrote my thesis on this work, called ‘Dreams As Metaphor: The Power of the Image.’
Why wait until graduate school? I’d already published a number of books based on creative learning, so I thought I could publish these ideas in a book that would help children and parents with their dreams and nightmares.
Several private schools where I’d worked let me run some dream workshops for any child who chose to come. I needed the words of children in order to make this book immediately useful for kids. Using verbatim dialogue and the pictures they drew of their nightmares, we listened to the dream victim, we solved a lot of problems and helped the children empower themselves against their fear, anxieties and rehearsed negotiation skills so they might better understand their confusions, jealousies, misunderstandings and feelings of powerlessness.
In my book, Nightmare Help, I show: How a 5 year old girl, working from her nightmare drawing, got herself out of her burning house, found a way to cross the busy avenue, found a way to reach the door knob that was too high and alert her mother and the 911 fire department in time to save her cat and her own life. A 7 year old boy dealt with his monster, who admitted the only way he could get attention was to “mess up, because he was lonely and didn’t know how to make friends.” An eight year old confronted her father who didn’t notice she’d fallen overboard and was drowning while he was courting his new girl friend.
As I re-read my book, I am struck by the emergencies so many children live with in silence. I think if it were not for this pilot dream workshop, these young humans might never have aired their complex dilemmas. Grown ups tell me they have sat with untold nightmares for as long as 40 years!
When I took this workshop to a public school in Boston, a thirteen year old reported a dream in which her sister was being raped by men who had parked a truck in front of their house. When they were finished with her, they dumped her in the ally beside the house. This initiated a lively discussion about what to do if your sister was stalked or captive. What to do if rape and secret incest was taking place right under your nose? Who to call? Who to tell? What if you were next on the list? If you were raped, did you have to bear the baby of a rapist?
By the next morning, we were in trouble. Parents had called the principal to find out why rape was being discussed in the afternoon art program. What were we teaching their children of the horrors of life? We were asked to close our dream art project and all the fears were returned to silence.
My passion for this work stems from the revelation
that we do to ourselves (and to others) the things that were done to us,
unless we find a way to break the cycle. Why wait until we are older to
make these changes? Why not teach positive survival strategies to young
children so the habit of self worth becomes part of their basic structure.
How can we go on teaching kids abstract tools like math and history and
neglect the realities that cripple their survival, that threaten their
security and growth. Transformation and creativity are two of the most
healing aspects of this work. What we cannot change, we can reframe; what
we cannot undo, we can transform. The power of suggestion is sometimes
all that is needed to stimulate change. Stepping outside of a problem,
reversing roles, listening to both sides, becoming the conscious observer
are among the skills we can develop and put to use. Creativity is the best
tool... and offers the most expedient route to healing.
After working in the creative arts and expressive therapies for twenty and more years, I am amazed at how many people have their creativity crushed by second grade. The inner artist, so ignored in our culture, is crying out for recognition and support; we must not realize its importance or how could we neglect it, thwart it, destroy it... in the name of progress and education? I believe creativity is innate in us all. It is our birthright. But if it is devalued in the school child in favor of obedience and programmed learning, it shrivels like a weed at the edge of the trodden path.
As parents, teachers and therapists, we are in the position to give children permission to bloom in the positive light of self worth and to transform negative survival strategies into creative assets. Teaching children negotiation and listening skills, problem solving and rehearsing self empowerment, seems to me to be among the most important missions every parent, teacher and mentor can actually undertake in hopes of populating the future with wiser, more fair minded governors of our small planet.
We have a very exciting and privileged role to play.
Editorial Afterword: After seven years in print, Ten Speed Press is going to remainder Nightmare Help. Though there are many new books on dreams, there is still little in print that actually walks the reader through a simple direct method for confronting the issues that children live with in silence. This is an important contribution and aide to parents and educators alike. Any suggestions or strategies for keeping it in print? Also, remaindered copies are available at cost. Contact Ann @ 284 Huron Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138.