Tonight I fell asleep and had a dream. I dreamt that my room was filled with various aquariums, at least five separate tanks spread out between my dressers and night stands. They were beautiful and filled with brightly colored underwater decorations and fake plants that seemed to dance on their own. Glittery pink houses and sunken ships with treasure chests. Bubbles. There were too many tanks for it to be the slightest of reality, and I think I realized that despite being in my dreaming state. But still, I was horrified to discover that most of the tanks were filled with dead fish. There they were, floating at the top of each tank, belly up. Dead. I quickly began checking each tank and discovered that some of them still had a few fish swimming around, but they looked incredibly weak and slow. I grabbed some fish food from my nightstand and immediately began pinching big clumps of it, throwing it in each tank, and ducking down to see if they were eating. I was hoping that the few remaining fish were even capable of eating at this point. And luckily, they were. The fish saw the food, ate, and in what seemed like an instant, were completely energized and all was well. I sat on my bed and felt a wave of guilt hit me like a fast-moving train. I forgot to feed the fish. I forgot to feed the fish. They died because of me. It was all my fault.
Now, I can't say that I have any real emotional attachment to fish. Why I had this dream, I'm not entirely sure. And why it was symbolized by and with fish, it sure beats me. If this dream had involved pets higher up on the "feels-like-family" scale, I'm sure I would have woken up in tears. But maybe I would have missed the point of my dream, overwhelmed by shock. So, fish it is.
I think this dream sums up what and how I've been feeling. I find it simultaneously interesting and painful that the tanks were placed in my bedroom. Interesting because of external analysis, painful because of internal symbolism. My bedroom is the very place I retreat to each night for solitude and rest. The same place I wake up in, hopeful for light and a new day. It's the room where I am most myself. I must have walked past the tanks at least twenty times each day, and still...I forgot to feed the fish. How did I forget to feed the fish?
I hear parents talk about their fears when it comes to their children often. I can't say I truly understand. I'm not a mom. But I think I have a pretty good idea. Zero self-sufficiency for a kid and sole responsibility for a parent. That's a lot of pressure. What if you forget to pick up your kid from school and he/she decides to walk home since it's not that far? What if you accidentally lock your baby in the car on a hot summer day? What if you feed your child something he/she is allergic to, but they're too young to verbalize their symptoms? These are terrible mistakes with dangerous and even deadly consequences. I think the pressure is so high that parenting has become an obsession for some. Researching every nook and cranny of parenthood, trying to prepare themselves and prevent the tiniest bump in the road. Sometimes I wonder what we would be like if we cared for ourselves the same way we care about our children. If we really spent the time and care trying to understand our needs, our fears, our shortcomings. If we spent more time trying to prevent awful things from happening, rather than dealing with the consequences later. What would that be like? What would you be like? What would I be like?
I recently took a trip to the library in downtown Nashville. It was beautiful. Three stories, white marble across the floor, a giant room in each corner with bookshelves lined wall to wall. Libraries always make me feel safe. Probably because somewhere deeply rooted I remember what kindergarten was like. We had to stand in a line and hold hands with our classmates as we walked to the library, making sure no one got lost or left behind. Once there, we were allowed to drop hands and explore because we were safe. Libraries are still safe to me. I checked out a handful of books, mostly psychology books. Some that were far-reaching on the scale of psychology teetering into astrology. As I was checking out, I chuckled and thought, I look like a crazy person. "Map of the Soul"..."The Invisible Partners"..."Retrograde Mercury"...What am I reading?!
I think I've been thirsty for a while. Thirsty and disillusioned. I think that we are all self-obsessed, but what is so mind-boggling about that is the fact that we don't actually take care of ourselves. Not really. We may try to eat organic greens and avoid fast-food like the plague, or fit in some cardio when we really don't want to. We may count how many hours of sleep we're going to get as we're climbing into bed or take vacations when the stress of work is too overwhelming. Those are great things. Healthy things. But I'm not convinced that we take care of our minds, of our true selves. When I talk to most people, I'm sad to say that I don't feel a connection. And most of that is because honesty, trust, openness comes with time, and must be granted. I understand that. But what if we spent more time thinking about what we really need? What if being emotional wasn't a negative label?
I'm pretty sure that was the point of my dream. The fish represented pieces of myself that I had abandoned or neglected. We kid ourselves into thinking that taking care of others is the most important, and giving, honorable thing to do. But I'd like to challenge that. Take care of yourself first. That is something I learned this past year. Something I had to learn. And I had to learn it in one of the most painful ways possible, seeing my life come crashing down. I had to learn it after-the-fact. I was the mom who left the baby in the car. I let the fish die.
My trip to the library is one small step of doing my part of research, preventative measure, rather than panicked research post-event. I believe that the more we know about ourselves, the more we peek into every crevice of our mind, the smarter we are and more capable we are of loving selflessly, living happier lives, and generally being more fulfilled. I used to cringe when I heard people say, "Love yourself first." I would roll my eyes and think to myself, that's just an excuse to be selfish. Growing up in a Christian household, I thought that putting others' needs before my own was necessary and admired. I guess I missed the footnote about taking care of your needs first. "Put your oxygen mask on before trying to help children or the elderly." Even airlines know. Why it's taken me twenty-eight years to figure that out, I'm not sure. But at least now I know, I have to feed the fish. Unlike the parenting metaphors, it's much easier to forget to feed the fish. It's easy to forget to take care of yourself. One day becomes two. Two becomes a week. Weeks become months. And then your world shifts and you realize you have no idea who you are. That's a scary feeling. You may look how you want, eat how you want, and have a perfectly scheduled life. But if you're not feeling how you want, that's a problem. And I do believe much of that is our own responsibility and even an opportunity.
Take care of yourself first. And don't forget to feed the fish.