Lately I have had a recurring dream about moving from one house to another. The houses in the dream vary. Sometimes the house I am leaving is one from my past; sometimes it is the one I currently live in. The house being moved into is always one that I don't recognize--a figment of my imagination. I have had this dream at least three times in the last week and on at least one night the dream seemed to pick up where it left off the previous night. There are several recurring aspects of the dream. One is a sense of relief--that I am leaving some problem behind with the old house. But that is always balanced with the realization upon moving into the new house that there is something not quite right about it--something I didn't anticipate.
Another recurring feature of these dreams is the process of unpacking and trying to figure out where things go. This is complicated by the fact that the previous owners always seem to leave things behind. Sometimes I like what they have left; sometimes it is in the way. I remember one dream in which the bathroom was filled with someone else's toiletries and cosmetics. Oftentimes it is the curtains, and I have to decide whether to keep them or replace them. In my dream last night it turned out the previous owners had left a bunch of stuff in the basement. Some of it was very nice--for example, an antique sewing machine (even though I don't sew!--why would I dream about a sewing machine?)--and I wondered if I should call them to come get it or if I could keep it. But some of it--for example, some old toys and a big stash of Christmas wrapping paper and decorations--was just taking up space that I needed for our own things and I was annoyed to have to figure out what to do with it.
It is said that dreams tell us things about ourselves--that they reflect things we are struggling with or reveal our minds trying to work through unresolved questions. I don't know if that's true, but as I was thinking about my dream it occurred to me that I am definitely at a time of life where it seems lots of things I have long held on to are asking me to let go of them and I am trying to figure out where the things that remain are going to fit. I am reminded of what a friend told me recently. She said that she has been surprised at this point in her life (she is a few years younger than I) to find that she is in some sense turning her back on many things that heretofore had defined her. I wonder if that happens to a lot of people in middle age. We spend the first half of our lives acquiring things--knowledge, skills, jobs, careers, opinions, friends, spouses, children, possessions, wealth, etc.--and drawing our identity from them. Then in the second half of our life we find ourselves to some extent needing to let go of many of those things (hopefully not the spouse!). Our "career" (whether it's in the workplace or not) takes a turn we didn't expect. The acquisition of knowledge and skill is no longer so important or intense (thank goodness, since it becomes even harder to do!). Instead we find ourselves passing our knowledge and skill on to others. Friendships change, children grow up and leave home, parents die and leave us behind, and siblings drift away. The closer we get to the grave, the less important our possessions seem, and the wealth we have (if any) becomes merely a tool--something that we may need to spend to take care of ourselves our remaining days on this earth. Whatever degree of physical strength and acumen we may have attained starts to dissipate, as does our "beauty" (as defined by the culture). No wonder there is so much written about the so-called "mid-life crisis." We find ourselves at the theoretical midpoint, having attained so much that we have spent our lives seeking, and as we watch it begin to depart from us we ask, "Now what?" What comes after all the seeking?
I think I'm in kind of a "now what" place. In some ways it's nice. It's nice to not have to try so hard, to not have the pressure of needing to prove oneself that seems to accompany youth. It's pleasant to think about slowing down--about sliding down the hill instead of climbing up it. Climbing is hard. But it gives one a focus. And it feeds that dearly held human desire to feel in control.
Now what? Twenty years ago I would have thought I was the one to answer that question for myself. Now I know better.