Lately I’ve been having a little crisis of self. I’ve always been a questioner. One of my earliest memories is of lying awake at day care, the one run by USM before it was closed, on a thin sleeping mat. One of the teachers approached me and, with wide eyes, I asked her, “Jen Dean, why don’t our eyes pop out of our head?”
The day-care staff converted one of its small rooms into something like a meditation chamber. If you didn’t sleep at nap time, you were allowed to go in there and engulf yourself in one of the egg chairs. The egg chairs had bright, hunter-orange covers that would fold down and close off the occupant. They spun too, and sometimes someone would give you a surprise whirl. I spent what seemed like hours curled inside those chairs, waiting for my playmates to wake up, wondering what they were dreaming about.
A year or so later, I was in the car with my mother, driving down Route 1. We had been talking about what page we were on in a book. “Your memory is better than mine, I’m sure,” remarked my mother. “I don’t remember stuff the way I used to.”
That got me a little tangled up. I remained silent for awhile. I recall looking out the window, peering down at my pink car seat. We got back into Portland and passed Mercy Hospital (the old one, where I was born). I was a little scared by then. “Mom?” I ventured. “What’s your earliest memory?”
She thought on this for a few seconds. Growing up in rural Maine, on a farm just outside Pittsfield, one of her first memories involved getting up early to feed the animals. One morning, after she pulled on her coat, mittens, and bright red galoshes, she ventured out to the barn. They had two pigs at the time. As she was feeding them, one bit down on her rain boot, mistaking it for an apple and almost taking her toe off. She was probably seven at the time.
Hearing my mother recount this story, the faraway tone of her voice, the arbitrary details she remembered among so many that must have been lost — this made a strong impression on my five-year-old mind. I was determined not to lose those years. As we pulled in front of our house I noted the peeling paint on the banisters, my father’s familiar sing-song greeting, “Home again, home again, diggity dog.” I closed my eyes and squeezed them shut. I will remember this, I whispered.
I’ve been questioning and reflecting a lot this winter. As I’ve grown older I haven’t gotten any better at sleeping. Being exhausted all the time does a couple of things: it makes my time much less flexible (late to school by a good 10-to-20 minutes daily) and stresses me the heck out. These feelings sneak into my dreams. Like my father before me, I have some pretty boring dreams. So boring that in my exhausted state it can be hard to distinguish dreams from reality. The other night I dreamed that someone had gotten more milk after we ran out. In the morning I got up, poured myself a bowl of cereal, and opened the fridge to find none.
I’m a dweller — I dwell on things. I worry about my GPA, about college. I think of the time in kindergarten when I left the door open to the bathroom. I think of when, in second grade, I stabbed a classmate with a pencil. In third grade, at recess, I was pelted with pinecones. In middle school, I talked to no one. Freshman year, I simultaneously led two boys on. Sophomore year, I was a wuss. Last week, I complained incessantly and was rude to my friends. I dream about all of this. I haven’t yet learned how to let this stuff go.
What about the happy memories, like playing with bugs and chopping up worms behind the shed in preschool? My lilac fort on top of the shed, fairy houses and sunburns at the lake. Summers spent lazing and yearning, winters inside with cartoons or gliding on the frozen lake with my brother. Good friends and close family. Why can’t I dream of this?