Haunted by Fish and Former Lives

Lately my dreams have been vivid and profuse. I dream not of knitting or other crafts, my children, husband or home. Not of the impending school year, my oldest going to kindergarten, or the countless hours I will be spending in the car once classes begin. I dream of  nothing from my current life. Instead my sleep is consumed by my past. Every morning I wake wondering how the life I once led, the one that seems so long ago, is connected with today.

For those readers who don’t know, I was, once upon a time, a biologist. I worked for the State of Michigan’s wetland program, first reviewing permits and then heading up preservation and monitoring programs for Great Lakes costal wetlands. People said I was good at what I did, although I never felt that was true. Most of the time I was going through the motions of my job, trying to be innovative, but rarely coming up with any new ideas or truly advancing our program.

So anyway, in my dream I’m back at work at a national conference. I’m there to discuss the coastal wetlands of Lake Huron. I have a PowerPoint presentation prepared with photos I took during field days in Port Huron, Les Cheneaux, Caseville and the Mackinaw Straits. Somehow I’ve even made it to Georgian Bay and brought back water sample data, fish species lists and a binder full of pressed plant specimen. Amid all this data I seem to have discovered something important (exactly what has not yet been revealed in my dream) and I am eager to share the new information. After all, as a young person interested in science, discovery was my goal. I wanted to contribute to the science of the lakes, to make a difference, to be known for advancing our ability to protect and restore one of the Earth’s greatest resources.

But something goes wrong when I make my way to the podium. I am introduced by a former colleague who mispronounces my name. The audience looks confused as I adjust the microphone and thank them for coming to my lecture. I notice my graduate school advisor in the front row, next to three of my former bosses- all people I admired when I worked with them and continue to look up to today. Two of the great scientists I worked with at the Field Museum of Chicago are there too, along with rows of old coworkers. I recognize them all as acquaintances and friends, as people I respected whether or not I agreed with their opinions.They are all wearing looks of annoyance- scowling and crossing their arms.

Before I can even begin, my former professor raises his hand and asks loudly, “Excuse me, but who the bloody hell are you? We didn’t come here to listen to some amateur naturalist blaze on about all the pretty fishies she’s seen during her travels.”

Something isn’t right. If anyone enjoyed the simplicity of pretty fish, particularly minnows and chubs, it was my exuberant British professor. And while I think he once jokingly told me to “sod off” when I’d been in the lab too long, I can only think of him smiling and he certainly was never hostile.

Then my boss chimes in, “Yes, we have the opportunity to see many great lecturers at this conference, so could you please tell us why we need to waste our time looking at this meaningless data?”

No, no… this isn’t right. My boss loved to talk about data. She was thrilled when any of us wanted to present at a conference, and kind even when I said something stupid.

At that, the presentation screen behind me shrivels and becomes a mass of construction paper and Elmers glue. My plant samples are crayon scribbles in a Sponge Bob coloring book and my fish data is a bowl of water with one decaying, bloated goldfish floating at the top. These people are right. Who in their right mind would want to sit through this train wreck of a lecture?

When I wake I feel lonely and a little useless. But the kids are up and ready for their breakfast. My husband is looking for a clean shirt. The landscapers are here waiting for my instruction. I make lists of the things I need to complete before the day is over, and not one of my tasks involves science.

At this point, my reader, you might feel a little like the colleagues of my dream, wondering what the hell any of this has to do with the “subject” of this blog, which is supposed to be crafting and knitting and creativity… or something. Well, over the past weeks as this dream has revisited me and become more vivid, I’ve been wondering whether it’s a sign that I regret my decision to leave my career behind to focus on my family, or if it is telling me I need to begin breaking back into the field. But, similar to the feeling I have at the end of my dream, these real life thoughts fill me with dread. While I would love to put on my waders and go trekking through the marshes of Lake Huron, I realize that i have no desire to go back to the life of conference calls, meetings, data entry and lectures. While I want to catch up on Great Lakes news and read great articles about wetlands in National Geographic, the thought of processing data or reviewing a construction site plan gives me an uncomfortable feeling in my gut. I’m pretty sure it’s heart burn.

There is a distinct contrast between my dream self-  who feels like a fake who is constantly striving to be more than just sub par- and my real living self- who just might actually be doing a good job taking care of this family, and who feels genuinely excited and accomplished when I finish a creative project. While I cared deeply about my job as a biologist, somehow the life I’m living now is more fulfilling. I think what the dream is really telling me is that I don’t belong in my past any more. The important relationships I formed during my 15 year trek through college, grad school and career are still influential, but rather than focusing on the science they taught me, I think I need to remember what they taught me about how to live my life. Does the memory of Dr. W– inviting us to a holiday dinner and letting us share in the laughter between him and his wife mean more than hours he spent critiquing my thesis? Does the compassion my boss P– showed me when returned from maternity leave and cried at my desk all day deserve have more influence on me today than the many meetings we held, awake only because of the coffee? Should I recall the times A– told me hilarious stories about his kids and gave me wedding advice with more reverence than the times we stood up to endless criticism at public hearings?

No, I am not squandering my education or failing to live up to my potential. I’m growing into the person I was always meant to be. And that person has more use for construction paper than power point.

What’s more, the strangest thing has happened as I’ve let go of work deadlines and started to focus on my kids, my husband, my home and my own creativity. Suddenly…

I am happy.

It seems only fitting that this is what I'm working on today. Square number 4 of The Great American Afghan, complete with pretty fishies. My instructor's square is in blue. She is an expert knitter and another person from whom I hope to learn many lessons!

It seems only fitting that this is what I’m working on today. Square number 4 of The Great American Afghan, complete with pretty fishies. My instructor’s square is in blue. She is an expert knitter and another person from whom I hope to learn many lessons!

My progress thus far.

My progress thus far.