Long before the beeping of my morning alarm, a warm wet nose draws me out of my sleep. Not at first of course. The first gentle nudge just pushes a little on the edge of my dream. The second, often accompanied by a quick lick or insistent whine, manages to get some sort of guttural recognition and a heavy-bodied shift. My body is waking but my mind is satisfied to stay in the comfortable screening room inside my brain. It’s usually the determined scratching on the coverlet that finally pulls my eyes open. “Izzy?” I plead with a woolen voice. “Hang on.” My feet are already on the floor and I am stretching for my robe. “Let’s go outside.”
It is usually while I am standing in the doorway as she trots around in the yard that the alarm goes off. Having completely forgotten that she woke me so she could go to the bathroom, Izzy darts along the fence, enchanted with the sounds of the surrounding woods rising before sunrise. If she would just pee I could still manage to get back into bed and fall asleep. Its a game of chicken, me willing her to go and her trying to eek out one more minute outside. On the best days, she squats immediately and then rushes back to the gate, tail wagging, ready to join me back under warm covers and warmer thoughts.
My body was made for sleep, I might be genetically superior somehow when it comes to the slumber gene. I can sleep in a chair, on a train station bench, in any moving car or basically any moving mode of transportation, during a class lecture, through the end of the movie, you get the idea. When I lay down to go to sleep, I am like a free diver, descending quickly and fearlessly into the depths below. I hit the bottom like a gold doubloon, settling into the Sandman’s bed like pirate’s treasure. I am happy to stay hidden there in an ocean of dreams. Ascending is long labour, waking its own skillful meditation. Gratefully, I can sink and bob between waking and sleeping with ease for an hour or more, in 7-minute increments delineated by the sound of the snooze alarm.
As I watch Izzy round the far corner of the yard once again, I am still in the middle zone, awake yet asleep. It is only 4:20AM, I still have two whole hours before the first chimes from my phone announce the new day. If I can get back into bed before the morning chill has a chance to set in, I can get back to the dream I was in when I awoke. Izzy darts in and beats me back to bed. Her haunches are just slipping under the blanket when I pull them back and settle in. Our second dog gives a half-hearted growl at being rousted and shrinks back into the lair she has created behind my husband’s curled legs. He is warm and as I curl around this little family of mine, I feel the anchor of my dream pull me back down under the current.
This is the beginning of the delicious hour. My dreams are still vivid even as I am aware of the soft rise and fall of Stella’s ribcage nearby. The animals of my dreams get to spend time with the animals of my waking world. Gorilla, our old jack russel terrier, is there with me and from our dream, he can gaze down at the sleeping form of my husband, still his favorite boy on the planet. Cody, who hasn’t lived in the dream world all that long is still close enough to us to slip from my dream into the bed and snuggle down next to Izzy. We stay like this for a minute, two minutes, three min…beep, beep.
The second time I fall back to sleep much quicker, my hand is barely off the snooze button before the screen fills with imagery. Gorilla and Cody are waiting, Cody still stretching and yawning. They turn and run and I am running behind them. With each step, a year of time slips away and they look younger, freer, dearer. They stop at a fenceline, looking back at me. Inches above them is the pink muzzle of an enormous white horse. It’s Raffi, it’s Oberon, it’s Scotch all at once. As I lay my forehead against his, I feel suddenly transported through space and I am standing in a barn aisle outside of Sacramento, CA. When I draw back, I see my reflection in the dark amber eyes of Goodwill, billowy like a curtain here in dreamland but still alive and well in the real world. He is old enough and fragile enough now to spend some of his time in the waiting room here in the dreamland. Each of the great grey horses in my life. Each one shared a decade of my life with me. Each arrived in my life unannounced, each of them partially blind in their right eyes, each of them great competitors in their prime coming to me in their fading years to teach me to jump, to gallop, to fly and to focus. Oberon, my trainer’s retired Grand Prix horse taught me to jump in my 20s and also taught me how to tend to old bowed tendons and swayed backs. Scotch showed up in my 30s as a sales horse with some nasty tricks and showed me how touch could transform not just muscles but also the mind. Goodwill, gifted to me temporarily in my 40s to show me the power of my dreams, insisted that I succeed both as a rider and a healer. When Raffi arrived in my 50s, he was retiring from a long life of service. Strong, sound and stubborn, he still enjoyed working and teaching. His owner dropped him off and said casually, “I forgot to mention, he doesn’t see all that well out of his right eye, he had a tumor removed years ago.” We winked at each other and I said: “Welcome Back”. Like magicians, they appear and disappear. In my dreams, I never ride Scotch. We walk, I groom him, he lays down and I sit against his shoulder, his big nose resting in my lap. There is sorrow and there is a relief and there is forgiveness. Oberon and Goodwill carry me joyously all over the dreamland, we jump everything in sight. Sometimes I am a horse running with them, the wind whipping through my mane, my laughter sounds like braying. Gorilla is always at Goodwill’s heels, tongue lolling as he runs. Raffi carries me through dreams that are restless or frightening. His steps are definite, loud, solid. In my dreams, he is my protector or he carries me with his head down, body bent into the oncoming wind. He marches me away from the castle of my captor, charges with me into battle, sometimes shields me from sight.
They gather in my room between waking moments this morning. They stand with me at the window and look out over our pastures. I point out Cafe, I tell them about Osso, they watch and listen thoughtfully, wistfully. They press their noses against the panes to see the horses on the other side, their breath fogging the glass until the real world is invisible again. They startle and bolt off into thin air when the alarm goes off .
Third time is the charm. Sometimes I never even hear the alarm I have dove so deep. If I awake at all, it is to push my husband in the direction of the alarm. Some mornings the sound of the alarm just blends with the dream, it is the trumpeting of the horn calling the hounds back to the field while we stand around in the fall mist on our stalwart field hunters or the incessant squawk of the seagull as Gorilla and Darcy and Shanny leap and snap at the air along the beach, me following behind them searching the sand at my feet for heart-shaped stones. I am deep in it and only the animals that have gone on will go there with me. Usually, they are young and healthy in my dreams, sometimes I am holding their aging bodies but always there is joy and love and such closeness it stops my breath. I never want to leave them. I can see them, smell them, feel their heartbeats. Here I can heal them, speak to them, hold them and it all feels better than real.
But this is also the drowning sleep. You can get lost in this sleep. The freediver is down in the dark, dark depths now and you can lose your sense of direction here and just keep swimming down forever.
The delicious hour draws to its end. The siren alarm comes to me like the ringing of a buoy bell and I have to swim for the surface. My chest is heavy and my head feels thick with fog. I thrash towards the surface, stretching toward the light above the water. Waking up like this feels like a rebirth. I am newborn and helpless. The light is too bright in my eyes, the air to cool on my skin, I still feel tethered to the warm home of my dream.
If there isn’t coffee, I am going to cry.