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I am trying to get to Santa Fe, New Mexico to visit my friend A. who has cancer. But first I need to go to the very tip of Long Island to celebrate with my dad, who is turning 80 that day. On the way, I’m to meet my mother and bring her with me. But she wanders off and no one can find her. I panic. Where could my mother be? It’s getting late and it’s cold. At this rate we’ll miss my father’s celebration and I’ll miss my plane, too. At last the police locate my mother and we race off to meet Dad for dinner. Afterward, I drive all night to get to my airplane on time. I manage to get to Santa Fe, and feel relieved and triumphant. But then I sneeze. I realize I have a cold and so I can’t see A. An infection could be deadly to someone who is in the midst of chemotherapy treatments.

Am I awake or dreaming?

The above scenario has all the elements of a dream: It’s surreal. It contains anxiety over travel (a common dream theme), inability to connect with loved ones, and the pursuit of seemingly impossible tasks. But alas, this was my recent waking reality. I had planned to spend my vacation week in New Mexico visiting my friend A, but first, I’d meet my mother, who is suffering from dementia, and take her to meet my father, stepmother and brother in Montauk, Long Island, to celebrate Dad’s birthday. After temporarily “losing” my mother and needing police intervention to find her again, we all did manage to celebrate Dad’s 80th together, I managed to catch my plane, and yes, then the cold.

After I landed in New Mexico, I called the American Cancer Society to ask when it would be safe to visit someone undergoing chemotherapy. I was told to wait at least 24 hours after I was fully clear of any symptoms. My heart sank.

In Santa Fe, sick and unable to see A, I was filled with the nearly unbearable pain of disappointment. My cold was getting worse by the hour, and was making me as physically uncomfortable as I was emotionally distraught.

A silver lining

But, there was some amazing good luck in this story, too. Another dear friend of mine also lives in Santa Fe. Virginia had met me at the airport, taken me to her studio apartment and fed me steaming bowls of chicken soup and equally nourishing servings of conversation and connection. Hearing my tale of woe, she told me that one of the things she most admires about me is my resilience in the face of difficult situations.

Hmmm. I wasn’t feeling so resilient at the moment. But the comment led me to ponder: What do I do in the face of difficult situations that helps me find meaning in them? It was the same set of skills and impulses that made me a dreamworker. In fact, my nightmares have taught me how to face life’s monsters.

Like most people, when a menacing beast or monster chases me through a dream, I used to turn on my heels and run – or better yet, I’d try to wake myself from the dream. But as I grew, I learned that if I turned and faced said beast or monster, during the dream or in my imaginings when I woke up, I could befriend it. I’d ask it what it wanted from me, and disarmed by nothing more than my curious and calm gaze, it would cease being threatening and instead offer some grain of enlightenment.

Taking the first step

The first step in working with my waking nightmare in Santa Fe then was to stop trying to flee from it by avoiding the reality I was presented with, and turn toward the messy feelings.

Lying in bed that night, I paid attention to my thoughts and feelings. When I felt pain, emotional or physical, I just let myself feel it. My head ached. My sinuses were so full I thought they’d explode. I could hardly breathe, my eyes were tearing and there was not an inch of my body that felt good. After a few minutes of this I realized, “If this is what some disappointment and a cold are doing to me, imagine how A. must feel!” And I did, I imagined how she, too must be desperate to escape the physical pain and discomfort of her chemo treatments, of the fatigue of fighting cancer, the fears and anxieties of facing a life-threatening disease, and the piles of disappointments from all of the things she has had to give up over the past few months of dealing with surgery and visits to doctors and chemo treatments—and all the things she can’t look forward to now that cancer has taken over her life for the foreseeable future.

And then came deeper sadness. And then, true compassion and empathy. Alone in my motel room, I felt as if I were, finally, with my friend in her distress. Being with her in this case meant imagining my way into her experience instead of keeping my spiritual and emotional distance by wanting always to help, and lift her out of her feelings; avoiding the urge to protect her and me from the pain of her reality.

I stayed with the feelings and felt myself sinking into them. There was comfort underneath all of the sadness. There was a sense of being not only with my feelings, and with A, but with a gentle, loving energy, as well. For the first time since arriving in Santa Fe, I felt relief.

In the days that followed A. and I talked on the phone, texted and visited via Skype. All of this we could have done with me at home, half a continent away. But maybe this nightmarish journey was the only way I could have learned how to truly be close to my friend.

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