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The Starfish

Dreamed 1985 by Marc Ian Barasch

[Marc had months of nightmares about heads and necks, making him urge his doctor to check his thyroid. Tests found a cancer--see Thyroid.--Ed.]

Among the bizarre dreams that accompanied my illness, one stands out for its marvelous peculiarities, not least of which was a final meaning that would unfold, rather spectacularly, only years later. The dream landed in my life a week after my diagnosis. Looking back, it surprises me how halfhearted my attempts were to answer its riddle. But perhaps it was understandable. My doctor had pronounced the dread word "cancer" as sonorously as a judge at sentencing. I was spooked and disoriented, running from macrobiotic healers to endocrinologists, reluctant to pause lest death catch my heel. But years later, through new eyes, I saw that a dream I had taken to be a psychological refuse heap was a rich archaeological site, awaiting only excavation.

I am standing on a residential street watching a private plane, a Cessna, blow up in midair. The cockpit falls from the sky into a blond Western boy's backyard, then bounces onto the front lawn of a "tinkerer." I am amazed to see that a "sacred intelligent starfish" has survived the crash. It's barely alive, but the tinkerer is already working on it, gently placing it in a bath of salt water to help it heal itself. Suddenly the boy in whose yard it had first landed comes to claim it. We reluctantly hand it over, though I see he doesn't have a clue how to care for it. I watch in horror as the boy removes itfrom its water. It immediately starts drying out, turning into "dried cod" and then, in his clumsy hands, crumbling irreparably apart. I am inconsolable at the loss shocked to see a magnificent creature so heedlessly destroyed.

When I awoke, I had seized on the images as medically significant. A "private plane," I thought, was a metaphor for the body, the soul's personal vehicle. Perhaps the pilot's cockpit, where the controls are, stood for the head and neck area, and the starfish for my thyroid gland, a self-regulating, "intelligent" source of sacred life energy.

If these first images were a sort of anatomical schematic, there were also images of treatment. The blond boy seemed to represent my Western doctors. I had first landed in their yard--had gone to them to be diagnosed--and was deciding, with no small ambivalence, to surrender my body to their care, though still hoping against hope for a more natural remedy.

This would have seemed a straightforward enough interpretation. But the next day, my daughter cajoled me to take her to the Boston Science Museum, which we happened to pass on the way back from school. No sooner had we wandered into the marine exhibit than an eager young staffer in charge of that day's demonstration thrust a living starfish into my hand, loudly proclaiming its unusual trait: "It can regenerate!"

Later that day, a friend who makes public television documentaries stopped by, mentioning that he had just returned from Nevada, where he had been hired to "shoot an airplane explosion"--a Federal Aviation Administration test to ascertain the role of "fuel misting" in air crashes. (In an engine, fuel is mixed with air in the carburetor--a device to which my doctors had often compared the thyroid, which regulates the body's "mix" of metabolic energy.)

Poring over the dream's text in my notebook, it was as if a clear picture was finally emerging from some slow-developing photographic emulsion. I could still recall the contempt I'd felt for the dream "tinkerer," my impatience with his slowness and simple-mindedness in the face of a dire emergency.

My pocket dictionary defines tinker as "to work in a bungling way; to make clumsy, unsuccessful attempts to mend or repair something." But now, consulting my big Webster, I was surprised to learn that this connotation of amateur and ineffectual fussing is not the word's original meaning. Harking back to an earlier time, a tinker is defined as "a mender of metal kettles, pans, and the like, usually going from house to house; a jack of all trades." A tinker, then, is a kind of healer--he makes house calls, like an old-fashioned doctor; he patiently repairs vessels used to prepare food, the body's fuel.

But such menders are generally disdained in our throwaway society. They would be unwelcome in a surgery ward specializing in radical excisions. I also devalued them in my own psyche. The attitudes of the two dream characters, the patient tinker and the impulsive, aggressive boy, mirrored two sides of my personality, which were often at war.

The starfish, too, was a creature of contradictions. A hybrid animal, a creature both of the heavens and the ocean, it suggested a balance I was trying, mostly without success, to strike in my life: to be a star in the media firmament, yet remain in my own watery, private depths. The image also suggested a dangerous psychological inflation--the starfish was "flying too high"; it was a "fish out of water," existing on its own aloof "private plane" of existence.

The specificity of the word Cessna remained irksome. The name did not seem to be a play on words. The brand of plane favored by drug smugglers, I had thought it might express my anxiety about being "addicted" to a pharmaceutical replacement hormone following my surgery. It wasn't until five years later that the dream's last puzzle piece slipped unexpectedly into place. I had moved back to Boulder, Colorado, where I was leasing a sprawling suburban house with a few friends. One day, it was my turn to walk the ten blocks to our landlord's to drop off the rent. Just as I was heading out with the envelope, my roommate stopped me. "You can't go over there" " she said. "The street's cordoned off. A plane just crashed into a yard two houses from where she lives." It was April first. I looked at her quizzically. "No," she said, "I'm not kidding. It was a little Cessna."

The pilot and passenger, she explained, had been killed. The only injury on the ground was an older man who spent Sundays tinkering with vintage cars. A piece of the plane had fallen on his garage. Had I gone over there a few hours earlier, as I had planned, I would have been a firsthand witness to the uncanny dream spectacle of a Cessna plummeting from the sky right before my eyes.

I did a little research into the case--which Boulder authorities told the local paper was the "most bizarre" they'd ever seen--discovering odd resonances to the situation I'd found myself in five years earlier. The passenger turned out to be a man convinced he had a fatal brain cancer (a common variety of which is astrocytoma, named for its starlike shape). Investigators had labeled him a "doctor shopper" who went from physician to physician seeking diagnosis, which would have well characterized me at the time of my dream. After writing farewell letters to friends and relatives, the man had rented the plane with the intention of committing suicide.

Once airborne, he had attacked the pilot, causing the plane to crash. Ironically, a subsequent coroner's autopsy revealed no evidence of cancer: the passenger's certainty that he had the direst medical condition was misplaced. I was reminded of the morbid letters I had written to friends, convinced I'd been facing imminent death, learning only later that my cancer was a slower-growing, less virulent type.

What were the odds I would be, five years after my dream, within a few blocks of a Cessna falling into the yard of a tinker? Here was clear indication that the imaginal realm could intrude into "real" life. I began to wonder if every dream theory I'd heard was, if not wrong, at least radically incomplete. Perhaps a dream had to be analyzed not just as a series of metaphors but as a collection of stories, radiating out in many directions like starfish arms--stories that could sometimes burst the confines of time and space.

My starfish dream became a model of how to think in a multidimensional way about interpreting a "big" dream--for its stories address many issues simultaneously. One story concerned vital personal issues: it said I was a fish out of water, trying to be a star, headed for a crash. The characters represented different aspects of myself--the starfish, rarified and vulnerable (its many arms also suggesting the potential and perils of doing many things at once); the tinkerer, the embodiment of care and patience; the rough boy, a classic shadow figure representing undesirable traits--arrogance, disdain, and impulsiveness--that I needed to face up to.

But another "story" was a warning, in this case a medical cautionary tale: be wary of treatment by the impetuous "young science" of Western medicine. The fate of the starfish would, in a sense, later overtake me. The operation months later had felt crude, even barbarous. I, too, would crumble apart after losing something that seemed precious and irreplaceable. The dream also put forth, as such dreams usually do, an alternative approach to a problem--in this case, to help the affected organ in its own milieu (which early physiologists called "nourishing the terrain"). I was shown a creature that was the very spirit of the affected organ, and told of its capacity for self-healing (the thyroid is one of the few organs that, like the liver, is capable of tissue regeneration). The dream juxtaposed the prevailing medical attitude of the body-as-machine with the ancient idea that the body's organs are sacred, living creatures. (In Taoist medicine, for example, the lungs were said to be inhabited by a white tiger, the heart by a red bird, the spleen by a phoenix.)

The dream also had distinctly sexual overtones Freud would have found familiar: in a crude pun, the starfish was in the "cockpit"; later, it turns into "cod" (according to my dictionary, an archaic term for the scrotum), which "dried out" in contrast to the starfish's moist Eros. (Indeed, my love life, subsumed by work, was perishing.) The twinned Freudian theme of aggression is also implicit in the word cockpit--a place where cockfights are staged between male birds suggesting, when I reflected on it, my competitive relationship with my father.

Yet another of these brachiating story lines was a social commentary. It suggested we have forgotten the value of people like the old tinker, who gently restores what is broken. It furnished a critique of society in general, and of the institution of medicine specifically, which has too often forsaken the "tinkerer" approach in favor of fast-paced, aggressive "heroic intervention." Another part of the dream's social message had to do with my own professional milieu: working in a fast-paced business, I tended to value quick, sharp, extroverted colleagues over slower-paced, less forceful, more inward ones. The dream was applying a corrective, suggesting I might need to reverse those values. Indeed, it was my fast-track friends who most quickly ran the other way when my crisis hit, and the "slow" ones who caringly stayed behind.

Another of the dream's multiple stories is archetypal. If it were being told as a myth, it might go something like this: Starfish, possessor of the sacred power of restoring wounds, falls to earth from heaven. He finds a mortal ally, who performs a sort of baptism--in my dream the starfish had been placed in what looked like a combination birdbath and baptismal font--but he is betrayed and finally sacrificed. There are hints of the tale of Icarus, who flew too high and crashed, or pop mythologies like E.T. and The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which a vulnerable alien with strange powers crash-lands on our world, finds a sympathetic protector, but ultimately falls prey to short-sighted authorities. (Both films feature a motif of clumsy and destructive medical treatment.) To ascribe a mythic dimension to a dream may seem overblown. But in myths, we may discern our own life story writ large; uncover patterns and belief systems that, once understood, may be changed; find perspective on our individual concerns as reflections of eternal human themes.

Then the tale jumped the boundaries of the page entirely. The dream amplified its impact through synchronicity, barging into my life. Against all odds, the next day an actual starfish, wet and gently stirring, was placed in the palm of my hand. Through a direct encounter with my dream creature, I was initiated into a relationship with a sort of totem animal--one capable of self-heahng, and so a palpable harbinger of my inner resources.

Finally, five years later, a precognition--through the crashing Cessna--was revealed, forcing me to give serious consideration to the mystical belief that linear time is an illusion, that we are not the purely earthbound creatures we think we are but are also starfish of a sort, plying a sea of past, present, and future.

To this day, the dream remains a Rashomon-like story, where many versions can be told of the same event, each bearing a fresh truth. It is this approach that will characterize this book--to suggest not just a method of interpretation but a way of seeing.


Marc Ian Barasch's Healing Dreams details not only his own story but dozens of dreamers led (often by nightmares) out of deadly situations--not all of them simply medical. This account is from pages 8-13.

I admire Barasch's patient approach to dreams--wonderfully multileveled.

--Chris Wayan

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