How Now, Black Cow

This was a new house, I realized, and it was nestled inside a fence. Inside the fence, outside the house, there were five animals—sheep, maybe? Goats? Whatever those hazy creatures were, the grass was just fine for food, thank you.

When I came out of the house, they surrounded me, jostling, gentle and happy to be there.

And then the cow came, jumping in, I think, where the wooden fence, in front of the house, was lower. What a beautiful animal it was; sleek and black and healthy and HUGE. I was nervous, at first, but it didn’t seem hostile or dangerous.

It didn’t want to be petted or fussed over, either.

But, unlike the other animals in that paddock-y yard, the cow needed more than grass. It would jump outside the fence and snort, and it would not come back in until I brought it food from inside the house. It liked, I think, homemade bread and jam.

And then another person arrived, a nice, opaque woman whom I didn’t trust. She had a basket; she may have been selling eggs. She was long-haired and lean-faced, a weathered kind of person, and she had that kind of frozen serene aura that makes me want to shatter it, to shout and scratch and dance around. A woman of the earth, she was, and she offered to take that black cow back to her farm, where it would be fed and brushed and treated very, very well.

I looked at that sleek and hungry, gleaming black creature and something shifted inside me.

“No,” I said to the opaque woman. “I’m going to keep this cow. I need this cow at home.”

“Well,” she said, and her face scrunched disapprovingly. “Well. Then you’d better learn how to feed it.”


Often I wake up and my dreams will linger in shreds and snippets, but that black cow was very, very vivid. What does it mean, I wondered, to dream about a cow?

I remembered the story of Joseph the dreamer in the Old Testament…Joseph, who’d been thrown into jail, and there, had a dream of seven sleek and beautiful cows. Then seven lean and mangy cows appeared, and those ugly creatures devoured the healthy ones.

Joseph knew what his dream meant—seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine…those seven lean years would eat up all that had been gained.

He shared his dream with the overseer, and his dreams bought his freedom and granted him prestige.

So, hmmm. Could my one black cow signify a year of plenty?


Ages ago, someone gave me a dreamer’s dictionary, which was, I thought, a very cool thing. But it sat on my shelf for years, truly; once in a while, I’d pick it up and look up some dream image, and I’d share what it said with someone—Mark, or a friend,–and we’d laugh at the crazy randomness of all that.

And then for some reason, at some point, I decided to start a dream journal; I must have thought there were hidden nudgings I needed to address. I kept a notebook by my bed and scrawled down the dreams first thing on waking, and later in the day, I’d pick out images and look them up.

At first it was just fun: oh, I’m dreaming of dogs, and dogs symbolize friendship and protection. That’s nice, I’d think. But a day later, I’d have a vivid dream about something completely unrelated, and I’d look that up, and the book would relate that image, too, to friendship.

Patterns emerged; it was fascinating. What do you know about THAT? I would think. Friendship is clearly on my mind. Or, my dreams are telling me I’m feeling anxious. And I would think about the why behind those patterns.

And then, for some reason—marriage? Motherhood? The need for that deep-sucking kind of sleep that precludes dream remembrance?—I stopped writing down my dreams.

In some move or other, the dreamer’s dictionary got left behind.


So I look up ‘dreaming about black cows’ on line, and behold, there are millions of hits. Cows are, as Joseph could have told us, ancient dream symbols. says that “…the cow itself is a powerful animal and symbolic of nurturing and of a new life.”

Dreaming of a cow, she tells me, entwines with abundance, and grace, and protection of the soul. Dreaming of a cow talks of caring and of nurture.

I like that, so I dig further, and Aunty Flo tells me that a black cow in a dream tells us of hidden thoughts and talks to the dreamer of connectedness with others. A black cow, she says, hints at possible transformation. “There is also,” says Aunty Flo, “a focus on being mature when you don’t have to be.”

Hmmm, I think. Permission to be indulgent? That doesn’t sound so bad.

I rove over to to see if there’s more on the black cow of my dreams, and I learn this:

The black cow represents “…a deep unconscious desire to progress in life.” Often, Dreamlandia says, the cow appears in our dreams to deliver an important message.

I don’t like what it tells me about feeding the cow, though: this, says the source, suggests the dreamer will have to face people who envy her—that there will be damaging gossip that could cause conflict.

I can’t think of reasons for envy or fodder that might fuel gossip. But still. That’s a little chilly.

Dreamlandia also tells me that a dreaming of a healthy, well-fed cow is a harbinger of ‘functional changes,’ of an opportunity to alter the way things are. Be careful, warns the site, not to miss your chance…


Huh, I think, and I am darned glad I didn’t let the opaque lady take my cow from me.


That night, I head to bed early and slip soundly into deep sleep, but the morning leaves me with no memory of dreams. But I take the notebook out of my nightstand anyway, and make sure there’s a working pen.

What the heck, I think. I might as well start writing down my dreams again. Because, while of course, I don’t believe in all that hocus-pocus stuff—of course I don’t—if that black cow’s got a message for me—if there’s a transformational moment tipping toward me,—well then. I sure don’t want to miss it.

And maybe, in my dreams, I’ll learn how to feed the cow.


Different Houses, Unfamiliar Places

It is not THIS house, but in my dreaming, it is a place where I’ve been living for a long, long time. And it is empty, except for a few random rags, some paper, a damaged box or two. There are gleaming blonde wood floors, white walls, low, slanted ceilings.

 I do not know what’s going on. Where is my son? Where is my furniture? Where, I realize suddenly, standing there in my rumpled pajamas, are my CLOTHES?

 Mark suddenly appears, beckoning. We climb into a car that is packed full. Jim is in the back seat, much younger, maybe ten, nestled between a television and a narrow cardboard box. He greets me halfheartedly, and then we are moving, on a strange trip that involves meeting people we know, some dead, some living, some nearby, some far away. We also stop to talk with strangers who are quickly woven into whatever story this is.

 Sometimes we walk. Sometimes we get back in the car and drive. Endlessly.

Always I am embarrassed by my bare feet and jammies.

When we finally arrive at the new place, in a town I don’t recognize, it is almost empty.

“Don’t WORRY,” says Mark. “Your clothes are here. Somewhere.”


We come home from a shopping trip; I am driving.

“Hey!” I say as we pull up the drive.

Jim pulls out his earbuds. “What?” he and Mark reply, in unison.

“Look at the rhododendrons.”

I stop, level with the bushes, and we look at the row of blooms, magenta and cheerful, among the lower branches.

“Isn’t that weird?” I say. “Rhodies in the fall?”

The boyos make noncommittal, sympathetic noises.

We unpack the groceries and put them away. Just before dark falls, I go out and clip some blossoms, make a little bouquet.

“Weird,” I think again. I wonder if global climate change has even hit my shrubbery.


Another dream. With Mark and Jim and—wait. Is that my father???–I walk into my house—which seems, I realize, to be an apartment. It is full of people I don’t know, sitting in a huge living room. We stop, staring at the crowd.

 A woman jumps up, bustles over. She reminds us that we share this space. And she is having a party. She invites us to join in a meal. Puzzled, we decline, and go off to find our rooms.

 We discover the space is in an old city block building. We open a door and walk beyond the finished living space and come into a work area. It smells like saw dust and the kind of oil people use to lubricate heavy iron machines; there are woodchips on the floor. Work tables are lined up throughout the room, hunkered under things like drill presses and enormous table saws.

The saws look scary. I grab Jim’s arm; in this dream, he is about five, I think.

 Mark and my father—it IS my father—yell in delight and they move forward to explore those worktables, to experiment with those tools.

 “Where ARE we?” I ask, out loud, and Jim looks at me, worried.


I am driving to teach with the radio on. The President is making a speech…in Wisconsin? In Houston? He says that he will be giving the middle class a tax cut of ten per cent next week.

The audio cuts to commentary, and the newscaster asks an expert if this sudden tax cut is possible.

The expert says, Well, no: Congress is not in session next week.

So he’s lying? Asks the newscaster.

There’s a long pause, and then slowly, reluctantly, the expert says, Well, yes.

They cut back to the tape and we listen to the crowd cheering.

Chilled, I turn up the heat in the car.

Later that week, the promised tax reduction is modified to a probable tax cut resolution.


One night I dream I live in a house I inhabited long, long ago, but again, there are people there—and there are animals there—that I don’t know. It seems I am always asking, “Where AM I?” in my dreams these days.


I avoid it as long as I can, turning the newspaper over when I sit at the table, shifting quickly to academic websites, ruthlessly culling my email, taking a book upstairs to read when the news is on.

I so badly want to pretend, to not know.

But I have to know, of course. On a quiet morning, days after the event, with Mark and Jim both at work, I open my computer and read what happened in Pittsburgh.

“All Jews must die!” shouted the killer as he burst into the Tree of Life temple and unloaded into the crowd assembled there. Eleven people attending the bris, the baby-naming ceremony, died. The dead were between the ages of 54 and 97. The 97-year-old, Rose Mallinger, was quickly reported as being a Holocaust survivor, which was not true. But she was a devoted temple attendee who lived through the horrors of World War II and she certainly did not deserve to die at a gunman’s hand.

Nor does anyone, not any one of us. What is going on?

Six people, including first responders, were injured. The shooter survived several gun shots and will stand trial. The news reported this morning that he pleads ‘not guilty.’


It is a gray, rainy, cold day, and I start a fire in the fireplace. I shut off my thoughts and I wrap up in a blanket, and I open the book I’ve halfway finished. I huddle and I hide.

I am reading the wrong book, Stephen Markley’s Ohio, which takes place in a thinly veiled version of the town we called home for ten years. The pretty people in the book are, some of them, smiling cold killers. It takes me a while before I get it: the legends are true, and the missing may be the dead.

Too close, I think, too close to home. The Florida shooting hurt kids my niece’s kids know. The Pittsburgh shooting is less than three hours away; a friend texts that she was in that neighborhood the day before, that she keeps having these weird grief feelings.

We did not know these people hurt, but their lives rub up against ours; they touched people who touched people we know. And we are, all, interconnected, anyway. Remember the butterfly in Tibet? The same applies to anguish in Pittsburgh.

I am an idiot, an optimistic idiot. I always think it will get better. I always think we’ll be all right. I always think that tragedies have meaning, that they teach us something, that those who are left behind will rise stronger and wiser and more clear-eyed. That we will prevent this kind of hate-filled evil from happening again.

I read about Pittsburgh, and the belief that things will be okay slides off my back like a tattered plastic rain coat. It huddles on the ground and I walk further and further away.


I go to sleep, exhausted, and wake up abruptly. Sticky shreds of nightmare cling. I have been in a strange house, I have neglected two dogs and a pony and left them starving in a basement. I put a toddler in a bathtub with the water running and forgot to stay by his side.

How could you?  the head voices say, and I vault out of bed, make tea. I find a different book, a light and wryly funny book, and I sip the tea and read the blurry pages until sleep comes back to find me.

Where am I? I think. What should I be doing?

 Is there any point?


I attend the breakfast meeting because I am on the board of an organization that ensures people with mental health and addiction challenges get the help they need. On this early morning, ordinary regular folk like me mingle with criminal justice and social work professionals. There are community volunteers there, and not-for-profit leaders and judges and wardens, sheriffs and nurses and social workers and CEOs.

They talk about grants they’ve received…monies that will help pregnant women with addiction and their babies, that will help inmates with mental illness and the disease of addiction get the help they need while they are incarcerated, and then link firmly to services when they are released. They tell us about specialty docket courts. They discuss intervention programs that keep people with substance use and mental health issues out of the criminal justice system. The programs get people, at least during their first brush with the legal machine, connected to services that can help them become, as one speaker says, productive community members.

Two people get up to speak, respected professionals, and reveal that they were helped by just such programs.

Advocates talk about services for those who’ve served in the military forces. People exchange cards and the sheriff thanks the mental health community for the help they provide law enforcement. A swell of thanks rises up, flows back toward him, spreads through the room.

There is a kind of weaving going on, I think to myself; among people of different politics and widely varied beliefs, a net is being fabricated. It will catch a lot of people.

Of course, it is being woven as people are already falling in front of its progress, but the weavers’ hands are flying. The epidemic, the creeping stain, was not predicted, but caring people have banded together, and they are making a significant impact.


I drive home slowly, thinking. The streets are slick with rain and empty. Yellow leaves flutter down; one sticks to my windshield wiper, and I let it rest there. I leave the radio off, and I let my thoughts settle.

The pain in Pittsburgh seems like a final pain, the Last Thing before the turning of the corner. It is the splash of vinegar on the dirty window. I can’t help but see it now.

This is where we are.

This is who we are.

I am sick with the need to acknowledge that we are, none of us, safe from hatred and violence. It is not a time for cock-eyed optimism.

But that meeting. That blending of very different people of good will into one tapestry of caring, one active force.

Not a time for optimism, maybe, but certainly a time for action. I will explore this week, discerning just what I can do, and then I’ll find a way to be part of the action taking place.


“Where am I?” I think, and I can’t escape that there are terrifying things in the not-too-distant shadows. Can I help to illuminate those shadows?

Maybe I can add my hands to those that are already working, even if, at first, I just hold a lantern to light an unfamiliar place.