At three a.m, our ten-year-old daughter Hazel came into our room. I couldn’t see her in the dark, but I could hear her short, shallow breathing and her shaking voice.
“Mama, I can’t sleep. I had a really bad dream,” she said. Hazel was born with a huge imagination. It is a blessing and a curse. She can visualize forests where butterflies bind together to protect the woods. She can also picture bad men with bazookas blasting through our door. I opened my eyes. Hazel stood next to the bed in her monkey footsie pajamas that she has worn so much that her feet stick out the bottom. She looked smaller than her ten years. And although she is beyond the stage of being afraid of the dark, she still has nightmares. It’s also fair to say that a lot has been going on in her life lately.
“Can I sleep with you and Papa?” She begged.
Saying yes means that we have to make room for her, but also for her blanket, her giant stuffed- animal squid, and her brown bear. I normally try to corral them all back to her bed, and coax her to sing herself back to sleep. But that takes energy I just didn’t have.
“Hazel, you’re safe,” I said, not moving from our bed.
“But I can’t make the bad thoughts go away,” she sniffled. I knew what she meant. I often wake up, sweating, worrying about the future, unable to make bad thoughts go away.
“Nightmares make us feel powerless, paralyzed. But that doesn’t mean you are,” I said.
“But I don’t know what to do,” she said. She had me there. When I am spinning in worst-case-scenarios, I am too dizzy in darkness to imagine a good outcome. I forget that I am strong; I forget that difficult times challenge me to be better, to tap into my resiliency and the strength of my friends.
“Climb in. Tell me about your nightmare,” I gave in.
“There was a murderer. You were up ahead on the sidewalk.”
“Oh hon. It’s not real,” I said, hugging her tight.
“I couldn’t get to you to tell you that the bad guy was the one you would least expect. Then he took out a knife and tried to cut off my hand,” She said breathlessly.
“Hazel, when you’re asleep, you can’t do anything. But when you are awake, you are immensely capable. Remember? You walk to and from school on your own. You make up songs to stop bullying. You wouldn’t ever let someone cut off your hand.”
“But I can’t stop thinking about it,” she said.
I wanted to help our daughter. But I desperately wanted to sleep. Then again, I had a pink squid with bulging eyeballs in my face and a girl with bad breath breathing on me. I couldn’t sleep. I remembered something I had read by sociologist Martha Beck. She said, “We’re most creative when we are relaxed and happy. Conversely, we can direct our minds into this state of calm by undertaking a creative task.”
“Hazel, let’s make something,” I said and got out of bed.
We dragged the whole gang of comfort blankets and stuffies into the living room and pulled out the butterfly mobile Hazel had been making for days from a craft kit.
I thought about this crazy world we live in. Then I thought about butterflies and imagination and if making something could genuinely redirect our troubled minds to quiet, calm waters. I don’t know. It’s not the only solution, but it felt like a cure to disempowerment and paralysis.
Hazel and I folded and glued pink and purple butterflies outlined in gold glitter. I couldn’t hold my head up; I kept leaning against the couch, half-asleep. But it felt good to make something together. Hazel’s breathing slowed and deepened. Her shoulders relaxed. She added golden jewels to the butterfly bodies and wings.
Eventually, we crawled back in bed. She immediately fell asleep. I lay awake, but felt calm. In my mind, I re-wrote the ending to Hazel’s nightmare to include butterflies binding together to protect her, until I fell asleep.