Dreaming the Earth Mother, Searching for Ground

I’ve always felt grounded, sturdy in my hiking boots on a challenging trail, but there is no “always” in bodies. We change constantly, quickly or slowly. In 2013, as my L ear roared and the hearing disappeared, I listed left and fell against my friend Janet Wylde while we walked. I struggled up and fell again, relaxing into the fall because there was no choice.

Nothing hurt and my mind was clear, but my balance was gone. I’d had a Meniere’s Disease hearing loss pattern for over twenty years, so ENT doctors often asked if I had “drop attacks.”

“No,” I’d said.

“You’re lucky,” they’d said.

Janet Wylde

As I sat for two hours on cement steps in downtown Ithaca, I considered my situation. So this was a drop attack. Now what? I asked Janet to test me for stroke. My speech wasn’t slurred, my upraised arms and mouth were even, my vision and mind were fine. No, not a stroke.

Janet, ever generous, drove me home. By the time we got there, I could walk from the car to my house, dazed and disembodied, but standing. A neurologist diagnosed Meniere’s vertigo, and eventually I found medicines that helped.

Intense vertigo eased after a cochlear implant in March 2019, but imbalance remained. With a hearing aid in one ear and a cochlear implant in the other, my body struggled, but the plasticity of the brain is a wonder. My hearing improved.

Mother of the Forest, Big Basin State Park, CA

I considered attending a dream workshop led by Robert Bosnak, a Jungian analyst who does Embodied Dreamwork and gives a yearly workshop nearby. My hearing had prevented me from going for years, but the acoustical environment would be good and people speak slowly, one at a time, when working with dreams. I signed up.

Just before the workshop, I dreamed:

I sit in the back row of a tiered auditorium surrounded by rowdy, loud, laughing students, chaotic noise that shatters my calm and brings on vertigo. Wanting to hear, I move to the front of the auditorium, walking down wide steps to hear the dark woman who will speak. She has no neck or head. She asks me, “Do you know what happens after death?” I say, “I don’t know but I have a strong belief system.”

To escape the shattering noise, Dream Elaine descends the stairs like a supplicant journeying to the Underworld. As I move down, lower and lower.

Who is she? How can she speak without a head? In the dream, her headless body isn’t horrifying or upsetting. She’s thick and stable. Heavy and grounded. Her voice, low and deep, comes from the depths of Earth, far below the noisy chaos above.

She knows what happens after death and her knowing is so much more than my headtrip beliefs. She witnesses the eternal flow as life and death cycle into each other. As I describe Her, words bubble up from within without a story. A friend writes my words down and hands me this card the next morning.

Ground…. Mother…. Holding…. Eternal…. Fearless…. Fertile… Smell of a forest floor…. Life and Death move into each other…. Planted…. Rooted…. 

The following week, friends and I paint together. I want to paint Her, but I only have a vague image from the dream. I begin with thick legs in dark earth colors and let Her emerge. Her headless body becomes a tree trunk. She has one red fruit, like Persephone’s pomegranate. One spiral of flowing energy.

She is Earth Mother, the Ground beneath life’s chaotic flow. She’s the One I need to hear.


I had explored this dream with Robert Bosnak and talked about it with my dream therapist before painting, but I didn’t know she was a tree until I chose colors and the trunk emerged. Do you paint your dreams or memories? I easily become too wordy as a writer and painting takes my understanding to a deeper level.

For another piece about my challenges with Meniere’s Disease, see Dizzy, Deaf, and Determined.  For another article about exploring dreams with painting. see 9 Ways to Unpack a Powerful Dream.

  1. You couldn’t make it up! Last night before sleep I read the Greek myth of Philemon and Baucis who were visited by Jupiter and Mercury, which has inspired me to write a new poem, hopefully before the spring equinox, all about mythical trees … when to my surprise this morning, the goddess Persephone stepped into this unwritten poem looking for food and shelter. Hmm, it’s going to be interesting!

    Elaine, last year I was delighted to read that you felt courageous enough to take the risk of having a cochlear implant fitted and how surgery has not only eased your intense vertigo but has slowly improved your hearing too. Wonderful news, and hopefully it’s been worth all the pain, discomfort and risks involved. When you touched on “drop attacks” it makes me instantly think of a tree being felled.

    Thank you for exploring your archetypal dream and reminding us not only of the power of dreams but also that painting images from them holds great power too. I don’t paint dream images often enough so thanks for the nudge! Your dream auditorium made me think of an ancient Greek theater and I love how you descended and rooted around below. Hmm, and then there’s the forbidden pomegranate!

    I’m sure you’ve explored active imaginations with your Earth Mother (and pomegranate!) because I would have to keep talking to them. Don’t ask me why but this Rumi quote came to mind as you met your dark woman, “I know you are tired, but come this is the way. “ As always I enjoyed your photos, most especially the beautiful one of you holding your “tree” painting. Love and light, Deborah.

    • I’m laughing, Deborah. I have no doubt your new poem will be interesting.

      Drop attacks made me feel like a tree being felled–and I admit it’s disappointing I still have vertigo and would have drop attacks if I stopped using the medicine which has its own depressive side effects. For this piece, I needed a short review of my physical history to make sense of the dream since, I assume, many readers drop in and read just one thing. I love your association with the ancient Greek theater and my dream auditorium.

      Painting a dream that presents a strong unusual symbol (a headless dark woman who speaks to me!) always yields deeper meaning, not necessarily from a rational perspective. In this case the dream work was focused on feeling, safety, and being held from a deeper earth place. I keep talking to the Tree Mother in active imagination and the painting (amateur as my painting is) is on my desk and brings my mind back to her and the feeling of support and deep roots. I love the Rumi quote you sent. Yes, I am tired. I don’t feel alone in my fatigue since the whole world feels tired at this moment, unsupported, and struggling. I send grounded roots and far reaching branches to you across the sea.

      • What a brilliant insight! To explore our physical health alongside our dreams. I always forget to do this … I’ve written this down in my dream book. Thank you!

        Your “headless, dark woman” lingers and another quote (check out my last tweet) comes to mind. Yes, many are struggling with tiredness and little or no support.

        • I’ve had many dreams about struggling with hearing and checked in with dreams before having surgery–which is not a complete fix, but allows me to have conversations with friends in quiet places and listen to something with excellent audio like a TED talk. None of the dreams are about “curing” my hearing, but they give me a sense that the psyche knows how to handle this even if my ego doesn’t. I’ll look for the quote you suggest.

  2. This is so cool, Elaine! Listening for sounds, waiting for colors, and feeling the weight of your words; letting them all come together into meaning.

    • Thank you, Mark. I love waking up with a juicy dream with an interesting symbol rather than my ordinary dreams about being lost, confused, or not being able to find my cell phone. (So far I haven’t lost my puppy in a dream.) Painting an image like this brings a sense of meaning deeper than my usual head trip–and harder to articulate. I had the dream in October or early November and may be working with the meaning for a long time.

  3. The painting is gorgeous Elaine, as is the photo of you! What a powerful dream and you encourage me to pay more attention to painting my dreams. I have in the past and currently do sketches but not for a while already (no dreams, or none that I recall for a while). And, as you imply, keep on searching for possible meaning of the symbol or the image, especially when it is as graphic as this one.

    Let me add about your courage re the cochlear transplant .. and even though the brain is up there in one’s head literally, the brain is in every cell of our body and in the trees and their roots around us – thank you for this.

    • Thanks, Susan. I’m glad this inspires you to think about painting dreams–or any of the dream-like visions of nature you see in South Africa. I didn’t assume the noisy students were about the cochlear implant in my head, but about my noisy “heady” need to figure things out and my struggles to make sense of the noisy world. The dream suggests a descent into the quiet world where I am rooted. I thrive on quiet and time in nature and this is where I hear the best–inwardly and outwardly. I spent most of my life as an extrovert, so this is a big adjustment–and I’m still adapting to the cochlear implant and to so much time alone (with dogs and birds).

  4. “…there is no ‘always’ in bodies. We change constantly, quickly or slowly.” It seems you are once again on the same wave length. Maybe it’s our age. 🙂 Yesterday’s post on my blog is titled, “Sacred Laws of Psyche: Circles of Change.” Your ears, my eyes…. I had cataract surgery two weeks ago today. All is well…with my right eye. Still one more to go. I’m so glad to know you’re regaining your hearing and have your balance under control.

    And what can I say about your wonderful dream of the Mother tree. Aaahhhh. I want more nature dreams, but I probably need to spend more time outdoors to have them. I’ve been sitting at my computer living in my head with this new book for so long that lately most of my dreams take place indoors. Three dreams in the last three nights were about me passively observing people I didn’t know doing things for reasons I didn’t understand. You think Dream Mother’s trying to wake me up to a new lesson? 🙂

    Thinking of you in your lovely old farmhouse and your daily walks with your dogs….congrats on your new puppy if I haven’t said it before….makes me yearn for my mountain cabin. I’m feeling the need for some of Mother’s grounded, holding, eternal, fearless, fertile, rooted, earth medicine! Thank you for reminding me how healing she can be. And painting my dreams. Something I haven’t done in years. I think it’s time to get back to it.

    Blessings to you on your ongoing healing.

    • I’m glad your cataract surgery went well, Jeanie. Most people have wonderful results from this surgery. wouldn’t say I’m regaining hearing that’s like original hearing (unlike cataract removal), but I now have slightly weird and uncomfortable hearing that allows me to function in life. That’s the main thing. I signed up for a weekend workshop with a woman meditation and philosophy teacher and hope she does more meditating than talking.

      I loved my headless woman dream–and the timing was right because I could explore it at the dream workshop. Working with Robert Bosnak is a pleasure. My recent dreams often have a certain flavor: being lost, can’t find my cell phone, can’t find my purse or car keys, want to call Vic but don’t know the number, and on it goes in similar themes. I never lose my dogs, I’m glad to say, or my sons. My pup Disco is now 6 months old and we just got through spaying. She’s good to run again. She’s an affectionate girl and doesn’t need as much exercise as a Lab, even though she’s obviously a Lab mix. So one 45 minute walk a day keeps her happy–and me happy. She’s also smaller (the vet guesses she won’t weight more than 45 lbs), easy to train, and gets along well with other dogs and people. I got a winner–and you never know when you rescue a pup. She’s also had an A+ upbringing with no trauma.

      I just cleared a large table in my office that had accumulated papers, books, and files. It will be my painting table because if the paper and paints are out, I gravitate to them. I hope your second surgery goes well. I’m behind in blog reading (as usual since adopting this pup), but plan to catch up today. And the ice will melt here. It always does. This time of year, FL seems like a good idea.

      When I think of roots, I remember some of the photos I took near your home. Are those mangrove trees? I’m not sure, but the roots were beautiful and impressive.

      • They were cypress trees. They have extraordinary roots called “knees” that grow several feet above the ground in beautiful shapes. Floridians have been making lamp stands out of them for years. It doesn’t seem to hurt the trees, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

  5. Just before visiting you here, I saw someone on Facebook posting a photo of large, GREEN palmetto fronds emerging from ground ravaged by the Australian bush fires. Your coming to life with listening, seeing, and feeling is something like that – resurrection. Thank you again for giving more details of your stories of survival: Meniere’s Disease, cochlear implant, and more.

    I don’t paint my dreams, but I like your tree painting, Elaine, so evocative. Some of my wordsmith friends are also visual artists. Maybe I should try my hand. Ha

    And as you know, I believe in eternal life after death.

    • Thank you, Marian. My hearing saga can be a downer and I don’t like focusing on it too much, but it continues to be a demanding journey and apparently there are more things I need to learn. So many friends are undergoing chemotherapy and joint replacements, so I know it’s always something. I’m grateful I can manage decently with the implant and medicines to control vertigo. I’m still surprised by my situation. (The article you sent about the young woman having a cochlear implant still resonates with me. Her words were something like, “I’m still a deaf person, but now I have a cochlear implant.”) It’s not the same as natural hearing, but it’s hearing and I’m glad I have it.

      There are ways we balance our husbands and they balance us. I can see how it would be easy to let Cliff handle the illustrations and paints. But it’s interesting when we try something that isn’t our “talent.” New things emerge–and in the cold northeast, working with color is a mood elevator. My dream woman seems to tell me there is much more to “what happens after death” than my belief system. We’ll see what’s revealed in time. I think more will emerge either in dreams or in mediation or teachings. I’m paying attention.

  6. I love your headless woman dream, Elaine, and the way you worked with it through your evocative painting. The picture of you holding it is so beautiful. (And it looks like you may have also painted the table on which it is resting!) I have been keeping a dream journal for close to 40 years now, yet I rarely get out the paints. After reading this post, I am more convinced than ever that my psyche is longing for me to do so. I look forward to hearing what wisdom will emerge from the Tree Mother in time.

    I also appreciate your sharing just a bit of your hearing saga with your readers–a demanding journey, indeed. I keep working with what the chronic illness I live with has to teach me about showing up with what is (feeling fatigue and dizziness most of the time). As I have written before, the way you are living your life so fully with the challenges you face is an inspiration to me, as there are days when it can feel both very hard and lonely.(Toni Bernhard has written a wonderful book “How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers” which I turn to frequently.) Gratitude is probably the practice that helps me the most, and I am grateful for you.

    • I’m grateful to Marion Woodman for focusing on the importance of painting our dreams or visions–and also moving with them as we can. In this case, it helped to paint with friends and have their encouragement. One is an art therapist and artist. My Mother Tree is on my desk and I put time aside time to talk to her every day. With warmer weather this week, I spend more time in the forest–wearing yak-trax on my boots for strong footing in snowy-icy fields.

      Life changes through aging and also through our specific challenges, but I feel better when I keep moving as much as I can. I watch so many friends go through health challenges. Disco the pup (6 months old now with a sweet temperament mixed with the wild child normal for her age) gets me outside. Life is lonely especially in winter, so I remind myself that I live surrounded by beauty, have a full refrigerator, and have good fortune in this life. Anne, I’m also grateful for our connection and that you find some support and sisterhood in what I write. Sending love from the snow-ice country where I’m looking forward to a melt.

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