Mary Lou Sanelli
Mary Lou Sanelli

That I dream in sentences may seem a bit odd.

Except it isn’t, really.

How the sentences began is a story in itself, intertwined with my love of reading, prompted by whatever book I’m immersed in or, more likely, by my opinion of whatever book I’m immersed in. I hear the words. Then, slowly, they emerge. And I never thought the same way about dreaming once the sentences became visible, words that want nothing more than to make my mind a truer place in which to live.

They are not always successful.

Nor are they new to my dream cycles. When I was a kid, “Highlights” was my favorite read, and mine alone, though I was supposed to share the magazines with my sisters. I didn’t share them with my sisters. In winter, I hid them under my bed. In summer, in my tree fort.

\No one ever found me in my fort, and that’s what I wanted. Without interruption, which I also wanted, I was eager to know myself in the world outside of my family, my school, my street.

My fort was neat, airy, and when the afternoon sun hit the paper birch, the white bark illuminated everything, every tree, every plant, every insect hovering in the air between the lowest branches and the ground, reminding me that the forest was forever encroaching, which, I think, is a perfectly understandable entitlement. It was about this time that I started dreaming in sentences.

My father said, “don’t let the neighbor kids climb up,” which didn’t bother me. I didn’t want the neighbor kids to climb up. But I couldn’t imagine what he meant by “dangerous.” To me, the weather-beaten boards weren’t a hazard, but safety. I thought the trim lopsidedness of my three walls (it was more of a lean-to) was its most endearing quality. To this day, a well-kept cottage can fill me with house-envy. But it’s not like that when I see lavish reflections of wealth. It’s as if I can feel certain tensions seeping out, and then, there they are, gathering in a sleepy sentence inside of my head.

I’m not saying every huge house is chaos waiting to happen. I’m just saying that’s how I internalize them. Listening to my parents’ marriage implode within the sturdy split-level my father built, my fort became, not all at once but as the fights intensified, a requirement for the rest of my life. I felt more at home in my fort than anywhere else. I think I’ve been searching for that same feeling ever since.

A few of my homes have come close. Sometimes I feel as if my true place is still out there.

I write terribly in the dark, and most mornings I have no memory of the sentences. But when I re-read the scribble, I see how the words want to matter just as much as I do; they want to try. They work hard at coming into my subconscious. They bomb just as often. But they try.

My last 3 a.m. sentence said everything people like me like to say to themselves, “Writing is the ritual I found for myself so that my life and my work would always be the same.”

Two hours later, the words were harsher. They posed a question. Two questions. Then, a startling truth. “The New York Times” was my portal in between dreams (never a good idea), the Russian invasion of Ukraine, human suffering I didn’t want to think about, but I made myself read every account.

For another hour I tossed and turned in the aftermath. It was 5:30 a.m. when I scrawled, “What about that bomb we dropped, that unthinkable bomb?” My mind raced. Then it (sort of) changed the subject. “No other country slaughters cows as brutally as we do, and were these images to be put on full-color spreads in the ‘New York Times,’ no one could stand to look … but we’d have to look and then maybe the days of slaughtering 33 million cattle a year would be over!!!!!”

The exclamation points ran off the pad. I was upset. And I remember with absolute clarity why I was so upset, aside from the Russians, the war, the bomb and all the heaving cows: During past travels, we’d driven past stockyards in Texas. I had never tried to express my horror in writing. But earlier that evening I ate red meat for the first time since I was 17. I didn’t know I was eating it. It was in the sauce. I was fine. My stomach didn’t even seem to notice. My mind, however — clearly more sensitive to the thought of beef than my stomach — rebelled, leaving a shock wave in its wake.

“My life has always been about small blisses, small wins.” Half an hour ago, this sentence surfaced during the nap I tried to take. The words made their way in. They made mistakes (I don’t like the word “wins”). They made me listen. To everything.

Even the memory of that fort makes me smile. I managed to forget the world’s harms for a few hours and come back to my nest in the woods, and that’s the closest thing to happiness I can rally when I’m this afraid of Putin and this … tired.


Mary Lou Sanelli’s newest collection of essays, “Every Little Thing,” has been nominated for a 2022 Washington State Book Award. Find it at Magnolia’s Bookstore and The Queen Anne Book Company,