In the last 24 hours I had two dreams which I remembered in great detail. This wouldn’t be worthy of mention for most people, but I am of the unfortunate camp for whom dreams are erased almost instantly when I open my eyes, like those children’s pads where you can make the writing disappear by simply lifting the top plastic sheet. Some people who come up empty in the morning contend that they don’t dream at all. One night in a sleep lab would take care of that misconception. I know I dream regularly, which makes it all the more frustrating that they leave so little residue, except for an occasional fleeting image that darts across my mental screen as I brush my teeth, a cruel tease, the tail of my dream kite which has already been taken by the wind.
It’s important to remember that in retelling dreams we impose a familiar narrative structure which is a misrepresentation of the actual fragmented, weirdly disjointed dream experience. Time may not be arranged in a linear pattern, location can shift abruptly, things happen that defy our waking laws of physics, but for the sake of telling and remembering we smooth out the rough edges to create a coherent tale. I’ve written in an earlier posting about my experiences with psilocybin. Reporting those experiences poses the same challenges as relating dreams. What you’re experiencing is not “logical” in our traditional sense of the word, and it is, as a result, virtually impossible to report accurately.
Let me tell you what I remember of these most recent dreams before they too drift away. The first came during the mid-day nap of 20-25 minutes that has become a regular slot on my daily agenda. I was driving on a highway that felt small, toy sized. There were two vehicles ahead of me. One was not a car, but a small steam roller, the kind used in paving projects. The steam roller began to change lanes, then realized it didn’t have time to do it safely. When it tried to return to its lane, it went out of control and crashed into a concrete wall and disintegrated. It left a cartoon-like two-dimensional imprint on the wall, but no matter how hard I searched there was no evidence of a driver. That bit of weirdness seemed to be what frightened me into awakening, five or six minutes before the alarm I had set for 21 minutes on my cell phone.
The second dream occurred just before I got up the next morning. Remembering dreams seems to depend on the stage of REM sleep in which they occur. I had awakened twice during the night, which was unusual for me, so I think my normal waking time was displaced into a different sleep stage, which is why I was able to remember the dream. I immediately recounted it to my wife and that retelling hastened the imposition of a narrative structure that doesn’t feel quite like the original, but here is what they used to call on Saturday Night Live the pre-chewed version.
I was attending a conference about a rare Norwegian hat. There were a half-dozen high-powered scholars led by a man named Stephen. He had a Jewish surname which I remembered on awakening, but it is lost now. The details of what went on at the conference have already been erased. As the meeting was breaking up, Stephen noticed two boys walking by (the setting for the meeting seemed to be a school in Norway) one of whom was wearing this rare hat. We rushed out to talk to him. He removed the hat and handed it to us for examination. It was oddly constructed, something like the elephant-shaped tea cozy I had been considering discarding the other day. It felt heavy and the fabric was rough. The boy gave us a brief history of this particular hat, but it’s now a day later and the details of the dream have already begun to erode; what I’ve reported is all that remains.
Early in my clinical psychology training, I read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. In this brilliant book, Freud puts forth the argument that all dreams are wish fulfillments. In its most stripped-down form, if you’re hungry you dream about strawberries. Then there’s the belief that dreams portend the future, like the Biblical dream of Joseph about the seven fat cows and 7 lean cows that represent the years of bounty followed by years of famine that drive the plan of action that Joseph proposes to Pharaoh. The more contemporary theories are informed by brain science and infused with computer imagery. For example, there’s the idea that dreams are the cleansing of unneeded memories that, if retained, would clutter up the available space needed for the constant flow of new experiences. So, for the sake of efficiency the brain performs a nightly data dump.
My apologies for the oversimplified rendering of these dream theories. I’ve indulged in some of the Freudian scavenger hunt for symbols in other people’s dreams, and a nimble therapist might have a field day with the dreams I’ve recounted, but my focus here is not on interpretation, but on the process of remembering itself, how easily these fragile dream memories are erased and the way we reshape the memories we do remember to retain and retell them more easily.
One of my favorite writing activities with students is creating dream poems. I’ve done this with fifth to eighth graders as well as adults, although there’s no reason it wouldn’t work at almost any level. I can’t say that the unit generated fabulous poetry, but it was valuable for the conversations it ignited. The discussions uncovered a great sense of relief that the dreamers were not alone with their weird nighttime experiences. Children rarely discussed dreams with their peers, so they had no awareness of their universality. Once they started feeling comfortable with the subject, students shared actual dreams, which uncovered common patterns– dreams of falling and awakening before you hit the ground, dreams of being chased and feeling your movements slowing, making it difficult to escape.
I shared an early memory to introduce the topic of recurring dreams. It’s a dream I’ve recounted so many times that I don’t know what if anything is left of the original. It grew out of the World War II period when I was four or five. There were periodic air raid drills signaled by sirens which meant all lights were to be turned off and all curtains and shades drawn. In my dream I was on the roof of our building where anti-aircraft guns were mounted. I was firing at the planes. This dream repeated on several nights. Obviously, you can see it as a wish fulfillment in the manner of Dr. Freud, a desire to control a situation over which you are, in fact, powerless. I won’t dispute that, but again, what interests me is the fact that the dream has stayed with me while so many subsequent dreams have evaporated into the ether. Again, I’m not sure how closely my telling matches the actual dream experience after all this time. All the retellings have beaten the dream into a shape that’s easy to relate precisely because it has trimmed away all elements of illogic and discontinuity that make dreams so mysterious and elusive. It’s why so many writers and artists have failed in their attempts to represent dreams in their work. They either come across as more logical and cohesive than dreams tend to be or too contrived in their efforts to replicate the illogic of the real thing.
Some people have suggested that if I wanted to – apologies to Langston Hughes – hold fast to more of my dreams, I should keep pen and paper next to my bed to record them when I awaken. I’m sure that this would increase my batting average for remembering them, though that wouldn’t help me with the vast majority of dreams that don’t wake me and are gone by morning. In any case, I’ve never resorted to pen and paper, perhaps because I’m afraid it will be difficult to get back to sleep if I mobilize myself to recount the odd journey I have been on. It’s strange to ponder how many thousands of hours we spend in a parallel world of dreams and how quickly they yield to the dailiness of our waking lives. For a long time I’ve harbored a fancy that technology will one day enable us to hook up to a machine that will project and record our dreams as they occur, so that they would be accessible not just to us, but to others for analysis. It’s an enticing fantasy, but it risks encroaching on one of the few private retreats that is still available to us. So, for now I’ll continue to grasp at the wisps of smoke that are usually all that remain of a busy night of dreaming.