Thursday, March 3, 2011

On Dreams

My mother used to say:

My parents belong to the plains of yesterday;
I am of the fields of today,
But you will be of the planets of tomorrow.

Now you belong also to the plains of yesterday;
Be patient once you get there, too,
For someday soon I will be with you.

Dreams are amazing things. The quote above is from my dream last night after my mother had a heart attack or something and died in front of me. The voice that said those words were my own, but were said more in the background, almost like a narrator's rather from my own character. What gets me about some dreams is how attached one can become to the characters. In this case, the "mother" I was talking about in no way resembles my actual mother; the dream mom was blond, young, and the mannerism did not match up at all. During the entire course of the dream, she wasn't in it for more than maybe two minutes, long enough for my "dad" (I cannot even picture him, but again there were no resemblances to any father figure in my life) to pull a weird, cruel joke on her.

The entire length of time I was dreaming was less than an hour (I woke up 40 minutes before the alarm went off, during this time the dream occurred). It included a fairly tedious Odyssey of sorts of me, as a student back in school, wandering the school looking for a teacher who could help clean off some food stains on my clothing that had gotten there during a fight in lunch. Somehow I ended up back home and saw the part between my "parents" and what it lead to. It's odd how long time seems to exist in dreams compared to the time really spent dreaming.

I often dream, but they rarely stick with me after waking up. Sometimes the voices do not cease the second I wake up, leading to some odd hallucinations first thing in the morning. That's particularly true and scary if I wake up in the middle of the night. Most of my dreams go away quickly, though, and details are impossible to remember mere moments after awakening. But sometimes I have dreams that stay with me for years; the one I had last night will be one of them.

What makes those dreams special is invariably a deep emotional connection to one of the characters. Sometimes it is a parent, more often a lover, but the really odd part is that usually it is a person I have never seen in real life. I have known people I do not dislike in reality for years but never formed an especially strong attachment with them, but in dreams there are people who I cannot even name but I would give the world for them. It is a given that I know them and that they know me; I would never even question it, which is what makes those dreams so powerful. It can be quite disconcerting to wake up from such dreams, to learn that not only are these deeply loved people gone but that they never even existed in the first place. That has a way of shaking me up for some time. Probably the worst part is going to sleep the next time hoping to see them again. I have to imagine that is what death is like, waking up from such a dream to be in a place where those characters we live with do not exist.

From what little I know scientifically about dreams, they only last a few moments in real time. Somehow, our brains unpack that information in such a way that it seems hours, maybe even days have passed. Pretty amazing that such huge details can be left out (how did I get from the school to my house?) without anyone calling bullshit on the "reality" we are watching. The real question for me is always where these characters came from. I can generally assign roles, like parents or friends, and sometimes I dream of actual people I know, but usually they are people I have never seen in real life. Where do they come from? How does my brain generate such people and the plots they seem to fit so naturally into?

Nothing is quite so frustrating as trying to describe a phantom world. The poet Lord Byron did an excellent job, however, and I will leave off with his words:

Our life is twofold; Sleep hath its own world,
A boundary between the things misnamed
Death and existence: Sleep hath its own world,
And a wide realm of wild reality,
And dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy;
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight from off waking toils,
They do divide our being; they become
A portion of ourselves as of our time,
And look like heralds of eternity;
They pass like spirits of the past -they speak
Like sibyls of the future; they have power -
The tyranny of pleasure and of pain;
They make us what we were not -what they will,
And shake us with the vision that's gone by,
The dread of vanished shadows -Are they so?
Is not the past all shadow? -What are they?
Creations of the mind? -The mind can make
Substances, and people planets of its own
With beings brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.
I would recall a vision which I dreamed
Perchance in sleep -for in itself a thought,
A slumbering thought, is capable of years,
And curdles a long life into one hour.

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