On Dreams

13 Jul

Every morning I wake up tense, my fists clenched and my arms pressed into my chest. It’s as if I’m braced for impact, like I’m about to crash-land into the day. I tell myself that it’s the dregs of the REM paralysis that’s supposed to keep you from acting out your dreams, but that’s probably not right. I mean, I’m sure there’s some kind of science to explain it, I just don’t know what it is.

Sometimes I picture myself trying to explain dreams to an alien race that has never experienced them. Ok, I imagine saying, so for eight hours every night humans lie unconscious and vulnerable while their minds weave complex stories out of their deepest fears, memories and desires. Most humans have no control over what happens in these stories, and often they learn more about themselves than they want to. These stories feel very real while they’re happening, but then when the humans wake up the waking world feels somehow more real, so that’s how they know they’ve been dreaming. 

Babies dream in the womb – or, at least, we think they do, since they spend long periods of time in REM sleep. It’s hard not to wonder what they dream about, given that they’ve never seen shapes or colours or even light, beyond whatever few particles can make it through the densely knit tissue of the uterine wall. Probably they dream about sounds – watery voices, the pulsing echo of a heartbeat, some kind of far away music. Maybe they dream about how things feel  – the way their limbs drift and sway in their inland sea, the rebound of their foot after a particularly strong kick, the accidental brush of a hand against a face. Maybe they dream about waiting.

The first dream I ever remember having is from when I was two or three. I dreamed that Cookie Monster developed this delusion that I was a cookie and was determined to eat me. After he broke into our house, my parents and I went on the run in some sort of Sesame Street witness protection program. Just before I woke up, Cookie had discovered where we were hiding, and my parents were standing in front of my bed trying to shield me with their bodies; it was all very Harry Potter, but with less dark lords and more muppets. It all sounds pretty funny in retrospect, but at the time it was terrifying – and why shouldn’t it be? There are few things scarier than a person that you love and trust suddenly becoming hell-bent on your destruction. Apparently even as a toddler I could sense that.

Most of my dreams are bad – they range from the middling anxiety type up to the full out apocalyptic nightmares. In fact, I’ve probably only had one good dream in the past five years. That fact alone was so remarkable that I spent the whole next session with my therapist dissecting it.

The dream started out poorly – I was on a horse, riding into some walled medieval city that had been all but wiped out by the plague. I knew with that irrefutable dream-logic that I had to find a door in the wall, so I started trying to make my way there. Somewhere along the way I lost my horse and had to continue on foot. Scary things happened, although I don’t remember the particulars. Eventually I found the door and ducked inside, although I knew that whatever the danger was, it was following me.

Inside the wall was an underground river. Once the door was closed, the air was very dark and still. The only way forward was to go through the water, so I stepped in and found it was surprisingly warm. I followed the current and eventually wound up at this border checkpoint that also functioned as a holding pen for people hoping to immigrate to … well, whatever was beyond the border. When I got inside, I had to wait in a queue before handing over my visa and passport; they told me it would be a few days before my papers were processed, and assigned me to a room.

Everything was very bright and modern and comfortable. The long hallways were clean and well-lit, the people were friendly, the rooms were adequately furnished. But as nice as the facility was, none of us wanted to be there, because as long as we were there it meant that we couldn’t yet go to the place we wanted to get to – wherever that was. So we waited.

I remember that another woman there complained long and hard about the on-site laundry, even though it was free. She had three kids and was angry because she didn’t think there were enough machines. I was outwardly sympathetic, but I also remember thinking to myself, “she’ll never get out of here if she doesn’t stop making a fuss.” I mostly stayed in my room and read the tatty old paperback thriller someone had left there. I didn’t have anything else; they’d even given me new clothes and thrown out the ones I’d worn to wade through the river. I kept trying to look out the window, but it was too foggy to see anything.

Eventually they let me through. The angry laundry woman and her kids were still waiting to have their papers processed, even though they’d been there longer than me. She was angrier than ever. I figured they’d never stamp her passport, only I wasn’t sure what would happen if that was the case – it was some sort of unspoken knowledge that none of us could go back to where we’d come from. We could only wait to be let through.

On the other side of the checkpoint was a long beach. It was sunset, and the beach extended as far west and east as I could see. To the south there was a sort of tropical forest, and to the north there was the ocean. The beach itself was dotted with campfires, and around every fire was a group of people talking, laughing and singing softly. The air was very warm and in the background you could hear the gentle lap-lap-lap of the water against the shore. I started walking, and after a while realized that this was all there was to the new country I’d come to – endless campfires on a beach at sunset. I started recognizing people here and there in the different groups, and then that magic dream-logic told me that I was in Death. This beach was Death, and the people I recognized were people I’d known who had died. And I knew that if I walked the whole length of the beach eventually I’d find all the people I’d ever loved and lost.

And then I woke up.

Maybe the waiting I dreamed about is the same type of waiting babies dream about. A border is a border, I guess, whether crossing it leads into life or out of it. And just like babies get snatches of sound and touch that tell them what’s coming, maybe we get the same – and maybe it’s just as impossible for us to translate those hints in any meaningful way. Like a person hearing morse code for the first time and knowing that it’s something, but not being able to tell what those haunting beeps mean. Maybe that’s what some dreams are – your brain trying to process those strange signals.


Witchy Woman and Fleetwood Mac star Stevie Nicks was crazy as a cockatoo in the 1980s - she's the poster child for saying no to drugs

25 Responses to “On Dreams”

  1. GoldMark City July 13, 2015 at 2:35 am #


  2. TheGirlWhoWasThursday July 13, 2015 at 5:03 am #

    One time I dreamed that the Queen of Blades was wading through a river, determined and furiously angry. On the far bank, bird people were charging towards her across the sand, screaming. They were the dead. There was going to be a war between them when she came out of the water.

  3. kassawoura July 13, 2015 at 5:49 am #

    I not speak english

  4. rdesaintpern July 13, 2015 at 8:47 am #

    I think it’s amazing how dreams can become memories. I too have had to contend with crippling nightmares since I can remember. While mine are vivid and detailed, they lack the logic and narrative of your boarder dream… And I think logic is a terrifying element in nightmares.
    My mum used to tell me to turn my nightmares into something creative – such as a story – I never did, but I think it’s very therapeutic, and at the end of the day, your conscious has done all the hard work for you!

  5. margosnotebook July 13, 2015 at 8:55 am #

    nice narrative

  6. Rosetta Lucente July 13, 2015 at 9:34 am #

    I love this so much! (And squee Stevie Nicks!)

  7. Cheryl July 13, 2015 at 12:04 pm #

    This is so beautifully written. I’m a little obsessed with dreams, and dreaming. I have vivid dreams most nights – sometimes tangled and complicated ones, sometimes all bold, bright colours and childlike clarity. And when I wake up, I lie and wonder how, when the rest of my systems are shut down, and my thinking-brain is supposed to be set to sleep, my under-mind can somehow continue to spin these weird, strange, sometimes terrifying, sometimes beautiful stories.

    There is a George Carlin quote that I love, that just about sums up the weirdness of dreaming:

    “People say, ‘I’m going to sleep now,’ as if it were nothing. But it’s really a bizarre activity. ‘For the next several hours, while the sun is gone, I’m going to become unconscious, temporarily losing command over everything I know and understand. When the sun returns, I will resume my life.’If you didn’t know what sleep was, and you had only seen it in a science fiction movie, you would think it was weird and tell all your friends about the movie you’d seen.They had these people, you know? And they would walk around all day and be OK? And then, once a day, usually after dark, they would lie down on these special platforms and become unconscious. They would stop functioning almost completely, except deep in their minds they would have adventures and experiences that were completely impossible in real life. As they lay there, completely vulnerable to their enemies, their only movements were to occasionally shift from one position to another; or, if one of the ‘mind adventures’ got too real, they would sit up and scream and be glad they weren’t unconscious anymore. Then they would drink a lot of coffee.’So, next time you see someone sleeping, make believe you’re in a science fiction movie. And whisper, ‘The creature is regenerating itself.”

    I’ve wondered, often, about how animals dream, but never about babies, and now I can’t stop imagining it. I imagine their dreams must be pink, mostly, with the heart’s drumming like a baseline underneath.

  8. peabodyrus July 13, 2015 at 1:09 pm #

    I’m sorry you have only bad dreams – my dreamworld is more fun than the real one – always lots of travel involved, much car driving, sometimes repeating roadways and traffic patterns, often wonderful people from my past & present, real & composite, always in realistic color. I assume the travel motif is because I love to drive, and the people are those with whom I want/need to interact and/or remember. The settings are usually pretty realistic. But as for finding overall meaning in the dreams, which I usually recall quite clearly, I know however much I recall I’m forgetting something or explaining part of it unclearly (I feel inadequate to verbally render my dream imagery) and thus it’d be unlikely any interpretation would be adequate – or even accurate, given how situations interlock. But I wish I had a way to offer you the richness of enjoyable dreams; they are a respite and retreat from a largely unsatisfactory waking life. Thanks for sharing your very vivid “death is a beach” dream – beautifully rendered.

  9. L July 13, 2015 at 1:13 pm #

    I think I’m the angry laundry lady. 🙂 Great post!

  10. rimjhimtyagi101 July 13, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

    This is simply a masterpiece. You write extremely well.

  11. Poet Dressed In Black July 13, 2015 at 4:33 pm #

    1. What’s scarier to me is hearing, which is rare, really, but a few times have heard, people say they DON’T dream. 2. Interestingly, I felt that place you arrived at was “the afterlife” before you wrote you realized you were “in Death”. 3. I sometimes have good dreams, but predominantly bad dreams, even night terrors, and I wake up screaming bloody murder, or yelling something out, like “Don’t touch me,” or “Stop it,” “Go away,” or just, “No, no, no…” I feel embarrassed about that. But I’ve noticed it happens when I’m stressed about something, or my anxiety is high for whatever reason. 4. Enjoyed your post very much. Thanks for writing it. I enjoy following this blog.

  12. thoughtsofadepressedperson July 13, 2015 at 7:07 pm #

    Dreams have always fascinated me, they have always felt more real to me than what is called ‘the actual reality’. It is said though that when we dream we are connected to ourselves in a parallel universe or are experiencing happenings from past lives. I love to dream and it is one of my favorite things. I have nominated you for the award ‘Once a Victim, Now a Survivor’ after having read several of your posts. I hope you choose to participate. 🙂 https://thoughtsofadepressedperson.wordpress.com/2015/07/13/once-a-victim-now-a-survivor/

  13. weird is the new normal July 13, 2015 at 7:13 pm #

    Oh wow, when I was 6 I had a nightmare really similar to yours. I was hanging out with the cast of Sesame Street (!!), having fun, when all of a sudden their faces turned demonic and they started eating me alive. I was paralyzed, trying to yell for my parents to wake me up and get me out of the nightmare, but of course unable to make any sound in the dream. Which is a pretty messed up thing for a six year old to dream. Ever since then I’ve had variations of this nightmare, just different characters and settings, and I still can’t understand why. I realized the underlying theme when you wrote “There are few things scarier than a person that you love and trust suddenly becoming hell-bent on your destruction.” I have literally never met anyone who has had similar dreams to mine, and even my therapist was concerned I’d been abused or a victim of violence in the past, which I haven’t at all. I’m still constantly searching for the meaning of my dreams, and fascinated by dreams in general. This post was a really interesting and relatable read.

  14. Philosofishal July 14, 2015 at 3:08 am #

    Reblogged this on Philosofishal and commented:
    1. My favorite funny phrase of the week, if not the month: “Sesame Street witness protection program.” 2. This was the good dream, eh? Seems like this one might be worth dissecting with a therapist as well. 3. I’m amazed and impressed by how detailed is your recollection of the dream; are you practiced at recording dream content right after you wake? My dreams are vivid, and increasingly realistic, enough to recall fairly well, but your telling was amazing! 4. Have you ever tried interpreting your own dreams using guide materials? Typically, some insight can be gleaned, if not absolute enlightenment. 5. I also love the ideas about what babies might dream. Well done. 6. It takes a lot of courage to share such personal parts of yourself. Kudos and thank you. 7. Your imagined explanation to the alien race is spot on and rings true for me. 8. Your writing is excellent. I love how you shape the piece to come full circle back to birth, in light of death.

    I guess at bottom most of us are just babies when it comes to dreaming. Helpless, vulnerable, at the mercy of the subconscious. But we can also make meaning out of it in a much more sophisticated way than the unborn ever can, even if it feels terribly inadequate. I encourage you not to give up on making some additional, positive use of your anxious dreaming. I’m still open to the notion that our dreams are just our subconscious mind’s way of trying to send us an important message, or at least one worth exploring.

    All of my dreams are anxiety dreams when they’re not apparently meaningless bits of mundane life that I often mistake for things that really happened. Or did they? Lately, they’ve focused almost entirely on past situations in a way that suggests to me I have some unfinished business to resolve, whether with others or just within myself.

    I have family with the ability to predict things through dreams, and a friend who can control the action in lucid dreaming. Is deja vu just the recollection of a predictive dream? Surely the bridge between waking and sleeping desires, fears, and memories is not such a chasm.

    As an aside, this reminds me of my post about synchronicity. What is the relationship between apparent coincidence and the subconscious?

    Great work. Keep it up.

  15. Ann K. July 14, 2015 at 5:52 am #

    That’s horrible. Bad dreams every night? Waking up tense every morning? One positive dream in five years? Yuk!
    Chicken or egg? Wonder if lack of a decent night’s sleep is the cause of some of your depression, or whether bad dreams are a side effect of whatever it is that makes people depressed.
    Wonder what patterns would show up if you went to a sleep lab and had your brain waves recorded overnight. For example, I wonder if you spend more time in REM than most people. Also wonder what would happen if somebody shook your shoulder whenever you started REM, so you could have one night without bad dreams. Would you feel better the next day, or worse? I seem to recall that in the long run REM sleep is necessary, but one night without it would do no harm.

  16. CookieCrumbsInc. (@meepeevee) July 14, 2015 at 11:28 am #

    I have dreamt of lost loved ones taking me around town and woken up crying because they’ll never do that in real life again.

    Lovely post ❤

  17. cazdawnie July 14, 2015 at 5:11 pm #

    I relate to your nightmares strangely… Like there’s nothing worse than knowing that someone who loves your since you first took your breath of air to be declared human being is hell-bent on destroying you. Ugh. In one of my dreams my father tried to get hold of me to get a cure to cure himself, even though he knows that would kill me.

    Love talking about dreams, and I’m glad you’re talking about them. Note: read about Jung and Freud – the two psychoanalyst on dreams amongst other things. You’d be interested 🙂

  18. allysonia July 16, 2015 at 12:23 pm #

    I, too, have often been tormented by my dreams. Even if my dreams aren’t necessarily bad or scary, I usually wake up exhausted and disturbed from my dreaming. Recently, I’ve been learning that my dreams are my brain (and maybe also my soul’s) ways of sorting out things I was trying to and failing to process when I was awake. This understanding doesn’t make my experience any less pleasant, but it allows me the courage to face whatever feelings present themselves as dream residue, rather than disregarding them as irrelevant or imaginary.

  19. Becky July 17, 2015 at 12:16 am #

    I have often been obsessed with dreams myself. I remember one in particular that I had when I was 14 – and this person came and saved me in this dream. It was all very surreal and I had thought of this dream several times over the years but became completely freaked out as when I was in my now-husband’s mothers house for the first time and went and saw his senior picture hanging on the wall… that was the exact face of the person who saved me in my dream at 14.

    Then of course there is the dream I had as a little girl where I somehow got caught in a tree and this woman came and made it all right. The woman who saved me was the way I look now as an adult.

    Dreams are so powerful… and apparently in my case insightful.

    Your post was incredible and apparently got me thinking about things I haven’t thought of for a while.

  20. jackdavies0800 July 22, 2015 at 4:18 pm #

    So beautiful written. Your writing/story-telling is so candid and accurate. I’ve learnt a lot from this; thank you.

  21. pietraluna July 27, 2015 at 10:22 pm #

    On those, I just keep thinking about the things our brain is either telling us or just cleaning up its buffer.What I can say, though, is that many times, I am glad I was just dreaming. Some feelings stay with me during the day… sometimes.

  22. amyripley July 29, 2015 at 10:49 pm #

    Reblogged this on Amy Ripley.

  23. Camille Bellefleur August 15, 2015 at 4:02 pm #

    I too often wonder the purpose of dreams. I try to interpret the stranger dreams I have and to understand common dream symbols for me (black dogs, occasional violence, wolves, recurring dreams of ships, holes in the ground). What I want to know is this: Do you often get the sensation when you are awake that you have already dreamt something which you are presently experiencing? Like dejavu yet different?

  24. Genealogy Jen December 4, 2015 at 7:03 am #

    Thank you. This is why I hate sleeping. I watched a TED talk last week about the restoritve power of sleep. I yelled at the TV. How is being terrorized restorative? I’m glad I’m not alone.


  1. On Dreams | camillesobservations - August 15, 2015

    […] On Dreams. […]

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