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.