Dreams can be amazingly vivid; more intense, somehow, than real life, at least for a few moments before you become aware of your “true” surroundings, the blankets over you, the slowly brightening sky. Perhaps in that moment you feel a kind of astonishment – that something so powerful, emotions flowing that arose from points unknown, only to disappear with the realization that it was all a kind of fantasy. Lately, most of my own dreams seem to be in an alternate reality, where people from different chapters of my life interact, where business meetings are incredibly stressful and the pressure of deadlines seem to portend doom, until I become again aware that, no, I don’t work anymore; those faces and places are only shadows. Shadows that seem so real before awareness banishes them, often entirely, from memory.
Then, there are the nightmares – elements added to the brew of deep sleep that were never a part of daily life, even bizarre situations that seem to spring from some unrealized desire within me to write a script for a thriller. Some are recurring, like the one I have every few years about being awakened by groups of strangers walking through the house with a real estate agent, with me protesting that they don’t belong there. Others verge on the surreal, with elements of time travel; recently, I dreamt that I was in my childhood home – purchased by my parents in the 60s, and sold after my mother’s passing in 2006, it was a place filled with memory and emotion, even now 15 years after I walked out the door. In the dream, the neighbors on the “bedroom” side had pushed the rickety wooden fence between our side yards further into our backyard, expanding their own footprint; but they were not home when the workers did this, and I could not find anyone to listen to me. Finally, their real estate agent (seems like I have a phobia there of some kind!) showed up, but refused to stop the fence building, and as she decided to drive away ignoring my pleas for understanding, a vibrator fell out of her car and rolled onto the street behind her fleeing sedan as I called to her in vain to let her know of her loss. What does that all mean? I have no idea – but it seemed so real, and my emotions, my frustration and sense of being ignored were real even if the scenario was imaginary.
Now that I think about it, many films and programs of my childhood were tied to the “it was just a dream” motif – “Invaders from Mars”, the only film directed by William Cameron Menzies, which terrified me; “The boy and the pirates”, a very cheap film featuring a no name cast, but with a boy my age, then, in peril; “The 5000 fingers of Dr. T” which features Hans Conreid as a megalomaniacal piano teacher; and probably countless others (including, eventually, Bobby in the shower on Dallas!). Where do my own vivid dreams come from? What is their genesis – my overactive imagination, some Freudian dream machine hiding in my unconscious, or hidden meanings trying to get me to pay attention?
The answer to those questions eludes me, like so many others from my walking, daily life. The phantasms of my darker hours may, however, soon become less present. Sleep is important for so many reasons – not just lying down with your eyes closed, but for chemical reactions that occur in our mind and body when the system is in “pause”, so to speak. I have struggled with restlessness for years, now, and the related exhaustion during waking hours. I often find it difficult to return to sleep after awakening in the “wee small hours of the morning” – whether it is music running through my memory, or plans for the next day, or pondering the great mysteries of the universe – my brain doesn’t want to turn off. Sometimes I picture a bank of dials and levers, not unlike the wall of controls that Dr. Morbius had at his disposal in “Forbidden Planet”, and I try to slowly switch them all off. It doesn’t work – whatever “Id monster” is wandering through my intellect refuses to be evicted, only to hide for a while.
Sleep is important for so many reasons – not just lying down with your eyes closed, but for chemical reactions that occur in our mind and body when the system is in “pause”, so to speak. There is some point where our consciousness moves from awareness into that place of magic where dreams arise like mist, and disappear – and when we do not reach that level of rest, it comes at a cost to our overall health and well-being, in ways that science still works to understand. After my recent annual physical, my dr. surprised me with a suggestion that we do a “sleep study”, for possible issues with apnea; this was not a welcome idea. More than two decades ago, when I carried much more baggage – physically and mentally – in my body, I weighed about 25% more than I do now, and had ended up with a device attached to my head that made me feel like Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt, and look like Steve Martin as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. It didn’t help then, and I doubted after my weight loss and efforts to gain and retain fitness that apnea could be a factor in my life – could it?
Technology has advanced, of course, and the device I wore on my finger one night indicated that I indeed had severe apnea – with my breathing interrupted more than 40 times an hour, something related to my nose and throat structure having nothing to do with weight or fitness. So, shortly thereafter, I find myself using a somewhat sleeker device by my head at night, and a noticeably quieter and less bulky apparatus to adorn my head upon the pillow – and I have to admit – my sleep does seem to be improving. Of course, there are still instances of awakening at 2 am for non-apnea factors, including our cat Chaps demanding my service as a trampoline and punching bag, or my husband’s sometimes lively conversations with someone at a work meeting or party in his own dreamland. But the results are undeniable. The “test” for apnea showed I was having more than 40 instances of breathing interruptions an hour; now, it is regularly less than 5 per my trusty electronic monitor.
I am hoping my new “little friend” will provide my body, mind, and spirit with the peace it needs – although I don’t expect it will completely quiet those dreams, only muffle if not silence the intensity that awakens me back to the daily reality. I hope to “sleep, perchance to dream”, to paraphrase Hamlet – putting sleep first, hoping that this unwelcome diagnosis – and non-insured medical equipment treatment – will bring a better rest to my life, and better balance and health overall. Still, I do not wish to bid goodbye to dreams, not entirely. Whether they are nightmares we awaken from gradually, or those hidden dreams we do not remember beyond the moment – there are those who say that dreams are the wishes of an older soul, emerging in our quietest hour, demanding to be heard. Perhaps they have a point of origin that we sometimes cannot quite place our fingers upon; but the shadows that rise and play out in the space between our closed eyelids and our brain, seeping into the night, carrying our bodies into lands that, if they exist, are not on any map – I think we need those too. Because, sometimes, dreams last beyond the dawn, in ways we do not realize.
Perhaps our wishes are born, seeds floating out from those fields of dreams – and the wishes become goals, and hopes, that we hold deep in our hearts, transporting us almost like one of those “driverless” cars that seem to fill the streets of my home here in San Francisco, taking us to places we did not realize our hearts wanted to reach – by roads we did not know existed, or had to build. I am reminded of the biblical story of Joseph, the interpreter of dreams – so amusingly converted into a lively musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber – a child who did not fit in, was rejected by his family and suffered misery because of his gift of dreaming, and interpreting the dreams of others; eventually raised to powers neither he nor his family could have ever imagined, and then – in time beyond his own – leading his peoples into, and out from, desperation. His dreams – however much is fact, or fable – changed the world. I do not flatter myself that my dreams, or any of our dreams, will have that effect – but they can change our little, quiet worlds, and our lives, if we pay heed to their voices.
When a dream speaks to our hearts, if a wish is born, and grows into a goal – each day holds the promise that a tiny step can take us closer to the dream becoming a reality. It can be a very long journey. It can be so frustrating to acknowledge that the destination is not for today – just the step ahead, on a path that takes a lifetime to carve. To grasp the promise in just this moment, this “now”, is ultimately a step of faith – the outcome uncertain, but the act of responding to the call, the vision is our choice, alone. That response needs to be enough, as results may not be seen now, or perhaps ever; we exist in the imperfect now while the hopes of the perfect tomorrow shine like a momentary rainbow, shimmering and then gone only leaving a shadow in our memory. We must find the beauty, just enough to hold on to in the now – and balance that tenderly against our yearning for the ideal we can only move towards, never holding fully, yet …. The intangible, forming the tangible, until a new dream emerges and the cycle renews.
Back in 1941, Humphrey Bogart described the Maltese Falcon, the priceless statue that led to multiple murders and greed and loss, as “the stuff that dreams are made of”; he was paraphrasing, again, Shakespeare in “The Tempest”, when Prospero reflect that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”. Not to dispute William, or Humphrey – but I believe we can use our dreams to create reality, not the reverse. Perhaps we can say that our lives at this moment are the product of not only our dreams, but those before us; our today is the result of “the dreams that stuff is made of”. We may not be able to choose our dreams; whatever the source, or the meaning if any – they arise, and speak, and move on. We move from a consciousness based on what we think, feel, see and “know” – into a place of mystery, where a new creation awaits to be birthed, or discovered. As you next lay down your head, and the day slips into darkness, and your breathing slows – I hope your dreams will lead to hopes and visions that you can bring into being, dreams that will last. With, or without, a mask and a machine to carry you into that place of unlimited perhaps, and a million maybes.
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