When I was twenty-two years old I dreamt I was playing guitar on the Chicago Jackson Park/Howard B train and producing an entirely unfamiliar and beautiful sound. Silhouettes of interested people crowding in. When I looked down at my right hand, I was surprised to see a paintbrush in it, swirling a disc of bright color where the sound hole should’ve been. After a brief moment of enjoyment I had the clear thought that I was painting sound. Then I had the unfortunate thought that this was impossible and woke up, the dream for some reason staying with me for many years.
A lovely dream. The kind that gives dreaming its good name—flying dreams, wish fulfillment dreams, dreams about sex. For all the hype, I can’t say I remember too many of these, really. And in the flying dreams I recall, flight has always been hesitant, bumpy, a little lonely. No confident, outstretched fist and rippling cape. The occasional sex dream has begun in exciting fashion, only for the proper organs to change location, or the dream-partner to morph into Cokie Roberts (it was a dream, people).
If I haven’t had too many straight-up blissful dreams, there have at least been some funny ones, unusual juxtapositions that seemed ordinary in night logic. Once, years after I had moved out of my parents’ house for good, David Bowie visited me there during a dinner party like some ne’er-do-well friend from down the block knocking on the screen door. Up in my room, he wanted to know if it would be cool with my mom for him to spark up a joint. When I scolded him for being a dumbass, he responded with the reasonable suggestion that we go behind the garage instead, which we did.
Dreams can be pretty dark business, though. Anything I’m anxious about seems to have free reign to join me in my sleep. I still have oh-shit-it’s-exam-week-and-I-can’t-even-find-the-fucking-French-class-I’ve been-skipping-all-semester dreams. Butchered pets, disappointed family, editorial essays—they come to get me when I’m defenseless.
I don’t have too many terrifying nightmares like the kind my dad enjoys, bad guys hunting him down most nights, always someone or something desperately hot on his trail. My mom has learned to sleep out of kicking distance.
My daughter Sofia used to wake us in the night screaming and sobbing in her bed or sitting in the hall between our rooms, unable to explain or even completely break the spell of sleep. She would cry uncontrollably and refuse to be moved from the spot, sometimes for upward of an hour, as I tried and tried to get her to name the terror. She never would. Eventually, she would soften, at least physically, and we’d slip back to a safer place together in her bed.
As bad dreams seem to outnumber the good in my life, I’m intrigued that we use the word so positively. We call yet-unrealized successes our “dreams.” An unimaginably beautiful day, a tremendous event. Teenagers used to call someone lust-worthy “dreamy.” Dreamy should mean illogical and vaguely unsettling. I’m glad it doesn’t.
Daydreaming, at least, with our conscious minds more in the driver’s seat, tends to be positive. As a boy I used to sit in school or church and imagine scenarios in which I pulled pretty girls from near-certain death, from violent rivers and burning cars, carrying them home in my arms to their astonished and grateful mothers, the girls just aware enough after their ordeals to wrap weakened arms around my neck and lean softly in. I’m not sure why I don’t daydream much anymore. I still have plenty of hopes. But I don’t sit and imagine my three-year-old boy crapping where I wish he would or picture myself having a triumphant day at work. Anything fancier than that (Pushcart?) seems like hubris, better left as the trace of a thought than something visualized.
Other than the rare joyride and night terror, dreams, at least for me, remain jumbled puzzles of real life, successes balanced by loss or inability, failures oddly soothed by calm, fights won while barely being able to lift my hands. Like the woods, they are mostly neutral—slow, strange navigations of paths between trees and flowers and things hovering in the shadows that may or may not bite.
In Laney Arbelaez’s story, “With Abbey,” a young man suffers debilitating nightmares while his equally young girlfriend suffers the effects of an abortion. Arbelaez successfully shifts point of view from second person in the young man’s voice to third person attached from the woman’s. Time shifts in the story as well, dancing around the harrowing event the way a young couple might dance around their fears. “With Abbey” is an ambitious story, rich in its layers and humanity.
Reading “The Invisible Picture,” a flash piece or segmented poem or something-yet- to-be-named by James Grinwis, feels like hurtling through a brilliant dream. Surreal and wondrously specific, this piece surprises with each sentence and creates an original arc dependent almost entirely on tone and syntax. In trying to describe Grinwis’s awesome and original piece, I’m reminded of a favorite line from Donald Barthelme, arguing against deconstruction: “if you tear a mystery to tatters, all you get are tatters.” Just read and enjoy.
“An Easy Death” by Andrea England takes on big questions with lovely couplets. Her poem finds a home in the strange, illogical comfort of a gentle passing, which she calls, among other things, “a quilt made of onionskins.” The dream connection comes in the poem’s awesome final line, which I will not rob in the intro.
Photo by Karin Dalziel