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Standing in line at the French bistro, I glance nonchalantly over the employees ringing up the register, warming up croissants, making lattes. Among them, a new face – an Asian man walks to the foreground from within the kitchen, pulls at a hot tray of freshly baked breads, winces and drops it back. Clearly he is not familiar with the minutae of the work, but he acts as if he belongs there. He is probably the owner.  Nothing is predictable anymore.

I make my way towards a corner table with my chocolate croissant, pull out Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges and the latest letter from grandma Larisa, and prepare to disappear into my private literary world. A man plops at a nearby table, his back to me, setting out on the table “Moscow! All You Wanted to Know” and Gramophone, the world’s authority on classical music. Devouring my croissant and gulping down the tea, I contemplate the self-sentencing isolation in which most of us live. It is time to put an end to it, I say (to myself, in my head), stop it today. So I take a last swig of Earl Grey, stand up and come towards the man with Moscow.

“Hi. I couldn’t help notice your Moscow tour book. I’m actually from Russia – are you planning to visit soon?” The man responds politely, and a pleasant, genuine conversation begins. We talk for a while, about St.Petersburg and Russian politics, about music and the love thereof, about literature, even, at which point I mention that I should probably return to my reading. As I stand up, he’s beaming and I say, “Well, it’s been nice meeting you. I’ve actually made it a point to meet interesting-looking strangers, and you’ve been the first today. I’m so glad I came up to you…” Actually, I didn’t. But wouldn’t it have been neat if I did?

Instead, I am still sitting, finishing up my tea, when the Asian man from behind the counter walks up to Moscow man, sits down facing him, and places between them a topless container with a yellowish hazy liquid.

“Do you see them? The little guys in the corner,” Asian man points, “See all the way at the bottom? They’re not so bad now, but they grow up to be pretty ugly creatures…” Moscow man responds with statistics on their growth from the internet, Asian man mentions that you can never trust those forums anyway – people’ll say anything. They start discussing water quality, stagnant vs. flowing , necessary aeration, plants inside to provide enough CO2. “…but in any case, they’re supposed to live up to 8-10 years.” Asian man concludes.

Curiosity overcoming self-consiousness, I walk up to their table and, smiling awkwardly, say, “I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation, I just couldn’t help but overhear you talking about something alive in that container, and I’ve been trying to guess what it is….” I trail off. They look at me. I look at them. It’s a freeze-frame. I back away and decide not to try that. Instead, I bury my eyes in grandma’s letter and attempt not to miss a single word.

She writes about living alone. Flowing organically from one sentence into the next, her prose talks of walking: “…which I prefer to do usually at about 1pm, after I have had my breakfast, cleaned up and gotten ready to pick up some things for dinner.  Usually when I come out, at about the same hour every day, most of the people out around me are also retirees. We stroll leisurely down the wide boulevards, understanding that at this time, the streets are ours. But several days ago I woke up late, my entire schedule had shifted and so it was past 3pm when I went outside. Everything was different. I noticed people around that are never there at 1 – young people, business people – rushing places, determined, focused. It wasn’t our place, cozy and familiar. I finished my shopping quickly and returned home. Since then, I’ve made it a point not to go out later than usual…”

Distracted by my merciless curiosity and jarred to action by an idea, I bolt out of my chair, pick up empty plate and cup, and head towards the counter as if to drop them off. On the way back, I peer with all of the laser vision I have in me to see what is in that container!! But I see nothing, and return to the letter.

The men are talking about Confucianism now: the importance of respecting your elders, the wisdom of doing all that you can while you still can. And in marriage, you cannot always hope for that perfect match, you have to find someone who is good enough, and value that. The other man replies, “I think, if you really love someone, you have to let them live to the fullest. You have to have the strength to give them the space they need. But we have that bond in common, and that part is ours, and we share it fully, together.”

Grandma continues, “I do often wonder, waking up alone, eating along, walking alone, every day alone, whether I’ve made the right decision. It is difficult, being on your own all the time…”

Moscow man picks up, “I want to overwhelm them with my generosity…”

At this point Borges chimes in, “In my view, that notion is not particularly exciting. I cannot say the same for another idea, however: the idea that the Almightly is also in search of Someone, and that Someone, in search of a yet superior (or perhaps simply necessary, albeit equal) Someone, and so on, to the End – or better yet, the Endlessness – of Time. Or perhaps cyclically.” He, of course, is talking about the imaginary writer Mir Bahadur’ Ali’s imaginary novel, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim.

I am distracted again by the mystery creatures in the container. These people will up and leave, and I will never know who was in there. A young employee comes up to the Asian man and reminds him about her paycheck. That proves my conjecture about him. Moscow man gets up, wishes his friend luck with them, and heads out. Asian man picks up the container and empty coffee cup and returns behind the counter.

Borges puts his finishing touch: “I recall his square-ruled notebooks, his black crossings-out, his peculiar typographical symbols, and his insect-like handwriting. In the evening, he liked to go out for walks on the outskirts of Nimes; he would often carry along a notebook and make a cheery bonfire.”

I pick up the book, letters and pens, and exit stage left.

Image

Photograph by Liza Evans

When you work at night, sleeping schedules shift, lines between dream and wakefulness blur into one hazy continuum. After, you never quite know what happened, whether it really did or not.

Some time ago I was working with Russian EVA specialists who were visiting at the Mission Control Center to support a space walk. We’d sit for many hours in that gray, windowless building, straining painfully to understand conversations coming through the static of outer space. Mostly this happened at night, though in that building, you could never tell.

It was on one such night that I decided to stretch my limbs and go for a stroll. I made my way out of the logically elusive structure and into the damp, warm night air of a Houston summer. The earth’s guttural breath caressed me out of the harsh, rough sensations of the building, and lured me towards the green space in the middle of the space center complex.

There, a thick mist was lazing out of the lake, expanding in all directions, reaching out to me. I walked slowly towards the green, half-asleep, relishing the living sounds and sensations of the outdoors. Suddenly, a deer appeared out of the mist, head first. I could see his elaborate antlers and the hooves, submerged in grass. He glanced at me briefly, then turned his attention back to the reflective glass windows of the building he was standing next to.

I was awed by his pensive, slow gaze as he contemplated what I thought was his own reflection in the glass. For a while, we stood still. I – breathing in the moist magic of night, he – thinking his own existential thoughts while peering into the window. Eventually I yawned and he slowly backed into the mist, disappearing from view.

Intrigued, I walked towards the building and noticed, to my great surprise, a stuffed deer head, standing on the inside windowsill, clearly visible through the glass. I marveled at the intelligence of my deer, who had been looking not at his own reflection, but at the head of his fellow ungulate, immortalized and graceful, contemplating life and death, and the fate that awaits us all. “Imagine that…” I mumbled to myself, and turned back towards the mission control center and the stifling cold.

A while later we were walking with a couple of friends in that same part of the center. It was a bright, cheerful day, and I recalled to them my strange encounter with the deer. I timed the story just so, hoping to get to the punch line at the exact moment we would pass the window with the stuffed head. It would have been perfect, except the deer head was no longer there.

Several times I walked the entire length of the glass wall, looking for it, but it was not to be found. In fact, I could not even find the windowsill where it might have been placed…

Dream

The last few days I was on a very random sleeping schedule as a result of working many night hours. And so today, when I collapsed into bed at 9:30 in the morning, my over-stimulated, sleep deprived brain birthed the following dream…

I wake up and sleepily roll out of bed. It is about 11am, I am fumbling around in my room, only pj pants and a thread-bare wife-beater on, when in burst Gri. He is excited and proud, and he holds by the shoulders in front of him a man of average height, light-skinned and sandy-stubbled, with a trilby hat covering his pale hazel eyes. “Look at her! Isn’t she lovely!” he exclaims gleefully. The man looks at me calmly, smiling with his eyes. “I don’t even have a bra on!” I murmur embarrassedly to Grisha and shove past them into the bathroom, trying to cover the outlines clearly showing underneath the tank.

When I come out, dressed and slightly irritated at my partner’s lack of tact, he is happily peering into a pot of something gurgling on the stove while his friend wanders aimlessly through the house, picking up objects, touching things, sniffing. I am shocked to notice that Grisha is not wearing any pants. No pants whatsoever. I rush up to him and in a hushed voice hiss, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!?! Why did you take your pants off??!!”

“Oh, it’s a tradition of ours,” he replies, “When he comes over we always walk around without our pants. It’s freer that way!”

“But what about his wife?! She’s gonna come any minute now, and this is totally unacceptable!” I am incredulous. This is so absurd. I literally take and shove him into the bathroom, telling him that I’m not letting him out until he gets decent. As I’m guarding the door, I hear noise in my bedroom. Coming into it, I see the man and a woman, with full, strawberry blond curly hair below her shoulders, standing in the middle. They have moved my bed and rearranged all of my furniture, and at their feet lies a pile of broken picture frames and photographs that were just in them, hanging on my walls. I am speechless and so they explain matter-of-factly, “We thought you should try something different. It’s a better look, don’t you think?”

“These are the guests from hell!!!” I think. I start hyperventilating because I have a special affinity for pictures, a peculiar sort of attachment to them. Mustering my last bit of courtesy, I ask the woman, “Who are you?”

She looks casually at the man, smiles evasively and says, “Oh, I’m a friend…”

Somehow I realize that she just showed herself inside our house, and get the feeling that Grisha, who’s come out of the bathroom, is also quite surprised to see her. She is someone from his past, but not the proper friend’s wife we were expecting, nor the man’s girlfriend. Quite bewildered, we show our guests back to the living room and there, right in the middle of the room, we discover a huge monster truck, standing with mud dripping off its wheels and its hood scratching our ceiling. “I couldn’t find any place to park” the man says unapologetically. Grisha and I telepathically share the understanding that they must have knocked down our whole garage wall to get the thing inside.

I take Gri to the side and, now in full panic mode, tell him that we have to get these people out of here RIGHT NOW, while we still have a roof over our heads. He isn’t willing to do it though, explaining that the man’s an old friend and that it would be rude. “Let’s just let them hang out for a while longer” he suggests as I glance over his shoulder and see that now we have four guests instead of two. The newcomers are both children, of different ages and degrees of haphazard messiness. One takes me by the hand and leads me outside into my little garden. Long hours I spent there nursing my dill, cucumbers, tomatoes and zennias. But now, everything has been dug out and replanted according to height in one long row. The child is delighted with her creation. I feel like this is more than I can take and stumble blindly back into the garage.

And so the day continues. Eventually four more children appear, as if they belong there, and each gets busily to work. One plays in the kitchen, another plants huge globs of oil paint unto my almost-finished painting, suggesting that it looks better this way. Their connections with each other and the two parent figures are not clear. In fact, it’s a pretty even spread from the 30-year old thoughtful, quizzical man, down to a two-year old rambunctious munchkin. Some sit reading (pulling out of the shelves) all of our books, others wash a long-haired mutt who weaves in and out of the picture in our dining room. A couple others want me to play with them, to run around with them and pretend that I am a dragon. And at some point I just give in.

The sinking sun catches glimpses of me chasing two of the smaller kids across puddles in the backyard, hunched over like a monster and growling in exaggeration. Grisha is talking with the man and the woman, bits of dialogue float past me, “So what is it you do, exactly?” “Oh, I sell money.” The woman responds. “I borrow it from Mortar (evidently a special lending company) and sell it for more…” I come up and chime in, “But why are people buying it from you?? Why can’t they just get it from Mortar for cheaper?” She shrugs, “I dunno. Guess they ain’t very smart” she drawls with a southern accent. “Well, it’s probably time we be headin’ back” the man says softly and glances at me from beneath the rim. “Yes. It’s been awful nice…” the woman adds and disappears into the already moving van. Most of the children are sitting there too, and I catch up to it with the last two, who were chasing me in an exciting game of tag. The van pulls away slowly, and I run after it, feeling unusually light.

I realize that something magical happened today, and in my last attempt to make order of things, I yell after them, “Who are you guys? What do you do??” A girl of about ten, with wavy, flowing hair, pulls a little out of the gently moving van and responds softly, “We just visit people, is all….”

Losing speed, I come to a halt and watch as the van turns into a small street I have never noticed. It slows at a house and one of the kids jumps out, waves a goodbye and heads home. Several houses further, it slows again and another kid nimbly crawls out an open window and skips towards his house. The van is too far away now to see clearly, but I somehow intuit that the man and the woman are the last two left. The darkness brings a haze that envelops the van, and it’s gone.

I turn around and start walking home. Unconsciously I pick up speed, and before I know it I am flying across ditches and driveways, running as fast as I can, feeling as if a thousand weights have been lifted. I realize that these mysterious people came to me to rescue me from the multitudes of complexes which oppress me. Overwhelmed by tremendous relief and gratitude, I rushed home to start a new life. I was finally free.

I love hearing about people’s dreams (sleep dreams, not wishes). Whenever a person tells me about a dream they’ve had, they reveal a hidden part of themselves without necessarily meaning to reveal anything at all. And this happens because most people don’t recognize the fact that their dreams are a complex and intricate creation concocted by their very own brain and emotions. In fact, language itself testifies to this misconception: “I had a dream”, “мне приснился сон”, “J’ai eu une rêve …”, as if it’s something that comes to you, or over you, that you have no control over nor any responsibility for…But let me back up a bit…

There was a time a few years back when I was really interested in dreams and dream interpretation. And I don’t mean that psychic / new age / celestial mumbo-jumbo.

I wanted to know where dreams came from, how they were formed, what they meant. I read some basic scientific literature about dreams, like Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and some work by Carl Jung on his dream theory, as well as more modern works on dream analysis and sleep patterns. The common denominator between the various views that I read about the formation and meaning of dreams seemed to be this:

During our waking life, we are bombarded by stimuli. Some of that stimuli, be it information, suggestion, association or recollection, we cannot or do not allow ourselves to process.

For example, you hear a name at work of a person which brings you back to a traumatic experience you’ve had as a child. You can’t sit there and deal with the memory, so unconsciously you push it back, down into the subconscious level.

Or. You overhear a bit of news that interests you but that you cannot research at the moment.

Or. You smell olive oil and recall that you had planned to make that vinaigrette dressing, and put it on your mental to-do list.

Or. A mysterious and arrestingly attractive person passes by you and you hardly notice him and yet…

All of this great fodder gets relegated to the subconscious or even the unconscious level. It has to, otherwise we would not be able to function correctly, getting distracted by all of the impulses coming at us ’round the clock.

But the brain can’t just ignore these signals. Not for long. And so when you fall asleep your consciousness turns off. All of your censors and inhibitors loosen their grip, and the unconsciousness begins to sort through all of the junk that went through the stimuli spam filter over the course of the day. Imagine someone sitting cross-legged with a huge ball of bits and pieces of yarn, all tangled up, trying to sort them out.

Let’s see here…getting hit by a car while riding my bike as a child and never really dealing with the fact that it was Father driving…new healthcare reforms that might affect my grandparents, I wonder where to find more information on that…and that dressing, oh how wonderful it would be if it weren’t for the oil…fat…am I fat? Am I getting fat?

And so your brain works all night long, sorting and rearranging, trying to make order out of the chaos, making sense, making peace, coping. All without you ever knowing about it. Well, except for the dreams. The dreams offer a glimpse that our conscious self gets into the work of the unconscious mind as we sleep. If we look at those dreams attentively, we may get a better understanding of what is really bothering us – often it is things that our internal censorship units (aka. the conscious mind), for our own sake, will not allow us to know.

We may also better understand what we want.

Sometimes the dreams come out as total nonsense. That’s the confuzzled ball of yarn, all taken apart but not put back together yet.

Sometimes parts of a dream do make sense. One interesting fact about dreaming: everyone dreams, having 4-6 dreams each night, depending on how many sleep cycles they go through. Some people can recall those dreams. Most cannot. Dreams over the duration of one night get more and more complex and vivid. As if the brain is trying to resolve the issues that we left untouched during the day, and with each attempt coming closer to a resolution. Often these dreams will be different versions of the same main plot. Usually if we do remember a dream, it is the last dream that we’ve had, typically right before waking up.

Dreams can reveal a lot to you, about you.

Sometimes my dreams are EPIC. They play out on the mental screen as marathon movies, with battles, struggle, natural disasters, good vs. evil, apocalyptic stuff. I wake up with my heart beating fast, as if I’d just been running…and usually, in my dreams I am running, typically from a tsunami that ends civilization as we know it. After the initial relief I marvel at the creativity of my own mind.

Or sometimes the dream is a sort of four-dimensional pun, playing out through time. I wake up thinking, Damn I’m clever 🙂 .

But most of the time when I wake up, all I think is “Yeah, I know, I know…” I make a resolution to deal with it during the day. But each day has enough worries of its own. And apparently each night does too.

Driving to the San Diego airport at 5 in the morning with Dad and Mr. Fatty Pants, I feel profoundly exhausted, exhilarated for no reason, and seeped in an altered state of consciousness. Memories, thoughts, dreams, dreads all mingle and nausea takes the wheel as I recall not for the last time that vacation is over, and that what I am returning to is a dilapidated, raw, and overbearing marriage situation in Houston. And of course the merciless heat.

There is too much to say, and so Dad and I are silent. Then he tells me about a dream that he had.

“I had a dream last night about altered reality. You know, the kind of dream where you don’t know what is real and what is a dream, and if it IS real, whose reality it is?…In the beginning of the dream we were living our life, I was working, doing research, and then suddenly I was called to service. To serve in the armed forces, that is. Well I went and before I could start there were several tests that I had to pass. There was one particular test that everyone spoke of with an eerie distaste. From the name of it I couldn’t understand why those who had gone through it were so unwilling to talk. But then one of the soldiers explained. What happened is that a rope, like a bungee cord, was tied around your feet, and you were supposed to jump down, head first. Well, that doesn’t sound so bad, I told the soldier. He looked at me strangely and replied, “The catch is that you have to jump down into a dark pipe. You don’t know how long you fall before the rope straightens out. And then they have you hang there for a while…”. “How long?” I asked. “With each person it’s different. However long you last…”

Last thing I remember from that dream – I was peering at all of the soldiers sitting around, playing cards and laughing as if they were having the time of their lives. And I was looking at them, hard, trying to figure out what is it in them that makes them survive – that allows them to withstand that test…”

Dad falls silent. We’ve almost reached the airport and the weepy feeling of nausea has escalated to where I can hardly speak. I gulp down, process the information he just shared, and, feeling a bit confused, ask, “How is that dream related to altered reality?”

“Well simple. It’s as if you’re living your life, thinking you are in control, living out the decisions you yourself once made. And then suddenly you find that you were wrong. You are not in control. And you don’t know who is. Or how long you’ll be falling…”

Yeah, I think, you can say that again.

Then a strange twist of fate, or chance, or mercy…and we miss our flight. We are just a few minutes too late. As if in a trance Dad walks Mr. Fatty Pants and me out of the airport and back to the car. And now we are driving again.

I recall an episode from a few years ago and tell Dad.

“Remember when I worked at the UCSD library? That first fall of college, my boss and her family had flown to Boston on vacation, and when she returned, a few weeks later, I greeted her at work and asked her how her vacation was. She looked quite ill and told me that it was terrible; that the day they were supposed to get on the plane and fly home she got really sick. So sick that they ended up having to cancel their flight and take a different one a few days later…”I’m sorry..”, I told her, “But besides that last day, was everything else good?” She looked at me kind of funny and kind of alarmed. “Well, Anya” she said, “That flight that we were supposed to take from Boston…it crashed in Pennsylvania…”

I can’t go on and there was no need to. There is no place for words. Of course, how could I forget that sunny morning on the 11th of September…

And so we drive home. Me – filled with a sense of discombobulated relief, a haunting premonition, and something akin to joy. The sun-scorched, golden hills are bathed in morning light, and a raspy voice whispers in my soul: with each person it’s different…however long you last…

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