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This man knows things. Let’s call him Alexander. Sometimes we work together, and when we do, I can safely bet that I will not get everything done on my agenda, because instead of doing the things, I will be listening to the man. And he will be telling me stories.

Once Alexander spent over an hour recounting the long and vibrant history of the shrimp trade, with tangential excursions into the seventeen species and twelve genus of this crustacean, the currents in the Sea of Japan, and shipbuilding in the late 1700’s in Portugal. Another time, he dedicated the better part of the work day talking about bee-keeping and hair styles. One of the most memorable talks was a thorough critical analysis of Bruegel’s The Battle Between Carnival and Lent. But today Alexander is telling me about something of a more personal nature: he recounts his memories of climbing trees as a child.

I imagine little Sasha clambering up and down the large and luxurious branches of trees that, in our context, would be the venerable live oaks. He’d spend his days up in the canopy, jumping from limb to limb, planning ambushes with his friends, swinging on branches, scratching skin off protruding knees, ankles and elbows. He tells me that through this exercise, he first learned to appreciate three-dimensionality. He came to be able to visualize the spaces between the branches, the entire layout of the tree, in his mind’s eye. Later, when he was a teenager and climbing trees was no longer appropriate, he dreamt about it. And at night, in his dreams, he was not holding on to the branches anymore, but flying among them, up and over and between them.

“Through my dreams, I came to know the meaning of negative space: the spaces between things, and how to navigate them.” he tells me. Dreams are personal territory, and I listen quietly, appreciative of a rare glimpse into this person’s inner life.

I imagine these negative spaces – they look like 3D images of polypeptides, captured by invisible boundaries.

“There is another instance of negative space,” I start to tell him, “that I encountered recently.” Several days prior, I accidentally came across Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes: what ethereal compositions, especially when performed thoughtfully. One rendition was played at such a slow tempo, that the pauses between the sounds took on a life of their own. The shape and feel of each silence was different, unique, deliberate. By the end of the gnossienne, it was clear that the pianist was sharing things too personal for words. And perhaps Erik Satie himself wanted us to read between the lines.

Spurred on by my own contemplation, I want to tell Alexander more about my understanding of negative space. I glance up him, and though he is nodding, as if listening, his eyes have that glazed look of recollection. He is back there, flying through the trees. So I fall silent, thinking my own thoughts, comfortable with the shape of the quiet between us.

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.

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