The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

Fascinating though they may be, dreams are not very interesting, particularly someone else’s. Dreams begin to break apart as soon as we wake; within seconds we cannot trust our own minds. In trying to resurrect these fleeting visions, we impose a logic on them they didn’t have. We know this; we acknowledge the futility. If we cannot properly reconstruct our own dreams, how can we hope to fathom the accumulation of images that form in the sleeping mind of someone else?

And what’s the point anyway? Even if we do manage to hang onto an especially vivid dream, or momentarily apprehend another’s, how are we benefited? There are folks who firmly believe that dreams are symbolic events that inform and instruct their waking lives. There are those who claim to have lucid dreams in which they posit themselves as tillermen. An acquaintance of mine professes to experience only sweet dreams. Lucky her. While a few of my dreams are pleasant, most are not. Most of my dreams are bizarre forays into a carnival world, sometimes frightening, often frustrating.

From what I can gather, this latter category—maddening dreams—are the most common. For some reason, most of us, most of the time, have dreams in which we are thwarted. The thing we want, the place we need to get to, keeps receding. Obstacles, silly pointless obstacles, repeatedly get in our way. Often we can’t move, or we can’t move fast enough. Our car stalls; we need our clothes and can’t find them. Strategies fail us. Friends and lovers betray us. We are left on our own.

Joy Williams provides what I consider a perfect description of dreams in her story, “Craving.” The point of view is from Denise, one of the two main characters: “She didn’t like dreams. Dreams made you live alone in the future and she didn’t want to…” That bullying aspect is what I most resent about dreams. The dream gets to choose, not the dreamer. And the place you find yourself in, that future world, offers no reassurances, no clear path—stumble this way or that, it makes no difference. Try as I may to relax before nodding off, to place myself on white sand beaches or stunning mountaintops, I wind up in some grainy labyrinth impossibly far from Eden, and as I wander through this land of smoke and mirrors I somehow believe everything I see.

Awake or asleep, our minds create the reality we experience. When we are dreaming, electrical impulses in the neocortex produce a stream of impressions without any input from the senses. Deep in sleep, we can behold a python, touch a starfish, hear a banjo, smell gasoline and taste a strip of bacon. While this realm exists without our permission and beyond our control, it is as genuine as the world we wake to. Children know their dreams are real, which is why they are terrified of them. Soothed by a parent, a child will drift reluctantly, warily, back to sleep, will surrender himself each night to this limitless unknown. Children are brave beings.

Spiritual leaders tell us that we have no limits, that understanding this basic truth is what will finally free us. I do agree that fear is our biggest problem—our lives are cramped by fear. While sleep is a domain without borders, a place where we can do or be anything, it is also an abyss, a world through which we must free fall. Sleep lets us off our leashes; waking, we gladly put them back on. Maybe the reason we dream is to build the courage we need to face each day. Ready or not, I’m always up before the sun.

Published by

Jean Ryan

Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Lillian, Alabama. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. She has also published a novel, LOST SISTER. Her short story collections, SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, are available online. STRANGE COMPANY, a collection of short nature essays, is available in paperback as well as digital and audio editions.

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