I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
–Edgar Allen Poe
In 1849, Poe wrote, “It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in a future existence, we shall look upon what we think our present existence, as a dream.” Dreams, in other words, could be viewed as endless echoing of stories, our own stories. Rippling through time, like waves breaking, again and again. The same waves, the same stories, but different each time.
I love (and yet find a bit creepy) the idea of my present life surfacing as a dream in a future life. I wonder sometimes whose reality I’m channeling in dreams. It doesn’t always seem to be my own.
A few weeks ago, I reclined on a chaise in a once grand Parisian apartment, as a young woman arranged her tools, preparing to tattoo the soles of my feet, which worried me a bit, but apparently I’d agreed to let her practice on me, and it seemed unfair to weasel out.
But the apartment, wow—that’s what I was focused on, with its two-story-high windows thrown open, sheer curtains blowing in the breeze; raised-panel walls, battered, yet elegant; deep coffered ceilings, and, best of all— a postcard-worthy cerulean view of the sea from those huge windows (Yes. I know. Paris is not on the ocean. It was a dream.) The apartment rambled on endlessly, one cavernous room to the next. One room differed markedly from the others. It was paneled in mahogany and lined with built-in curio cabinets, each cubby displaying a different specimen of sea sponge. I hated to leave.
Every night I hope to dip back into that grand dreamscape, minus the tattoo needles aimed at my feet. Maybe in a past, unknowable life, I once lived in Paris, or by the sea. Is dreaming just a crazy nocturnal adventure? Or does it serve a purpose?
The question of what purpose dreams serve is as old as time. What I keep coming back to is the notion that dreams are the stories that we create ourselves, night after night.
There are scientists who believe dreams are a meaningless side effect of sleep. A sunset is just a side effect of the angle of light through atmosphere and dust; also ‘meaningless’ to humans except for the immeasurable joy and beauty sunsets bring, and the thousands of years when sunsets helped forecast weather and trigger an end to the day’s tasks. If dreams are side effects, they certainly aren’t ‘meaningless,’ as anyone who has collected and analyzed dreams can tell you. Just as the light at sunset renders the world a glowy, more beautiful place, perhaps dreams also filter reality into a more fantastical form.
If we reflect on the dreamworld, if we study our dreams and record them, does that shed a bright light on our hidden thoughts and desires? In science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation makes on a phenomenon being observed. When observer cameras were added to an experiment using electrons, the electrons acted as particles. When the camera was absent, the electrons acted as both wave and particle simultaneously. Does the practice of recording our dreams have a similar effect on our dreams? Do my dreams play out differently when they ‘know’ I am recording them? I wonder, sometimes.
Carl Jung was convinced of the importance of dreams to mental health and growth; that the unconscious mind speaks directly to the conscious mind through the medium of dreams, using symbols to communicate important information that the dreamer is not yet consciously aware of, but needs to know to foster healthy growth. He believed in the collective unconscious, too, meaning that he felt a dreamer has access to a great pool of knowledge and wisdom, which could explain how sometimes, great ideas come to people as they sleep.
The amazing-idea-in-your-sleep is the dream equivalent of winning the lottery, but we all dream.
Whether we remember our dreams or not, science reveals that everyone weaves stories in the night. Since dreaming survived evolution, I’m pretty sure it’s an indicator that people require dreams as much as they require food and love.
Maybe dreams do for our souls what air does for our lungs?
For the second time in two months, my computer system has died. I’ve tried all the forms of digital CPR that I know, to no avail.
Last night, I fell asleep with visions of data recovery dancing in my head. I’d reformatted (ERASED!) my hard drive, zapping out years of data, and then launched Time Machine. It was humming away, an hour into a ten-hour restore, when I went to bed. I drifted off, imagining a day of catching back up, with all my files back in place, the data freeze just a blip.
I went into my office like a kid on Christmas morning, expectant. But Santa forgot to come. Or else I have been bad? Just coal in my stocking: I woke to a cold dead iMac. Is my Time Machine corrupt? Will my carbon-copy clone work? I’ve never tested it. I only launched it this week. Life is changing too fast. I’m an analog girl in a sci-fi world that I can’t control.
Now, I don’t want to get overly dramatic. (Though I absolutely am!)
It’s just my computer, not a life. I have redundant data backups. But I’m unsettled just the same. I don’t know yet if I’m going to get it all back. Some of it may be gone. A lot of it may be. Poof! Despite my (justifiable, it seems) paranoia and multiple daily back ups, I may just be screwed.
The data I generate, the digital landscape I work in, is as real as real to me. That it can vanish in a moment reminds me that life, too, can vanish in an instant. I know. This should fill me with a wave of gratitude and appreciation for the people and things I love. And it does. But it also fills me with a feeling of being unmoored, adrift.
Maybe this is a sign from the universe. Maybe it’s just bad luck. Lately, I feel like I’m climbing up a down escalator.
Resilience is such a beautiful word. Some good thoughts for cultivating resilience are in an article by Dr. Bill Knaus EdD, who says:
“… the majority of life’s calamities are self-inflicted. For example, failures are inevitable. You can fear them or learn from them. By recognizing and combating as many needless stresses as you can discover in yourself, you are likely to experience a rising tide of resilience. You’ll have greater emotional reserves to address unfortunate situations that come your way.”
I’m unsettled — because I’m trying to control what is beyond my control. What I need to focus on is resilience. (Here’s hoping my iMac will join me on this journey.)
The car kept going straight, as if the steering wheel were a toy. We slid across an invisible glaze of ice, heading straight for the concrete barrier wall at the curve of the on-ramp, picking up speed. I braked and turned into the skid. The ABS brakes rattled; the car’s rear end swung wide, fishtailing. I steered gently the opposite direction then back the other way, just a touch, willing it to straighten its course. And it did. We got past the ice. Merged into thick traffic and went on, like nothing had happened.
Life is full of slippery spots, split seconds when things can either stay on course or spin out of control. Those scary times when a doctor tells you they don’t know what’s wrong, much less if they can fix it. Or that they do know what’s wrong, and can’t fix it. Or that it’s too late for fixing.
Terrifying times when you feel like you’re sailing towards a wall, too fast. With no way to stop. And yet, suddenly, you’re expected to merge back into the stream of life, ready or not.
That’s how I felt, years ago, when my father died. After the other-worldly bubble of the funeral, the world accelerated and I had to find a way to merge— to emerge back into normal life, when my whole world had just spun three-hundred and sixty degrees. At eighteen, I’d never experienced such a shock. I’d had more minor ones: two grandparents had passed on. My best friend had lost both parents already at that point, so I wasn’t a complete stranger to death itself. It was horrible, but at first, I was in shock, numb.
The merge is what caught me by surprise. The expectation to return to normal when normal as I knew it was gone. I remember thinking “How? How do people DO this?” And feeling inadequate that I didn’t know how, that I wasn’t okay.
In my family, as in a lot of families, the solution was to soldier on, bravely. Not to show weakness. Not to talk about it, because talking about it would just hurt, right? So I ignored the raw emotions that coursed through me, tried to pretend my deep grief didn’t exist. It was time to be done with that business, and so I was done. I drove full-speed into the fast lane, thinking I could outrun the pain. It didn’t work out so well.
Now I know better. You will hit some sort of black ice eventually. Yes. Go ahead. Merge! Life doesn’t stop moving. Be gentle. Let yourself recover in the old-lady slow lane, give yourself time. Merge with unwiped tears running down your blotchy cheeks, hands sweaty, face a snotty mess. Breathe deeply, until your heart rate steadies. Steer right into the pain. There’s no way around it in the end.
Life is one long messy first draft. The narrative arc is, if you are lucky, a long one.
It struck me today: this is why I like writing fiction. It allows me to polish dialogue, to give my characters just the right words and actions to drive the story to its conclusion. Yes, fictional characters make messes of their lives. Otherwise, they’d be pretty dull.
But their missteps are choreographed, like a ballet. Effective fictional characters— the likeable ones, anyway—are entertaining and engaging, making colossal mistakes, then finding their way to a better place. Good fiction often pivots on that magical quality of transformation. I think that’s what makes me want to run backward sometimes. If only I could edit out my circular meanderings. Things would happen faster, more dramatically. Like watching slow-motion videos of flowers unfurling. Look! The ugly bulb has pushed through the heavy earth and burst into bloom, right before our eyes.
In real life, flowers wilt. Flowers smell. Flowers die. Sometimes they fail to bloom, and sometimes they are crushed by a booted heel at their tenderest, and never quite recover. Real people, myself included, can be mean, can be clueless, can be lost, can be stupid—hence the urge to wish for a really, really big red pen.
I see now that I’ve been wishing I could workshop my life story. It’s a time-sucking trap. I mean, what IF I’d begun writing in earnest at thirty, or forty? How much better would I be by now? What if I’d known which things to worry about and which things to let run their course? (Oh so plain now, in hindsight!)
What if I’d learned sooner that so many of the obligations and material things I thought I were vital to a good life were actually entirely unimportant to happiness; in fact, wanting them drove me to work harder and lose sight of more vital concerns and joys.
As my dog-owning friends say when their dogs pick up something unhealthy: “leave it!”
This is the year for me to let go of that unhealthy yet seductive urge to hold onto the past, to let go of wishing I’d done this or that differently. It’s time to focus on the now, to save the red pen for work, and let life unfold moment by moment—messy as hell, sweet and imperfect.
Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.
– Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
It’s January 1, 2014.
Last night’s countdown has me thinking about the ultimate countdown.
According to the Federal Government’s Life Expectancy Calculator, I have 33.4 years left on this planet, but that doesn’t factor in family history (big negative), health history (mixed bag, that), lifestyle (pretty good right now, but all those years of smoking…).
After playing around with a few more calculators, it turns out that current lifestyle seems to weigh heavily into the forecast. According to the more detailed calculators I tried, I’m looking at about 40 more years. Yikes. I could conceivably be here to toast in 2054, when my older daughter will be over 60! Hard to imagine what the world will be like by then. Will I still be shuffling around, under my own steam? Or living in a crazy mixed up state? (By which I mean, worse than I currently am!)
The bigger question: How many active, mentally-with-it years do I have left? None of the calculators I tried factored in dementia in near relatives, or the death ages of parents. None of the calculators predict quality of life.
Perhaps spiritual author Eckhart Tolle has it right—quit thinking about the future, live in the now.
Tolle says that the future is just a mental construction. This moment is all we really have. I agree to a point, but have trouble (clearly!) sticking to the now in practice.
If I don’t cultivate mindfulness, one of these days I might cross Clifton Avenue, distracted, thinking about what the world will be like in 2054, wondering how much will change during my theoretical lifespan. If I’m not careful, I might wander into a busy intersection pondering whether the rain forests will be gone entirely, if the oceans will be a cesspool of toxins, if the divisions between rich and poor will have balanced out, or grown cruelly sharper. Lost in the future, I won’t see the bus of NOW bearing down on me.
I imagine time stretching out like warm taffy in the second I snap into the moment, realizing it is my last. Perhaps in that moment, the secrets of the universe will become plain. Or maybe there are no secrets? Maybe Eckhart has it right. Maybe I need to learn how to be present, how to stop myself from jetting into the future or sinking into the past.
I’ll worry about that—later.