Several friends have been writing about dreams and dreaming recently. So here’s this…
I rarely write about dreams, though dreams are an important part of my life.
Not that I remember them very well. Usually, I wake up knowing I’ve had one, but unless I’m diligent enough to scribble down a few of the details, it’s gone by dawn. All I remember is that I had one, but little else.
Still, dreams are important to me. Some of my earliest memories are dreams – scary, unsettling, mind-bending stuff (yes, my dreams were so weird I never quite understood the allure of hallucinogens). To this day, if I wake up from a dream, even if I remember not one detail, I can still feel the emotional stir the dream generated in my consciousness. It’s like an earthquake I didn’t witness, but all around me are the overturned chairs and tables, I see the cracks in the walls and the paintings slipped from their hooks.
So it surprised me one night a few weeks ago when I awoke from a dream, remembering a number of details, and – not only that, but staying up two and a half hours afterward, running through those few details again and again.
Two and a half hours.
I dreamed I was in a big place, several rooms, each room filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves – hundreds and hundreds of old books in old bindings. I could see the loose threads on the corners of some of the old covers. They were all sorts of books: big, small, oversized, paperbacks, bound magazines and journals, albums, notebooks. It looked like stuff you would find in a library or a second hand bookstore – except it was mine. I knew it was all mine. Most of it was old. I opened a few volumes and flipped through the pages. News magazines. Histories. Fashion magazines with spreads of beautiful women dressed in the top haute couture of fifty years ago.
I was there with a friend – a person I’ve known for over forty years. I haven’t seen him in ages, but we keep in touch. He was going through some of the stuff too, but he seemed more curious, intellectually intrigued, as compared to me, who looked at all these volumes, thinking, “This is mine. All this stuff! How did I manage to acquire all this stuff?”
I awoke. I didn’t sit up, but turned my head and stared at the luminous digital clock next to my bed. Three-fifteen a.m. or thereabouts. I kept thinking about the shelves and shelves of old volumes. At first, I was obsessed with the amount, and that so many of those books were things I hadn’t looked at in years – things I didn’t need in years. It was old stuff. Stuff that should be gotten rid of.
I couldn’t imagine just throwing it all away. I have a deep aversion to throwing away books. You may suffer from the same. I remember, when I was a grade-schooler, the kids next door went to a Catholic school, where they had to buy their textbooks, and at the end of every year they threw their texts into a garbage can and set them on fire. I was young, but I’d already read my World War II history, and the years that led up to it. I had read and seen pictures of the Nazis burning books at the Reichstag. I knew what book burning meant, and it has stayed with me all these days.
So I stared into the dark, thinking of ways that I might ease myself of the burden of all the old stuff I still had – not as much stuff as in the dream, but I have shelves, and boxes – lots and lots of boxes – that I no longer needed, or wanted, and should probably get rid of. Were there stores that still sold old magazines, like the places I went to in my youth? Would they take on more? ABC Magazine Service: “Four floors of magazines!” How about eBay? Could I sell this stuff on my web page? I didn’t have an up-to-date web page. Well, then I’d need to create a new website, with a page devoted to selling old stuff. Call it “The Hobo’s Dungeon” …
Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me: THE DREAM IS NOT ABOUT THE BOOKS!
Not the books themselves, but what the books represent.
What do they represent?
It wasn’t the physical “stuff” I needed to get rid of (though my old stacks of The New Republic and the Saturday Evening Post wouldn’t be missed anytime soon). It was the “stuff” inside me.
What stuff inside me?
Before I had gone to bed, I was thinking. I was remembering how much of my early life was spent with books, and comic books, and any sort of reading matter I could find, including the proverbial matchbooks and road maps. You probably did the same thing.
Reading is a means to fill a hunger for learning – an overwhelming desire to know things. To know the world – the whole damn cosmos. But there’s another reason to read. We read to fill a hole. The hole is a great emptiness that threatens to devour our souls. The emptiness is loneliness.
We read because we are lonely.
I thought about the dream, about the rooms loaded with books. That enormous library – tiny in comparison to the ones imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, but big enough for me – was my loneliness. My emptiness – or my effort to fill that emptiness. It occurred to me that I could heave all those books into the abyss of my emptiness and they would disappear into the darkness without making a sound, so far away was the bottom of that pit.
The dream was “about” gauging the size of my loneliness, and my loneliness was too big to measure. That need to “get rid of all this” was, I suppose, my way of saying that the abyss couldn’t be filled, but it might, possibly, maybe, be left behind.
I’ll be sixty-two years old in a few months. I’ve done my share of wandering in the wilderness. I won’t bore you with autobiography. You can probably fill in the blanks with your own tales of solitude and agony.
We’re writers, yes? If you’re reading this you probably are, whether you know it or not, whether you admit it or not. I sure as hell am not smart enough to distinguish between cause and effect or chicken and egg, but loneliness and writers are lifetime companions. We may write for the same reason we read. Maybe we are lonely because we are writers, or we are writers because we are lonely. I don’t know.
So, why? Why am I dreaming this dream now? Couldn’t I have had this dream on any night in the last sixty-one years?
I don’t know. It may be that I have reached an age where I can leave behind the wormhole of loneliness. It won’t change. It won’t disappear as if by magic. It’s not as if by some psychotherapeutic realization I can walk away from the abyss. You can’t. You can pretend to forget, but pretending just brings you back to that old bottomless pit.
You move on. You take the loneliness with you because it comes with the territory, but you don’t pretend it doesn’t exist, or waste more time throwing more books down into it.
You can’t fill the wormhole, but if you’re lucky, you can grow enough to contain the wormhole within yourself, with a little room to spare to get your work done. Because you’re a writer, and writers always have work to do – even when they’re dreaming.
I didn’t mention this before, but there was one more thing.
All through this time, during the dream and all through the two and a half hours I ruminated over that dream, there was a song in the back of my head. An instrumental. It sounded like a pop song from the sixties as played by a surf band. Or a surf instrumental played by a pop band.
I had never heard the song before. It was just there in my head. Created in the forge of my unconscious.
That’s happened to me before. I have a reasonably good ear for tunes, so I know when my mental jukebox dredges up an old number I forgot about decades ago. I can tell the difference between a song I remember and a song I’m hearing for the first time.
This song I heard for the first time. It was coming out of me. And it wasn’t too bad. Not a chart-busting hit, but not bad.
I suppose I could have run to the living room, taken out my guitar, tuned it up to sketch out the melody and chords (I’m lousy at reading and writing music on paper), but for some reason I let it go. Stupid, maybe. I mean, who doesn’t need a new song every now and then? And when the song comes into being without invitation or coercion or provocation – when it just comes out of your unconscious fully formed, why not take it?
Alas, I did not.
Maybe I had some hope that some time, since it was in my own head, it would come out again, and the next time maybe I would catch it and drag it up into my consciousness.
For the moment, though, the song had performed its function. The song, like the dream, was telling me what I needed to know.
I need a new song.