Preface & Reader Response
Discovering how to exploit dreaming may have been the single most useful skill that I learned at college.
MUST BE DREAMING
by Jerry Murley
When I was in college, a friend of mine and I shared a late-morning hour break between classes several days a week. We met in the basement of the new library tower at Memphis State and sat across from one another at a long wooden table by ourselves beside a row of high windows that looked up at the sky. We said little at first, but rather we quietly and dutifully stacked our books and jackets on the table, folded our arms over our makeshift pillows, and put our heads down for a ten- to fifteen-minute nap. The purpose of the nap was multi-fold and evolved. But the driving objective was to dream, because we were both heavy dreamers at that stage of our lives and we both sought meaning, humor, and good stories from dreams. We embarked on a course of competitive dreaming. After each nap, we related to one another the details of our dreams. It was in essence a high-noon shootout: willing, swapping, and interpreting the experience of our on-demand dreams. No question that we were both on the fringe psychologically, and still are (thankfully), but it seems then as today the sanest, least expensive, and least risky of activities. Discovering how to exploit dreaming may have been the single most useful skill that I learned at college.
Well, maybe not the most important thing I learned, because the wide variety of subjects and experience to which I was exposed while in college fueled my imagination and my dreams. The experience of drugs held no power next to the lasting impact of an unfettered imagination fed by a free flow of new ideas and constantly shifting personal experiences and world events. In our minds, at that time, to not dream was to be among the half alive.
I am not sure why some people report that they do not dream. For me it is a spice of life and essential for removing the debris of the recent past and rearranging things to better deal with the immediate future. It might have something to do with short-term memory or depth of sleep, for dreams are evasive and easily forgotten in the light of day. It might have something to do with a driving personal need or habit, such as a need for constant internal narrative. A fertile interior life is helpful. And then again it might have something to do with needing to get up several times in the night to urinate. When I get up at night, I make sure to walk in pitch darkness; when I fall back into bed, I often try to, and often succeed at, resuming my dream – sometimes with a consciously inserted emphasis or new twist to reshape its progress.
* * *
It is the late 1970s, after I moved to North Willett in Midtown Memphis: It is my opportunity to represent my city by giving Jimmy Carter a tour of Overton Park. He is complimentary of the rustic walking paths and tall hardwood trees. In the hush of the forest canopy, far from the street noise, I find Jimmy to be a very pleasant companion and an easy conversationalist.
* * *
Always on the move, I dream of travel. Occasionally I fly, but most of the time I have to flap my arms vigorously to become airborne. It comes in handy to be able to float like that, and it is usually a feat that amazes me and others in the dream. Once I dreamed that I could fly by my thumb, as long as it touched the ground. One supposes I needed thumb contact like an old trolley car needs electrical contact for energy. I have no idea why or how I see and experience the complex details of close places (many alley ways and densely treed back-country roads), big-picture vistas, never-before-seen buildings, and the dozens of new faces that I encounter nightly for hour upon hour. I love sleep and always awaken to a new world. I would surely be held a genius of many arts if I could fully record my dreams in sight, sound, and touch.
This is why one avoids an overabundance of meanest and worry; this is why one embraces trust in goodness. It is to sleep such sleep in confidence in one's ability to experience afresh, without the burden of guilt or dread, and awaken as a being unlike the one that was the night before.
* * *
I don't frequently write down dreams when I wake, but I did this one. It is a recollection of a notably contenting dream.
I am visiting a vaguely related old family in a place that had to be Memphis. The family lives in a 1920s- or 1930s-vintage ten- to fifteen-story ornate hotel. The people in the family – or visitors in the hotel, I don't know the difference – are plump and happy in one another's company and indifferent to the presence of outsiders but welcoming. The hotel is spacious but comfortable like an overstuffed chair. It is situated among many buildings of different architectural styles. These buildings are directly across from a building where, one after another, huge jet planes make sharp right turns just feet above the rooftop as they descend to a landing.
I am subsequently driven along a lengthy, weedy open space full of Ferris wheels to an area where Indians (India Indians) are selling food on the roadside. It is an pleasant, vibrant, and exotic few blocks, full of color and interest.
A walk from there leads to the bachelor apartment of a friend. The interior of the apartment has a whole row of heavy but nicely built red-oak chests of drawers lined up one after the other facing a window on the opposite wall. One of the chests has a metal plate affixed that says "Bell South Centennial Edition."
Out the window is a marvel of beauty and serenity. I learn that this place of awesome vacuity is named Senate Point. The setting is a foggy, backlit, golden-brown bay. There are high black-brown cliffs or bluffs stretching about 100 yards on each side of an inlet of water. There is an unseen larger body of water somewhere beyond. Everything is brown – no green or other color is evident. All is peace – until I awake fulfilled.
* * *
Dreams and dreamscapes have an afterlife. I did not completely realize this until about ten years ago. One morning I noticed that my left hand and arm seemed to be out of synchronization with my commands and the corresponding behavior of my right hand and arm. This awareness of bifurcation continued for several days, slowly disappearing. Though my left arm and hand seemed out of kilter, they were not out of control. It was as if there was a secondary command center, which was also me, that was driving the actions of that side of my upper body. After seeing a neurologist and having an MRI, I was told by my doctor that I had had a slight stroke. There was a cloudy, ghostly white area like an overlay of gauze on some of the MRI cross-sectional images of the back right top side of my brain. The neurologist said the image could represent previous damage from a blow to the head, but he was not sure. I had been kicked in the head in the ninth grade while practicing football at school and spent several hours in a haze. Also, due to an allergic reaction to processed beef and my standing up too quickly while half awake, I had several months previous passed out on the bathroom floor, but I don't think I hit my head then.
The strangest part of this story is what had happened during the six months prior to this experience. Several times, either while driving home from work or while watching a movie on TV, I had zoned out in pursuit of a memory. At the time, I thought this phenomenon had something to do with white wine, because I already had one food allergy and thought the wine was doing something unwelcome to my body. I told my wife about these episodes because they slightly frightened me. What I experienced was this: I would see or think of some image or configuration of images and catch glimpse of a mental visualization that made me almost certain that I had seen or thought the same thing before. This deja vu sensation set me off chasing a taunting rabbit through alley ways and into unknown caverns until I was nearly entranced by the effort. An ineffectively catalogued image or thought was just beyond my reach, but I just could not retrieve it. What was worse, I started to think that the memory may not have been a real experience but one that I had dreamed. Pursing phantoms left me with a faint headache and a feeling of disorientation. It was also not an appropriate pastime while driving in rush-hour traffic on a rainy fall evening on a country highway. These recalled, perhaps dreamed, memories seemed as real as my remembered past. This series of experiences was a revelation to me about the human mind. For the first time I sensed a thin veil separating two interior worlds – both of them mine and not totally under my control.
The eleventh floor of Vanderbilt Hospital, down the hall from where my wife had just moved into the northeast corner room on the oncology ward, is where I met with my neurologist to review the MRI images of my brain. He took me to the southwest side of the floor into an intensive care unit to find a wall-mounted light box amid the shuffle of medical personnel treating patients. The surroundings and circumstances were weird enough, but by that time, two months after my minor stroke, I had found the confidence to deal with my, by then trivial, problem. After my doctor pointed out the ghostly white clouds, I told him that I thought I needed to start taking a daily dose of aspirin. In fact, I had already started taking 325 mgs of Bufferin a day. (Prior to this, I rarely took an aspirin because I seldom felt headaches or much acute pain of any kind, just vague, diffuse achy restlessness after intense exertion.) He agreed with the measured response. Since the stroke and adoption of the daily aspirin regimen, I have not had one of those strong memory misadventures. I did, however, have a little brain incident about a year before finding out that I needed a triple bypass. I diligently resist following the wild hare when I have even the faintest notion of that kind of deja vu temptation. Once while reading an article in The New Yorker about brain injuries of football players, I had to stop because the descriptions made me dizzy and anxious. For a person who is, more or less, strictly wedded to reason, the here and now, and the down to earth, the slightest hint of a beckoning rabbit hole induces nausea. When I had my last little brain flitter, I was afraid to go to sleep and dream, afraid of where it might take me. I had little to fear, because the sleep and normal dreaming were as relaxing and reinvigorating as always. It seems one's brain is much more prepared to dream certain kinds of dreams in sleep than while one is awake.
* * *
I am in a small, empty office behind an Opry-like performance stage with various stars and dignitaries entering and leaving the stage through the office. Then the office becomes the backstage from which the whole performance is written, rehearsed, and catered. The office is the birthing place for the whole show on stage. I can see through the office door the audience across the stage on the other side. Then blinds open, at first distracting the celebrities on the stage, revealing the little office and all those within, including me, to the performers on stage and the audience beyond.
* * *
I have scenes that recur in my dreams that are similar to the people, buildings, and land around where I live, but bigger – sort of how places are bigger in one's childhood memories than in reality. I often dream of back roads, barns, and farm implements. Images of different landscapes merge, making my dreams of my father-in-law's farm sometimes seem like my cousins' house, yard, and surrounding fields that backed up to the railroad tracks in the Frayser of my childhood.
One supposes that there are those who fear their dreams and thus they do not recall them. Unexpected, unsavory, frightening, and taboo things happen in dreams. But I guess some of us dream partly knowing we are dreaming, and we just go along for the ride. Normally, I am not cursed with horrible images, either awake or in my dreams, in part because I do not expose myself to such images in stories, books, movies, television programs, or music. I would think that constant exposure to such things in video games would have a negative afterlife in the imagination of people, especially the young. I would vote for Disney and Roald Dahl any day over the kinky media parents routinely allow children to watch nowadays, thinking it is open-minded, adventurous, and enlightening to developing personalities, giving them a taste of the supposed real world. Parents might better eschew the video game boy obsession and help children to dream the dreams that can console and guide them, while alerting them to the mystery, hazards, and repetitively absurd error in everyday exploits.
In short, we must be dreaming. Dreaming makes the night time and sleep as rich or richer than the daytime routine. Dreaming shocks us out of the torpor, fixations, and frustrations of the average day. They make us ready to begin afresh the next day with an imperfectly erased slate – sometimes a miraculously rearranged slate. Dreaming at times can help solve problems by rearranging the elements on the mental slate from the previous day. Though such dreams can be productive, I do not seek them, in part because they are exceedingly tiring.
* * *
I am crawling through rock caves to avoid the roaming lions while crossing a hotel lobby. I do not panic or think it undoable. I do not know if they are harmful or not. I think it a curious impediment in a hotel but not too unlike obstacles one faces every day in commuting to work or taking a vacation – or dreaming.
* * *
Sometimes I think that dreams retell the same stories over and over again. There are plot twists and changes in location and characters to refresh the repetitive themes. Perhaps one traverses familiar ground in search of new endings. Or maybe one simply seeks alternate paths to expected, provisional conclusions. Dreams are both real and untrue. One senses the difference most closely near waking.
The wall between what is dream and what is reality is not as fixed as popular assumption would have it. This makes the job of determining how dreams work and what they mean more complicated. Whether one believes that dreams are primarily coded messages from God or gods, or signs of former lives, or simple remembrances, or random nocturnal fantasies – the more one grapples with dreaming while awake, the more one is confounded by the complexity of dreams and their relationship with reality. The mechanics of dreams, apart from their narrative and meaning, become partly accessible if one likens the particles of dreaming to everyday experience.
In some sense, dreams are a dance of the shadows of reality projected upon the inner wall of dreaming eyes. But that analogy fails to fully capture the tactile, colorful, detailed, panoramic, emotional, and full-motion breadth of good dreams. It falls short of accounting for the familiar, the surprising, the meaningful, and the perplexing in dreams. Dreams are full of life-like images that mysteriously connect with one another. Dreaming is an improvisation that is not completely in or out of the control of the dreamer. The dreamer is writer, director, stagehand, actor, audience, and critic. He is writing a script impromptu from streams of simple messages: images slipping through that penetrable barrier between real and imagined. Likenesses of the day, and of the distant past and future, merge to form an interactive play with no terminus but only an abrupt awareness of having been captive of dream.
This comparison with intuitive artistry more fully appreciates the significance of dreams and demonstrates something about how dreams work. In dream there is an assemblage of scenes. These are threaded together from images harbored throughout the mind. The dreamer's body is the source of energy, fueling the pace and tone of the work. On-the-fly the dreamer receives, responds, and interprets the scenes simultaneously. Dreaming is a performance, a composite of reflections in a hall of mirrors. And the substance of dream is the image – a memory segment associated with vital emotion.
Reality itself seems a dream. It, too, distorts in its incomprehensible vastness. Paradoxically, dreaming, the less real part of thought, helps untangle how one interprets reality, allowing one to flip bad into good, loss into gain, error into mere humor, resolving oneself in reconciliation with reality. In dreams, we stitch apparent nonsense into narrative. Interpreting that narrative, we glimpse and comprehend the universe a little differently. Thereby we briefly toy with unconventionality involving ourselves without the overbearing filter of social mores and the laws of physics. Dreaming broadens the mind and deepens our humanity, preparing us for adaptation.
* * *
Perhaps somewhere around the Mediterranean, I am walking with my eight-year-old son along a steep dirt path on the side of a barren mountain. To the left is a precipice; to the right is a cliff dotted with boulders and scrub brush. As we round the curving path, there is suddenly a large lion with a massive, unruly mane. I turn to tell my son to stand back and we part with a fixed, hesitant, knowing look at one another. I run forward and, without attempting to fight in any way, I leap fully into the wide, roaring mouth of the lion. The lion immediately vanishes. And I, now the grandfather, turn to my eight-year-old grandson, standing securely and unfazed on the path behind me. At that instant, I begin to awake.
* * *
Mirrors, shadows, the play of images – simple analogies are useful when examining one's confusion about what is real – and what are managed musings or colliding fragments of memory. Commingled imaginings of times awake and in dream inhabit the backstage of even our most lucid thought. Not all elements of the mind's eye are either true or wild concoctions from dreams. For example, as we forecast possibilities about the future or we make retrospective glances, our thinking unfolds along multiple paths. Alternate storylines, not altogether true nor altogether unfettered imaginings, enter our toolbox of images. To the mind, these storylines could be true, but many never happen. Upon reflection, mirror within mirror, images of untaken courses weave themselves into one's interior world: they become part of one's mental vocabulary though they never occur in the objective world. Such a storyline is part curiosity, part speculation, part play, part rehearsal, and part relief or regret. The economical form of such stories is, once again, the elemental image – that little story bit, incomplete in itself, which together with other images makes up the pictorial library of our mental lives. These bits persist in the mind: They are referenced and randomly mashed together during dreams. They embed themselves deeper into the fecund wall of an evolving mind, staying longer as they branch to other story pieces. Wayward fragments of true, contemplated, and dreamed images combine in the language of the body to become the mutable DNA behind one's sleep-fast pageantry. There is indeed a thin, permeable wall between what is purely imagined and what is more solidly fact; because of it, our recollections become both clouded and playful – shrouded, insightful, and enlivened, fascinating and bewildering – sometimes clearer and sometimes less so as the trunk of one's storyline deviates in fancy from the purely objective storyline we normally think of as one's life.
Imagined storylines – shadows not of what happens but of what could happen – are not dreams. They are additional components of dreams and of our interpretation of reality. They stay with us to be reviewed – perhaps when we are barely aware of their presence. They act as decoys, corrupters, guides, connectors, and cautionary tales. They act like Biblical parables passed down through the generations. They are iterations of self – a story difficult to recall in full and more difficult still to tell plainly. They are versions of self without being the self.
Our memories, and the storehouse of mental images that represent them, are most likely exhausted with our bodies. The term of our lives is a more sturdy and durable wall. We inherit our dreams only through personal experience and common culture. We have collective, vestigial memories and patterns of imagining only to the degree that the structure and processes of our bodies are similar – and only to the extent that we share a world and a history. One fundamental part of our shared experience is our months spent in the womb of a mother. Our dreaming is a womb of sorts, a place where the man or woman to be develops the curiosity to explore and the capacity to interpret and resolve worlds within, with latitude and perhaps some equanimity, before the light of a new day that will invariably turn to dark again.
Dread not that voyage into night, but dream of new worlds. For in the end, there is a simple, practical way to separate reality from dream: The damage done in dream is easier to repair. And in dream, the rewards are plentiful, exactly fit to one's moment, and easily forgiven.