Dreams are so ephemeral that it takes special effort to remember them even long enough to jot down the essence upon waking. More often than not, for me, all that is recalled is a vague feeling that I had really enjoyed the time I spent unconscious in the previous minutes, or perhaps hours.
I began reflecting on this subject after having a recent dream about a small lizard from Madagascar that can shed its rather large scales. In the dream, I picked it up and the scales on the bottom, where it touched my hand, started to peel off. I quickly photographed it, then released it before it became completely nude. When I described it to a man who was some sort of biology teacher or researcher, he seemed skeptical, but agreed with my account. Besides, I had the pictures as proof. The seed of this dream is no mystery, as I had just read about such an unlikely creature in a science magazine.
My dreams often include details taken from the everyday activities and pursuits that occupy me on a regular basis. It's not unusual for there to be familiar or typecast people, insects, unusual mammals, reptiles of all kinds or bizarre plants infiltrating my nocturnal imaginings. I might dream of fossil hunting, hiking, exploring, driving, or doing yard work. Just as likely are scenarios about rehearsing, sight-reading, and performing music, as that's my profession. Issues of promptness, competency, problem solving, preparedness and observation all crop up. As I ponder the vague impressions, or exceptionally clear details, that I sometimes retain upon waking, I find myself applying taxonomic principles and categorizing each particular dream: it might be an examination of a current project, a search for a solution to a dilemma, an amalgamation of unrelated visual or aural vignettes, a journey, an exploration of a complex building or landscape, or even just sheer entertainment. It has been a very long time since I can recall a nightmare. I most likely have a propensity to conveniently forget anything scary or unpleasant.
When I'm attempting to figure out some problem, or come up with an idea, such as for the animations and illustrations I create at the head of these newsletters, it's as if my subconscious continues to work while the rest of my brain takes a rest. I don't even have to pay it overtime. When I wake, I might have a new take or even an adequate solution at hand. It is like having a quietly competent personal assistant.
Sometimes I have lovely dreams of moving along, either by flying, swimming, sledding, skating or running, through a strange and enchanting landscape. It might involve cruising through sapphire waters of a series of moodily lit caves, running on high scaffolds over futuristic gardens, floating over verdant hills as I swoop through the air like a bird, or happily trotting along an urban landscape as if I know where I am going but thoroughly enjoying the journey rather than preoccupied with the destination.
I especially appreciate the cinematic dreams, where there are various scenes, often utilizing effective camera angles or lighting techniques, and often a surprise ending, or perhaps several, as I seem to be testing different outcomes to see which is most effective. There was one particularly memorable dream from many years ago in which several people were dealing with specters in a large and fascinating old house. It was captivating, at times delightfully spooky, and the ending included the surprising shock of one of the main characters suddenly disappearing in the same wavering, evaporating way that the ghosts had been doing earlier. Ooooh, the fantastic shivers up the spine as the background music emphasized the eeriness of it all and I woke up wanting to applaud such a captivating performance!
Due to the biology of our brains, any memory inevitably changes with each subsequent recollection. So a dream remembered from childhood has probably morphed in some degree by the time an older person like me is thinking about it once more. But the simple fact that it was distinctive enough to make that first impression, as well as the following musings, means it was quite an exceptional creation.
Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare." I was impressed by this famous painting at a very early age and it remains a favorite. The simple dual connotation of the equine visage certainly appeals to young children, and really, it's just a satisfyingly creepy picture.
Writing down a dream upon waking is the surest way of preserving the most details, including the initial raw emotional impacts. For a few weeks one summer, as I was working in a musical theater production and staying in a cabin along the Guadalupe River in central Texas, I had the leisure time to wake up when I wanted each morning and write down any dreams I remembered. Reading back through that journal is like discovering the stories and descriptions for the first time, as if somebody else had written them down.
The memories of several dream segments that I had when I was about 7-8 years old have returned periodically ever since. They include a bright green turtle (I remember thinking that I DO obviously dream in color), a series of strangely dinosaurian looking silhouettes passing by a frosted window in a futuristic house, and a slow-moving line of a benign grass fire that was about to consume a house and turn it to ash with almost no flames. Of course, all these images were related to things I'd seen or experienced in reality, although they were modified to the point of becoming engrossingly science-fiction-like.
During a lifetime that includes literally YEARS of sleep, it is not surprising that there will be a few notable coincidences that seem almost supernatural in their serendipitous juxtaposition. I can think of only two that occurred while I slept and one that was a daydream. The diurnal rumination happened while I was sitting in a bus with our high school band, driving on a long road trip from Lemont, IL, to Nantucket Island, MA. The date is easy to pinpoint: June 13, 1976. As we watched the distant skyscraper landscape of New York City glide past our windows, I imagined a tornado and thought that it would really do a lot of damage to all those buildings. I even mentioned it to a friend sitting in the adjacent seat and we briefly contemplated why tornados never seemed to hit the middle of big cities like NY or Chicago, but only smaller towns. That night, in our motel rooms, we saw a major news story on the television about an hour-long F-4 tornado that had devastated parts of Lemont just that day. As students frantically tried calling home (though most could not get through as the phone lines were gone), my friend recalled the odd little discussion we'd had a few hours before. I had forgotten it, but the realization of that most improbable coincidence, along with the stunned silence of the other people in the room, then hit with an impact that I'll retain for life.
The other two coincidence dreams were just as memorable and, due to our species' love of patterns and connecting information, they are likewise indelibly etched into my brain. Dates that have since faded in my mind can easily be added because both involved extremely large disasters that are now in the history books and web sites.
I was home from college for the summer on July 23, 1984. I performed, and worked as a stage crew member, with the Wheaton Summer Band, but mostly just had the lazy, warm days free. During a late afternoon nap, with the window open and the chiffon curtains blowing pleasantly in the cool breeze, I had one of the most terrifying dreams I can remember. A nuclear bomb had just exploded nearby, and my immediate family and I were standing huddled together in our open garage as we watched the approaching white mist that meant the end. At that instant, I woke suddenly to a VERY loud bang, that shook our old house, rattling the window and leaving me with that frightening "final moment" vision in extreme clarity. In a flash, I was up and outside, where the neighbors were also appearing. I had NOT dreamed about the noise, which seemed to everyone to have been an explosion. We were right. As we later found out, the Union Oil refinery a few miles away, on the I&M Canal at the border between Lemont and Romeoville, had experienced a massive explosion that killed 17 people. It was one of the worst industrial disasters ever.
One more dream that became memorable due to later circumstances occurred the night of May 24, 1979. I had arrived home from college only a short time before I had a rather spectacular dream in which I saw an airplane in the distance crash down into a field. It was daylight, but instead of flames and smoke rising from the impact locale, an elaborate fireworks display followed. The colors were magnificent and the pyrotechnics were more like glowing jewels forming evolving patterns and symmetrical fractals, with many sparkly effects. The next day, on the evening news, the crash of a DC-10, Flight 191, at O'Hare was reported. There were 273 people killed. When the time of the crash was given, I realized that I had been driving south on I-55, not far from the airport, and had simply been looking in the wrong direction to have seen the effects of the catastrophe, which I was sure did not in any way resemble the kaleidoscopic spectacle in my recent dream.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of dreams is their uncontrollable nature. Anything in a person's experience or thoughts might make an appearance or be an influence. There is, however, a technique in which a sleeping person is aware of dreaming and can even exert some control over the narrative or circumstances. Lucid dreaming, a term coined by a Dutch psychiatrist in the early 20th Century, can happen by chance, but there are various mental exercises that will help increase its likelihood. My husband, Larry, had a book about this subject and I decided to see if I could do any of the suggested experiments and end up with a dream in which I deliberately changed something. One of the easiest techniques was to think, while falling asleep, that I would make an effort to look at my hand during a dream. The routine was to look at my real hand, then concentrate on the intention to see it again in a dream. This was such a boring thought that I quickly fell asleep on several subsequent nights. After just a few tries, though, a very nondescript dream was suddenly interrupted with a gigantic psychedelic rainbow-colored hand that filled my entire vision, as if thrust in my face. I made the connection immediately to the lucid dreaming exercise, but it was so funny that I woke up laughing!
As long as we must, due to natural limitations, sleep for 1/3 of our lives, we might as well embrace that time, appreciate the rambling thoughts formed in our ever-active brains, and accept the quirky convergences of fact and fantasy, interesting revelations, oddly paranormal experiences, and personal insights. Produced by our minds, dreams are both a product of our imaginations and a creative exercise in piecing together random snippets of memories. At their best, they help us wake up refreshed, in a good mood and ready to tackle another day of reality.