dreams

there must be a great word in german to sum up this entry

In grade three or thereabouts a story was going around about the dangers of dying in your dreams. The story had two versions. The more dire version maintained that if you didn't wake up the split-second before you hit the ground/ met the bullet/ went up in flames, then you would die in real life, and your parents would find you dead in your room. This scared the crap out of my eight year old self. Even when my parents pointed out that there was no way of verifying a sleeper's cause of death as dream-induced (oneiropathic death?), I remained pretty sure that I was doomed to die by a nightmare that didn't know when to stop. The other, milder story said that dying in dreams was a sign of severe psychological issues.

So far I have died twice in my dreams, and as far as I can tell I'm not dead or too disturbed. But the experience is disturbing enough.

What I've realized from these dreams is that my subconscious is not up to the task of portraying what it's like to be dead. I don't hurtle forward into nothingness; I don't get a fast-track entry into afterlives of pleasure or torment; and my consciousness isn't pinned to my body (or what remains of my body; in both of my death dreams I've been hit by a mortar round – isn't that strange?). Instead I find myself in a new body. But the body does not come with a new life. Instead it's clear, in the way that dreams clarify by way of tacit certainty, that the new body is a loaner, a kind of holder for my awareness until I die again.

That's right – die again. Bodily death in my dreams is only the first stage in being booted out of this world. Afterwards, I am made to examine forms(somebody hands me a clipboard) and certify that I am scheduled for death at some undetermined-but-definitely-soon point. The forms are stamped, signed, and generally look as if they've been pulled from some file cabinet from an office in Albania in 1976. First the body is destroyed, then the bureaucracy takes over. During this period I feel a strange lightness, as if the weight of my experience no longer matters. It is a relief tinged with a bit of melancholy, especially when I see my broken corpse. Best of all, nobody cares that I'm now dead, and the people who were only moments before trying to kill me are now freed up for casual conversation.

I never experience the second death. Instead I wake up, my eyes opening to 4 a.m. darkness, my heart whumping away and my lungs aching, as if a gigantic weight has just been lifted off my body. In two days I will turn thirty-seven, and I wonder how many more times in my life I will find myself dead in my dreams, alive and waiting for the death that never comes? Except of course that it will come eventually - I just won't be there for the actual moment.

I blame The Flintstones. In all seriousness, it was Hanna-Barbera that implanted this bodily roundelay notion of death in my tiny, unformed mind. When I was very young, I watched an episode in which Fred got fired and then spent the rest of the episode sitting around his stone hut bitching about his fate. I didn't get it. I thought that he had been fired upon, that he had been killed, and that he had been given an extra allotment of time to say goodbye to everyone, to examine options and make plans that cannot possibly succeed. It seemed unspeakably cruel and strange for Mr. Slate to do this to Fred, and crueller still that a universe with this kind of punishment could be imagined and portrayed. Can I sue? And wouldn't it set an excellent precedent for all those disturbed people wandering around who could lay their troubles at the foot of childhood entertainment? I hope so.

the bad dream

cats lounge 04

Along with disclosure of details about my sex life and half-baked wheezings about American politics* I refrain from blabbing on about my dreams. This is not an objection based on form so much as content. Most of my dreams are short on action and long on layers of unconscious information, which may be the result of reading too much of the high modernists as a teenager. My dreams only really get going when I have one of my alien apocalypse epics, which drop into my brain once a year or so. They’re extremely disturbing, but the stories are excellent. I should option out my freakier dreams to a movie studio.

The other night, though, I had a weird Coles Notes nightmare, a quick synopsis of almost every ugly element that disturbs my sleep. It’s as if the my terrors, heaped up in some packed closet of my brain, were all dislodged by some random bump in the waking world. The only bit missing were the invading aliens (for which I blame the EC comics I read as a kid) and the abandoned attic (for which I blame creepy, dusty abandoned attics).

I dreamt that I was awake alone in my bed. This is the start of a fever dream, in which my mind repeatedly surfaces to grab a hunk of reality and then drag it back below. The bedsheet and my body were covered in little black insects, which I tried to brush off the side of the bed, only to find that dozens of the insects had burrowed underneath my skin. There was no pain, but I could see them clearly, like little ribbed pellets of brown rice. I ran my hand over my face in the dark, terrified that they had infiltrated my face.

I lurched up out of bed and headed to the bathroom, but at this point my dream had pulled me deeper into that drowned space where all the rooms of my life bump up against each other. My bedroom door opened up into the house where I grew up, and I suddenly needed to walk quietly so as not to disturb my parents, who were asleep in the room on the other side of the landing. I knew that I couldn’t make it into work with bugs all over my body, but I had no idea where I worked or whether I had any job at all. I knew that I had just finished my Education degree the day before (another bit of nightmare: I’d sooner stab myself in the kidney than be a teacher) and a half-formed notion told me that today was my first day on the job at some school. I tried to call my new workplace – a cell phone had conveniently materialized in my hand – but a voice told me that I didn’t work there, or anywhere.

In the bathroom I switched on the light, but the illumination from the tiny night-light fixture was so pathetic that I had to put my face within inches of the mirror. For some reason I was wearing a navy-blue T-shirt that I hadn’t seen since 1989. I tilted my face from side-to-side, trying to check my skin for insects – only I couldn’t. The bathroom light picked out the line of my jaw, the plane of my temple and the gleam of my scalp, but the centre of my face was completely in shadow. No matter how I twisted and craned my neck, I could not see myself in the mirror.

That was an entirely new part of the repertoire. It’s creepier to recount than to experience – in the dream, the threat of the insects had somehow passed by the time I got into the bathroom, and my inability to see my face felt more irritating than terrifying – but I’m disturbed by the notion of a shadow clinging to my face. I don’t know if I’ve tried to look my reflection in a dream before, but in future I’m going to avoid mirrors in my sleep.

*Which reminds me: I saw Obama bumper stickers and posters recently when I was visiting friends in Saskatoon. Saskatoon is a city that sits 250 miles north of the U.S. border, in a strange land we call Canada, where the presidential race is pretty much entertainment. Where supporting Obama, Clinton or McCain from your armchair or rear bumper is a sophisticated version of taking your D&D character too seriously.

one thing about me

If I wake up with the memory of a dream still in my head, it's often about Aliens. The egg-laying face-hugging double-jawed kind from the Alien movies. No, I'll be more specific: other dreams, the non-Aliens kind, are ones I remember. The ones with Aliens are dreams that I experience. And I hate them. Those creatures scare the crap out of me. Last night, at least, I had some kind of plasma weapon, and I could shoot at the damn things when they came around corners. But I usually missed.

Every so often, in the midst of one of my Aliens dreams, I cross over into lucidity for a moment and I think, I wish I could stop having this scary dream. I never think, hey, Aliens aren't real, I'm gonna kick one between the legs and see what happens! Of course, I know what happens in those situations: goodbye face. I prefer my dreams pre-1985, when I'd never seen an Alien film.

Before 1985 I dreamed about bears. They menaced me, chased me around a bit, and sometimes they fought with goats. That's what happens when you grow up in the middle of nowhere.