Lost in a dream


Plane ticket bought. Living arrangements for the first two weeks settled. Bosses given notice. All over but the movin’.

Right on cue, the stress dreams have begun.

Every move involves dozens of details, large and small, from finding a place to live to packing the suitcases. Some things can be done months in advance, some in the final few days. And then there are those details, like finding a job, that can only be tackled after the physical relocation.

After a decade of this lifestyle, I’m pretty damn good at moving. If I could turn my knowledge into an app, I’d make hundreds, hundreds! Alas, such talents aren’t easily monetized, and mostly they boil down to common sense: Take care of your business.

There is another aspect of moving, though, that no matter how many times I do it, will, by definition, remain a challenge: the unknown. For all the planning, for all the hard-earned knowledge, the whole point of moving to a new city, a new state, a new country, is to explore the unexplored, to take on a fresh challenge. No matter how many books read, how many websites visited, how many personal accounts accumulated, when it comes down to make the actual move, my arms remain outstretched in a darkened room.

I don’t dream much. I mean, obviously, I dream every night, but I rarely remember them or even wake up with the sensation that my mind had been at play. When I do remember my dreams, they’re usually so prosaic and boring that the details meld into my day-to-day memories, which can lead to some momentary confusion.

On the verge of another move, though, my dreams start to take on a more consistent tenor, a pensive hum of uncertainty and doubt. My first such dream happened about a week ago.

In it, I’m back in college, still on the verge of moving, but now waiting for graduation to set me free. To my chagrin, I’m being told by a faceless bureaucrat that I’m not going to graduate. I’m six credits shy of my degree and this shadow figure is explaining that I had skipped too many classes and am going to fail my course. And now it’s too late to do anything about it. I feel my future slipping out of my grasp.

We’ve all woken from that kind of dream, filled with a piercing dread that slowly dissipates as reality comes into focus. The anxiety tends to stick with you, though, and even as you rationalize away the source of your mental anguish – I’ve been through with college for over a decade – the underlying emotion remains.

The dream didn’t create the anxiety, the dream was a byproduct of it.

My namesake is the Biblical Joseph. Not Jesus’ stepdad, but the Old Testament punk with the fancy coat and pissed off brothers. If you’re unfamiliar with the story – and since Bible literacy is pretty low in the Christian west, I’ll assume you are – Joseph was the second youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons and his father’s favorite. Jacob’s favoritism did not go unnoticed by his other sons, especially after Joseph was gifted with a brightly colored coat. Such overt favoritism might have been a non-issue if not for the fact that Joseph was also kind of a little shit.

Joseph had dreams. I don’t mean, he wanted to someday be a stand-up comedian. He literally had dreams in which he saw visions of celestial bodies bowing down to him. Now, a smart person might have just written these down in his dream journal and moved on. But this kid decided that he should tell his brothers and parents about his repeated visions of the entire family supplicating themselves to him. They really enjoyed that.

As a younger brother who was, himself, a bit of a shit, I enjoyed the story of Joseph, especially because in the end, the visions come true. Through a series of ludicrous events I won’t recount here, Joseph becomes second-in-command to Pharaoh and his entire family does, indeed, end up bowing down to him. Score one for bratty kid brothers.

Even more than the happy ending (well, for Joseph), what I enjoyed most about the story was the dreams. I obsessed over the idea of interpreting deeper meaning from dreams, of unlocking some cosmic secret. Joseph isn’t the only Bible character who has and interprets dreams. In the old testament, prophets and kings are always foreseeing the future in their sleep, usually laced through with dire warnings about an impending famine or a lousy season of the Simpsons (show’s older than you realize).

I thought that would have been a pretty cool skill to have. The only problem was, I never recalled my dreams. Kind of hard to divine the meaning of a prophetic vision if you can’t remember it.

 A dream is what you want to do, but still haven’t pursued

People love to tell you what dreams mean. Bookstores will sell you dream dictionaries and there’s a whole industry built around the dubious idea that our minds are mystic entities communicating to us through universal symbols that stretch back to our earliest ancestors. Bullocks, the lot of it.

When I was a child, maybe 9 or 10, I dreamt that I was at a summer camp with my brother and a group of other kids from school. In the dream, some of my fellow campers come across a little, talking creature in the grass. We determine, by some unspecified means, that this creature is, in fact, the Devil. Immediately, the group splits into two factions: the boys want to squash the creature, but the girls think that’s cruel. Presaging pretty much my entire life, I side with the girls.

The chronology gets screwy here, as tends to happen in dreams. Suddenly my brother and I are walking back to our cabin alone when we are abruptly attacked. For some reason, I’m holding a ruler in my right hand – as you do – and just as we reach the cabin, the ruler morphs into a snake (a la Moses and the staff) and wraps itself around my neck, choking me to tears. Panicking, I try to call out to my brother but I can’t make a noise. It makes no difference. When I turn to face him, he’s also being choked by a snake.

And then I bolted awake.

That is one of the only dreams I have ever remembered, and it’s stuck with me for more than two decades. I know there are those who’d have a field day parsing the details for some spiritual meaning, but I’ll save you the time: I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home that insisted on a literalist interpretation of the Bible and all its related myths. Also, I’d just watched that episode of Quantum Leap in which Sam fights the devil.

Oh Boy

I know it’s fun to imagine otherwise, but there’s no great mystery to dreams. When we’re asleep, our minds are still active, still processing, but without the rigid rules of reason that generally guide our thoughts (some of us more than others). Many will protest, even some professional psychiatrists, but searching our dreams for Freudian imagery like it were some subconscious Dan Brown novel is pure puffery.

It’s not my intention to suggest no meaning can be found in dreams. My stress dreams are actually very informative, not in that they possess information I don’t already know, but because they forefront anxieties I’m feeling but which, because of my hectic schedule, I’m ignoring. There’s benefits in not dwelling on one’s anxiety, especially when there’s nothing to be done about it, but it’s also important to be conscious of what’s going on underneath the surface. Our emotional state alters our physical state, often in ways we can’t fully appreciate.

Before a major life change, anxiety is normal, it’s healthy. It’s fuel.

Having had a brief, two-year respite from regular relocation, I’m slipping back into my old rhythms. There’s the excitement for future possibilities, the sadness of leaving behind another home, the motivation of working my ass off to achieve a financial goal. But there’s also this boiling anxiety for the unknown, and while it’s necessary to put a lid on it in order for me to function, it’s also very good that I’m reminded every once in a while that it’s there. It keeps me alert; it focuses me.

So, when I’m asleep tonight and dream about being in a subway car that’s going the wrong way while the faceless crowd blocks my egress, I can wake up in the morning knowing that I’m just one more day closer to another leap into the unknown. That growl in my gut, that’s just letting me know I’m headed in the right direction.

Oh boy, indeed.

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One thought on “Lost in a dream

  1. I can talk about my dreams here too, I am getting a recurring dream of somehow failing my exams even though I graduated 6 months ago. Unlike you I don’t have any move in front of me. I try not to take notice of it much but it is hard when I wake up at 3 am in the morning because of the dream

    I really enjoyed this post.

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