When I still lived at home, and still sat with my sister at that egg-white acrylic table in the “breakfast nook” before stomping off to school, my mom would report her most recent dream in between bites of frozen waffles, over the scraping of plates and sopping up of syrup. She’d lean in like a girl scout telling a campfire ghost story and ask, “Do you know what I dreamt last night?”
With our interest piqued and no chance of correctly guessing, we’d prod her to continue, and she’d fill us in about Principal Herring’s cameo, or getting lost on the Chicago L, or the puzzling thing her dentist said, up until the “And then I woke up!”, the period at the end of a longwinded sentence.
I was always compelled by her narration, intent on parsing her unconscious mind, not just out of a child’s curiosity, but because I often struggled to understand her waking mind’s operations—why she might start seeing a dream interpreter, for example. I thought I would glean insight into my mom’s inscrutable inner life by starting from the unconscious bottom and working my way up, as a construction crew lays down the foundation before erecting a skyscraper’s scaffolding.
She apparently thought she could learn something from her dreams too: as visits to the dream interpreter increased, she would round out her dream recaps with what she imagined the interpreter might say, or what the interpreter had said the previous week about a different dream.
The one I most remember my mom describing is from 1999, a few months after my dad left for a Fulbright-granted gig in the university town of Tübingen, Germany, and a few months before my mom, Katie, and I flew over to join him. I can see the dream so clearly, as if I’d been the one to slide into its dense fog and awake in the morning, wearing its residue like a silk robe.
The setting: a study. I understand that it’s my dad’s study the way you sense it’s going to rain a second before it does, although it doesn’t resemble the Real Study at all. Thick beige carpeting stretches across the floor, muffling my mom’s footsteps as she creeps across the threshold as if being careful not to wake someone inside. The sun slips through the slats in the drawn curtains, throwing tiny beams of light across the otherwise dark room. Floor-to-ceiling walnut bookcases guard the perimeter, and the air feels heavy in the company of so many hardcover books huddled together, titles glittering off their spines. A brass desk lamp squats over a pile of papers on the desk, behind which a leather swivel chair faces the length of the room as though addressing its assembly.
My mom surveys the room, eyes catching on the first non-book object: a porcelain German stein perched on the top shelf of the nearest bookcase, at a height easily accessible to my 6’6 dad and nobody else in the household. Lifting herself on her toes, she reaches for the mug and misses the handle, instead knocking the stein to the floor. The carpet absorbs the fall, the mug’s pewter lid rattling as it bounces once before resting on its side.
“You know what the dream interpreter said?” my mom would’ve asked us after the retelling.
“You’re scared you’re gonna break dad’s things?” I might’ve asked, being an eight-year-old who doesn’t recognize a rhetorical question when it asks her in the face. And then my mom’s voice would downshift in key, adopting a breathy glaze as she repeats the therapist’s pronouncement, koan-like in its simplicity: “You are worried about visiting Bill in Germany.”
Although now I see this isn’t such an interpretive reach, it was a profound divination to me at the time. It must have been for my mom, too, or else she’d collected enough of these plausible explanations to secure trust in the interpreter’s opinions; enough to keep coming back, anyway.
I didn’t know how long my mom saw this dream decoder, or why, until a few days ago, when I finally asked her. It’s less random than I thought, and constitutes a tiny portion of my mom’s extracurricular life considering its lasting influence.
Apparently, a parishioner at our local church had announced that she would be hosting weekly dream-work sessions at the church and anyone was welcome to join. This parishioner was a nun who had spent years as a practicing psychologist. My mom, who has ziplined in the Mexican jungle, sashayed her way through belly dancing lessons, and popped roasted grasshoppers like sunflower seeds “just to try it,” began attending, along with four other women with a similar ratio of curiosity to free time. The interpreter would begin each session with commentary on the nature of dreams—“Dreams are good indications of transformation in your life”—or some other listicle-sized wisdom, like “Seven Reasons We Dream,” which number I imagine is as arbitrary as the one my mom pulled from her cobwebbed memory when she recounted this to me. “I think one of the reasons was, if you have a staid life, dreams provide excitement.”
None of this is particularly mind-blowing. But when my mom began to retell the “Dream of the German Stein” the other day, without my specific prompting, I was struck by the fact that we thought of the same dream—more specifically, the fact that it wasn’t the “same dream” at all.
“So I had this coin changer like the ones trolley car drivers had.” [Google confirms: trolleys in the 1960s had fareboxes with internal counting mechanisms that made change.]
“My mom and dad were there, and I went to get it for them out of my uncle’s closet. When I grabbed it, I knocked this German stein off the top shelf. But I caught it. Anyway, the dream interpreter told me I was anxious about my upcoming trip to Germany.”
Somehow I’d spun an entirely different dream from the same skein, a phenomenon you could chalk up to the “telephone effect” and leave at that. But what interests me is how easily we incorporate dreams into our memory, even as we experience them at some remove, whether as the dreamer or the dreamer’s audience.
In his essay “Dreaming, Writing,” Maurice Blanchot says that in dreams, “the show is being put on for someone who is not watching it in person,” someone who doesn’t hold the status of a present subject. “One could almost say that there is nobody in the dream, and therefore, in a certain fashion, that there is nobody to dream it.”
Perhaps my mom’s dream was so appropriable because it didn’t seem entirely hers to begin with. Her dream was a mulch of personal and cultural memory, some immaculate conception, an author-less text. I began to think about how even as we imagine and stage them in our minds, our dreams don’t quite feel like our creations. There’s a sense that they originated somewhere outside of you at the same time that they are made of you—like a mote of dust, “composed” of your dead skin, but by no intentional human hand.
As in a dream, when you are drawn into a work of fiction, you inexorably assent to the logic and constraints of its world. You do this so quickly that you begin to recognize it as your own, and become almost convinced that the author knows you, or that you wrote the story in another life. As you think about it, you impose your interpretation on the text, and subsume a new version of it: the story that you read, which is a somewhat off-kilter facsimile of the original. You could look up what the story was “supposed” to mean, what the author “intended,” just as you could seek out a dream interpreter to elucidate your dreams for you. It’s certainly not foolish, or wrong, to do so. But the slippery nature of dreams, of fictions, resists this kind of univocal understanding. These interpreters will tell you something you already know, or else a truth inconsistent with the one you inherited, the one that speaks to you.
As Joan Didion famously wrote: “We tell ourselves stories to live.”
Social psychologist Joe Griffin suggests that we tell ourselves dream stories to live, too. In fact, dreams have been vital to our species’ survival. According to Griffin’s research, instinctive behaviors are programmed during the REM cycle (our dreamy depths) in the fetus and neonate, creating incomplete templates that correspond to sensory components in the real world that we later identify. These templates enable us to respond to the environment flexibly and adaptively, rather than knee-jerk reacting.
In other words, dreams allow you to test out and experience emotions and responses you might not carry out in waking life. They can trigger the affective system (produce emotion) without affecting the motor system, meaning, for example, you can experience genuine fear of a tiger without being compelled to move out of its way. Unmet emotional expectations from the day are processed as metaphors, like tigers or Bavarian beer steins, freeing up the brain to deal with the emotionally arousing events of the next day. Dreams can reveal our emotions to us, and render them palatable—the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
My mom says she still keeps track of her dreams, and relates them to my dad during their evening walks. Together they study her nightly fictions, swapping theories, and pondering possible meanings. Her dreams form a family-sized oral tradition, with iterations and interpretations altering through each telling, unveiling new emotional schemas.
When I asked her what she makes of it all, she said she doesn’t really expect to learn anything new about herself—“It’s just something to think about.”
Sarah Madges is a writer and the chief curator at Handwritten. Her words have appeared or are forthcoming in Killing the Angel, the Village Voice, and SCOUT Poetry Review. She currently runs the Brooklyn-based poetry series Mental Marginalia and is working on her MFA thesis at The New School. Find her on Twitter @smadges.