‘Hey, do me a favor. Keep me outta yer goddamn dreams, willya?’
We don’t ever really see ourselves except in visions or dreams. They show us where our hearts are at.
I led off this semester, my last ever as a teacher, by assigning a senior class Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I held my breath contemplating their reaction to the weird tale by the Prague Jew. But they liked it! One student said she got teary reading the death scene of Gregor Samsa, a monster who, before he dies, has vanquished any blame for the family that abandoned him. We talked about the strangeness of our being so moved, the ineffable grace of the prose. The story’s impact reaches beyond mere allegory, approaching the logic of a dream.
I usually write my own assessments, but on the writing challenge – I would call them that, avoiding the word “test” – I used a question I’d stolen from World Literature, a book that had been part of my former classroom. Had they ever had a bizarre dream that seemed symbolic or instructive? Students at my current school blew me off, like “Yeah right, I’m gonna tell him.” I let them go, marking each such demurral 5 out of 5, or however many points I’d made it worth.
But one student, a very good student, a boy who happens to be vying with another student for valedictorian status, shared a most private dream. I forget the exact details, but he was flung into some adventure, an exciting if perilous other world, before waking up in anxiety because he realized all the doors back to his old life were closed. He couldn’t get back. He had this dream over and over. It both beckoned and disturbed him.
I called him to my desk and thanked him for being the sole brave pupil willing to share such a dream with me, and assured him it went no further than my own gaze. I also suggested his was an archetypal dream anticipating the Hero’s Journey. “We don’t survive it. The adventure burns us up. The ego does not survive, not as we know it. We are transformed.”
It was one of the few times my pedantries felt solid and appropriate. An adult interpretation was the least I owed this fine young man, who’s been obedient and intellectually curious all year, a beautiful young man. I’d read Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, I’d watched the six-part PBS video series The Power of Myth in which Joseph Campbell tells Bill Moyers about how myths and the rituals that spin them freshly into being not only touch us but enrich our lives.
This got me wondering what disturbing but reverberating dreams have shaken me, stayed with me.
Two came to mind.
In one, two figures scale a shadowy Gothic stone stairwell inside some nameless Bram Stoker castle. I don’t know if I’m the hooded black figure in front, attired in a cape, like Death, or the figure pursuing him from behind, trying to catch him up. All I know is that the scene exemplifies me somehow. Finally the pursuing figure grabs the leading figure by the shoulder, starting to turn him around. I wake in a cold sweat.
Nobody can look directly at himself, lest the terror destroy him. Is the dream about my refusal to want to be known? Is it about my mania to know myself? The face of truth is terrifying, like the drooling, multi-limbed specter Krishna reveals to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Is the dream about God? Death? My fear? My horror of being known? All of the above, I suppose.
The other dream that shook me is about my dog, Rosa. Some Chinese guy, a priest or director of some kind, has got the secrets to enlightenment, and I must obey. Why Chinese? Does it have something to do with my amateurish flirtation with Asian spirituality? He has implacable New Age requirements of me, by which I must shed ego and ego attachments. (If Barb’s in the picture, and she might be, she’s well in the background.) We must chop up Rosa and throw her in the fire. The dog represents attachment; she must be destroyed. I resist, like Abraham ordered by God to sacrifice Isaac.
But I do it, or seem to have done it, or maybe the Asian master of ceremonies “helps me out” and does the terrible thing himself, with an axe I suppose, and my beloved chopped-up dog is tossed into the fire. The dream ends with the front half of her, the shoulders and head and front legs, in the fire. I look, trying to be brave, but I cannot take it. Her eyes are open, she’s fully conscious, and she’s wailing. The Chinese guy is chattering about how it’s okay. I am beyond enraged; I am feeling my pitying humanity. I wake with a start.
After I had this nightmare I made coffee and shuffled to my warm silly dog, put my hand on her and heard her softly groan, coming out of sleep. She licked my hand. Oh thank God she was still there, my friend, my assurance.
She’s become such a big part of my life. I call this simple creature one of the reasons my life may be called full, even successful. Barb and I are giving her a good life. We never had kids.
Such silly doting fools we are.
We live in a home owners association, a real pain in the ass. These people don’t want dogs running loose. She’ll run up onto people’s porches begging for food. And you have no idea the exercise requirements for a hyperactive Airedale! But no matter how tired I am, even after the seven miles of walking and the muscle strain of a Walmart shift, I leash her up and walk her around the ‘hood, or drive her to the piney forest and let her off leash there where it’s safe.
One little problem. I had started the habit of letting her loose to accompany me as I rolled the trash barrels down the lane to the sidewalk every Wednesday. She pranced like a stallion, loving this weekly ritual. Barb and I got complaints about the loose dog, resulting from precisely this liberation, and decided it had to end.
Next Wednesday evening rolled around. Rosa heard me emptying all the trash containers in the house into the big barrels in the garage, opening the garage door, and pushing the barrels down the drive, all without her! The wailing and whimpering were so extreme, so terribly doleful and heart rending, Barb and I folded. These doleful wails were to be reprised in that horrific dream.
So, one time a week, Wednesday night, we still let her prance down the lane with me. Once she and I get to the sidewalk, she’s done her part in garbage detail; now she darts into the grassy HOA common area and just generally rips and tears around, prowls and cavorts. She gets back home in anywhere from five to fifteen minutes usually. Sometimes Barb and I get anxious, stand in the doorway and rattle boxes of dog biscuits to draw her. Sometimes I throw bacon on my cast iron pan, turn on the burner, and crack the door; that sweet sizzling smell will get her back in no time. It’s hilarious watching her tear back up the drive, smelling the bacon. We’re always relieved she’s back safe.
Moments of relief abound amidst the fears and trepidations.
I just got back from a good day teaching. A girl told me she was sad I wasn’t going to be back next year. This touched me. I told her one of my happiest memories as a teacher was the A Separate Peace read-aloud she’d played such a big part in. Together we’d done an electrifying readers’ theater, enacting the climactic mock-courtroom scene in which the veil of ignorance is torn off the lovable naïf Phineas. I drove home thinking the dream of teaching might not have been pure nightmare after all.
Such is life. It’s not really such a bad deal after all. Sometimes the film of ego-obsessed gloom dissipates long enough for us to realize we’re happy, if we can but look past our fear, anger, and resentment.
We needn’t worry about getting cocky.
Our dreams will always keep us honest.