1. A Confusion of Jacksons
I once had a dream that my dog ran from the second floor of our house and down the front stairs, straight out the open door onto the street. My sister and I chased after him until we found him in the park, where he had begun to grow a small, black Afro. He was playing with other dogs that all had human hair, as if they were wearing wigs, though we knew that they weren’t.
We brought him back to our house and put him in my mother’s big white bathtub. We pulled the showerhead out from its cradle at the end of the tub and began to wash him. As we did, our dog became a young Michael Jackson, maybe ten years old, looking like he does in the footage of The Jackson Five singing “I Want You Back” on the Ed Sullivan show. He told us he had to get ready for tennis camp. My mother came upstairs with his mail, and handed him a letter. After a moment, he handed it back to her, and said, ‘This isn’t mine.’ He pointed to the address on the front of the envelope: ‘See, this is for Samuel L. Jackson.’ We apologized, but he was gracious. ‘It happens all the time.’
2. Julia’s Breakfast Shift
In my friend Julia’s dream, the restaurant where she works is located inside her parent’s house. She walks down the stairs from the first floor to the basement where the kitchen usually is, and there are the maroon leather banquettes with their fogged glass screens, and the tall bar against the wall filled with bottles and glasses, lit up from the back. Julia begins her breakfast shift, standing at the host’s podium at the front of the restaurant, her parent’s basement, and I am with her.
Paul walks in and asks for a table for two. Julia is surprised but I don’t react, so she asks him to follow her and seats him politely at a table in the corner. When she returns to the podium, she looks at me, confused, so I say, to explain, ‘He does that sometimes, and waits for me to sit with him.’ I don’t move from the podium. Julia watches as a waiter goes over to Paul to take his order, and that’s where the dream ends.
3. The Oncologist Appears Older Than He Really Is
Paul told me that he dreamt that the doctor sitting on the end of his hospital bed was an old man. At least he felt like he was dreaming, even though he was still sitting up, propped against the pillows, listening to the doctor speak. He was middle-aged, balding, with a dark beard and a round face. But Paul saw him as an old, old man, with deep wrinkles in his neck and his hands, and white hair. It only lasted for a few seconds. Then the doctor was himself again.
4. He Was Glued To The Spot
Freud had a dream that he was walking up a set of stairs three at a time, delighted at his own agility. In the dream, a maid suddenly appears, walking down the opposite way, and Freud is embarrassed because he is not completely dressed. He tries to hurry away, ashamed, but finds he cannot move his feet.
I woke up with my mother and my sister and my aunt standing over me and it felt like a dream. I opened my eyes and found their heads and faces gathered above, like the fingers of a hand cupped around something sitting in its palm. The perspective was almost like one you might find in a sports movie, when someone has been hurt and is lying on the ground, and the camera films from their point of view as they regain consciousness. But these figures didn’t swim in, dreamily—they were simply there, starkly, poised with too much urgency for it to be morning. I knew immediately that they would tell me Paul was dying, or dead.
When her father was dying of dementia, the writer Anne Carson dreamed an old recurring dream she had had as a child, in which she wakes up on the second floor of her house. She walks down the stairs to the living room, where she observes the dark green furniture and pale green walls. It is the same living room from her childhood home, but as an adult she felt upon waking that she had encountered some place completely different, as if the room had gone mad. It didn’t scare her; she was consoled. She felt that the dream could save her, if only she could remember it.
Sigmund Freud said dreams were made up of two kinds of meanings, the latent and the manifest. The manifest dream is the dream itself as you wake up and recall it—Michael Jackson’s hair on your dog, or the shiny marble floors of a restaurant in your family kitchen. These elements are only as important as the latent dream they disguise.
The latent dream is a product of the suppressed wishes of the unconscious mind that cannot be expressed in waking life, and so are transformed through what Freud called dream-work. In analyzing his dream with the maid on the stairs of his house, he attributed its manifest content to anxieties surrounding his health (damaged by his smoking), an argument he’d had with a maidservant at a patient’s home (he had once spit on the staircase), and his attraction to women (although the maid in the dream was not beautiful).
Scientists in Kyoto have built something that they call a dream-reading machine. They gathered hundreds of reports on the brain activity of volunteers in the first stage of sleep, when a person is just entering drowsiness. As brain activity levels spiked, showing signs of hallucinations during slumber, researchers woke the volunteers and asked them to describe what they saw. Once these images were divided into categories like “implements,” “trees,” and “people,” the scientists created a computer program that correlates specific brain activity in the visual cortex with images in a dream. With this data, they were able to predict what volunteers saw during sleep with 60% accuracy.
Technically, these are not the long, narrative visions that we truly think of as dreams, which occur during REM sleep, but researchers think the technique could potentially be applied to that stage in the future. ‘Up until this moment, there were no grounds on which to say we don’t just make up our dreams when we wake,’ one of them said, and I suppose it’s true.
A doctor named David Maurice thinks that humans experience REM sleep only to oxygenate our corneas. When we sleep with our eyes closed, the aqueous humor that sits in the anterior chamber just behind the cornea needs to be “stirred” by brain activity, so we dream in order to bring much-needed oxygen to the most important part of the eye. He developed this line of inquiry after hearing about the case of a young man whose eyes had been paralyzed by an accident, left permanently open. His corneas had become laced with blood vessels.
Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison wrote in 1983 that dreaming is merely a way for the brain to clear out excess cognitive debris, since our neural memory systems are not of infinite capacity: ‘There is no evidence to suggest that remembered dreams are anything more than an accidental by-product of this function.’
When I dream about Paul, I know that he is dead. Is it not that the dreams are recreations of a time before his illness, or as if it had never happened. I’m not happy in them, usually. I am often crying. The first time, he said, ‘It’s okay,’ over and over again, and I can remember nothing else. In another, he told me to stop crying, harshly. ‘You can’t do that.’
Last week I dreamt we were sitting on a beach. In the dream, the sand is grainy, like the red and brown pebbly kind you find on the Eastern Shore or Cape Cod. Unlike these places, the water at this beach is absolutely clear, so that we can see right down to the bottom. The tide is in, and we sit so that the sea comes just up to our chests. There are no waves. Paul holds me with my legs draped loosely over his, my arms around his neck, as if he is carrying me somewhere. ‘I can’t wait for the wedding,’ I say, and that’s it. He doesn’t reply.
The pleasure of dreaming is in the dissonance I feel when I find Paul there. In the state of a dream, I don’t know when I will encounter him, what he will say, or what he’ll do, and this is like a drug. It is the only time in which he feels to be truly embodied, given life outside my desires and memories. A separate, thinking, breathing person, though I know this is impossible.
When a dream is over, I have to recreate everything that I saw and felt in order to relive it, to remember and hold onto it when I am awake. By doing so, everything in the dream becomes part of my imagining. I know that anyone I met there came only from inside my head. But I can recall the feeling, the initial shock and delight of that ecstatic recognition, like stepping, suddenly, into sunshine. It is the sensation of having experienced a miracle.
I wanted to see a medium, someone who believes they can communicate with the dead, because I don’t. What I have is more like a secret desire to believe, a streak of mad thought that sometimes—upon waking from a dream—seems faintly sane. I started looking into mediums located nearby and who advertise on the Internet. When I found one who shares my name, I called and made an appointment. That her website was called Silver Skys somehow made her services seem more appealing, as if the world to which she was connected was so strange and powerful that, in it, correct spelling had no use. She said I couldn’t bring anyone into the room with me, in case she began picking up that person’s energy accidentally. She said it would cost thirty pounds.
When the time came to visit the medium I couldn’t go. I began visualizing the meeting, and panicked, picturing myself sitting down with someone who would then try to tell me that Paul was there with her, or there through her, that Paul was somehow in the room. I thought I would run away. I thought I would try to hit her, or shake her, or I might go back, again and again. I couldn’t even call to cancel, because I didn’t want to hear her voice. So, after, when she tried to reach me, I let the phone ring and ring and ring.