“Give yourself a round of applause.” My wife Jody and I laughed as we read this equivalent to a Chinese fortune cookie phrase printed on the inside of a small Dove chocolate wrapper. In this after-dinner treat, we both saw the pompous face of a local blowhard passing out verbal unsavories that he had convinced himself were bite-sized bon mots. Pity the poor dinner partner or driving companion strapped in beside him and unable to escape.
Just a few hours after enjoying the chocolate treat and forgetting the bore, I lay entangled in worrisome images of a Cambodia bloodied to near death by its maniacal leaders. So disturbing were these dreams, I almost longed for the sleep-inducing self-congratulatory pablum of my neighbor. Before finally getting out of bed in the wee hours to escape the forensic work I was doing in the dream, I wondered what had leapfrogged me from a chocolate treat, over a one-dimensional narcissistic bore, and into the horrors of the Pol Pot “killing fields.” It was enough to keep a psychoanalyst working for months.
Getting out of bed was a good reminder that our mountain is cold this morning, although it’s still a few degrees away from the predicted first frost of the fall. The chill doesn’t let you sweat the way you would in Southeast Asia and Cambodia when the evenings bring out winged malaria and the rain creates steam instead of cool. My dreams had taken me to piles of skulls and the stench of souls entombed in mud. Try as I can, I have no explanation as to why such demons entered the sanctity of my dream world. As I sat over my keyboard getting my thoughts together, I read a story about Ursula K. Le Guin, a science fiction writer. One of her books, The Left Hand Of Darkness, jumped out at me since the title seemed to capture so well what had frightened me in my dream.
Disturbing dreams, of course, can pull any of us out of what should be restful slumber. Perhaps we are worrying about forgetting to check the door or why we didn’t pay enough attention to a change of expression or that word not spoken. A good dream can come to life by hearing a cough that conjures up the memory of a long-gone father. Something funny can bring into focus a grandmother who actually jiggled in her rocking chair as she laughed. I often continue my conversations at night with these people who played important parts in my life and come back from time to time for fleeting appearances during the dark hours. Like the old movie images of a switchboard operator who has pulled all the lines out of their sockets and rearranged them in random patterns, my day’s take on things is usually a pretty good jumble of good and bad as the events get thrown about.
Before my mother left this world in a sudden rush and hopefully with no nightmares, she had a series of mini strokes that the elderly often suffer. As a grade-school teacher, she would run her own memory tests to check how bad the event had scrambled her sense of “being there,” as she would describe it. Her tricks were pretty clever and impressive as she would rattle off the state capitals alphabetically or presidents from start to finish to start again. I don’t recall if she ever included vice presidents, but she might have. I do recall that she would puzzle over her post-stroke dreams to no end, since so many people from over her lifetime would come to visit. She welcomed these apparitions but was frightened by bad dreams. As a precaution, she was always loath to watch any TV shows where animals might be endangered for fear some predatory poaching would come back to stalk her.
My mother preferred a “good”story before she went to bed and I think she would have been pleased with something I recently read. In his short poem entitled Listening, William Stafford describes his father’s preternatural gift of hearing which was especially acute at night when “every far sound pulled the listening out into places the rest of us had never been.” So it is I think at times with dreams, places we have never really been or don’t know exactly how to cope with or fully understand.
To me it’s akin to playing a game with your other hand, your non-dominant one, and feeling kind of silly swiping at a ball as though you had never mastered the simple swing that every school boy of my age was determined to do with ease and grace. Being right handed, I have tried to be ambidextrous when playing squash but always know when the fast moving ball renders my left hand helpless. So it is with many of my dreams that leave me floundering.
So now, well after three in the morning, I should go back to bed and face down the night terrors that frequently pull the sheets off my feet, run gossamer dangles of spider webs over my face, leave spoiled milk for me to drink, tangle up my memories so people from various times all gather to celebrate ways to entertain and escort me through the night. Usually, they don’t take me to awful places but there’s always an imp or two in the crowd who likes to book us on cruises to Haiti or other such non-touristy ports of call. Fortunately, I have not been to Southeast Asia for nearly fifty years.
Perhaps I just need more of the Dove chocolates before closing my eyes and fewer of any PBS specials on the odious who ply a living trading in ivory or entrapping children into warfare. The hundreds of other loathsome things that go bump in the night are never welcome at my motel door and I won’t ever leave the light on for them.
In my sleep, I want to go back to Stafford’s poem, to some distant good memory when he says,
inviting the quiet by turning the face,
waiting for the time when the soft wild night
will reach to us here, from that other place.