“She had always lived her best life in dreams. She knew no greater pleasure than that moment of passage into the other place, when her limbs grew warm and heavy and the sparkling darkness behind her lids became ordered and doors opened; when conscious thought grew owl’s wings and talons and became other than conscious.” ― John Crowley, Little, Big
That other place. When I first read these words, I gasped. I have often felt as if I lived my best life in dreams, too. A life that I sometimes believed in more intensely than my waking life.
I have always been a dream machine, spinning worlds both wondrous and terrifying. My childhood nightmares came from fairy tales, of trolls under a bridge or witches with eyes the size of dinner plates. These morphed into wartime survival epics, escaping and hiding from menacing men in uniform, perhaps drawn from the Nazis in The Sound of Music. I also have a recurring nightmare in which I am driving a car straight up a vertical road and it either flips backward or plummets over some edge into oblivion.
Those are the bad ones. Then there are just plain strange ones. When I was pregnant, I dreamed that I opened up a Walkman and, instead of seeing a cassette tape inside, found a tiny perfect infant.
The most comforting, most surreal dream, though, is of a house. I realize that a house is supposed to represent one’s self. How banal. But this house is the same house I’ve been finding my dream-self in for decades. I began dreaming it in my late 20s, and I find myself there, in this same house, every few months. Every time, I am overwhelmed by emotion and relief that once again, I’ve come home. To my “real” life.I’m convinced that dreaming, and the kind of dreams we have, is genetic.
I know this house as well as the one I paid mortgage on. It’s characterized by narrow staircases, tucked into corners, that lead to the upper floors — and not just one upper floor but many. They go up and up. And in each of those upper floors are bedrooms with three or four beds in each, the beds in rows like the little girls’ in the Madeleine books. I wander from room to room with a feeling of anticipation and excitement. This is the secret upstairs. Someone is coming to fill these rooms, or I will be using them for something, but I don’t know what. The potential in those extra rooms, in those unexplored upper levels, is what makes my heart flutter. I’m so grateful to be back there, back home.
I love sleep, and sleep loves me. It comes when I call it and stays as long as I need, usually eight hours a night with an occasional bonus nap. Sleep is my refuge and my comfort. I can count on two hands the number of times during my life when I’ve suffered insomnia. When I hear friends discuss their pharmaceutical sleep aids or bemoan their inability to sleep, I wince. It sounds excruciating. I pray that I never know first hand what they’re talking about.
My own father was a natural, happy sleeper. He relished naps, and he could summon one within seconds. All he needed was the floor and a section of newspaper. He’d slip the comics under his head to protect the carpet from his hair ointment, and in a few moments he’d be snoring like a buzz saw.
For a brief period in early adulthood, I developed an acute fear of flying. I figured that if I could sleep through the initial takeoff, it would lull me into calm by the time we were at cruising altitude. I started leaning into my U-shaped pillow the second we were on the runway, begging unconsciousness to soothe me. It worked. Now, it’s purely Pavlovian. As soon as I hear the click of the metal seat buckle, an overwhelming drowsiness hits me like a shot of morphine. I’m dead asleep when the flight attendant comes by for drink orders.
My early-bird husband asks, “How’d you sleep?” when I stumble into the kitchen, looking for coffee. He’s been up for hours. That’s a silly question he asks. My sleep is always fine. It’s my dreams that define how I am, how the rest of my morning or even my day will feel. Either I’m trying to reconstruct the details of a dream I want to stay in (and they’re melting and fading fast), or I’m trying to untangle myself from the sticky cobwebs of a nightmare that won’t let go until noon.
I’m convinced that dreaming, and the kind of dreams we have, is genetic. My older daughter is a Technicolor, high-detailed dreamer like I am. Since she was in kindergarten, she has started her mornings with, “Listen to my dream!” She describes them in complex, interconnected chapters. I recognize her exhaustion and her elation, the colors that wrap around her and stain her psyche well into her day.
Even now, though she’s a graduate student thousands of miles away, sometimes I’ll wake up to an email like this:
Dreamt I was on a wooden, double decker raft. Dark night with blue water and sky, both dark and rippling quietly. Warm lights glimmered on shore. I saw mom’s nana on a dock, and my nana. Hair in bobby pins, nicely curled. Stockings and black shoes. They both had dumped out their pocketbooks and were rummaging and searching through the contents. My heart and breath lurched. BOTH NANAS! I called out of my dream, to find my mom, to show her. I was joyful and tearful and loved this magic place with two nanas. Woke up.
I listen to her dreams. I read them when she shares them with me. I take them seriously. I don’t know if she’s blessed or cursed with this double life, but I recognize it. She travels to a magic place in her sleep.
For most of my waking life, I believe that this house is the true one, that this scarred leather chair where I write is real. But I know that when I’m in that other place, and I’m climbing the narrow stairs up and up and up, that I feel I’m finally home again after being gone a long time. I grasp the wooden railings with my hands, and I’m shocked to wake up without splinters in my palm.