I had a dream the other night. I was with some other people at either a dinner or a banquet. In front of me was something to eat, something cheesy and gooey that looked delicious and worth a picture I should upload to Instagram. I took out my phone — as I often do in real life — to photograph the food in front of me. Every time I snapped a picture, however, I took a picture of something from my past. The pictures from my past would be sometimes with me in the picture and sometimes with me not in the picture. I couldn’t photograph what I was eating no matter how much I tried. The food would not allow itself to be photographed.
There is obviously symbolism in this dream. We often think in symbols. We often communicate in symbols. Brand logos. Political statements. Passive aggressive behaviors. Horoscopes. Art. Popular culture. Dreams. There is an infinite collection of symbols circulating around us and within us. These symbols construct our daily experiences for good or for bad. Most often, we ask: what does that mean? What is this (ambiguous “this”) about? Sweet dreams are made of these. But what is “these?” What does it refer to symbolically? “Say what you mean!” is a directive against such symbolic communication, often used in relationships. People stay together or break up based on the symbols they construct their lives out of. Marriage is a symbol. A promise ring. A high school jersey or sweater. A pin. Often, as popular as these symbols are for the dream of building or discovering meaning among two people, they are inadequate for communicating desire or need.
Dreams, and maybe not jewelry or clothing, are the most obvious place for symbolic communication. I think about that moment in Annie Hall when Diane Keaton’s Annie character retells her dream to Alive Singer (Woody Allen) about Frank Sinatra smothering her with a pillow. Alvie says something like: “That makes sense. He’s a singer and you’re a singer.” Alvie feels he has successfully interpreted Annie’s dream. “But he was wearing glasses, ”she says. Alvie wears glasses. She was not really dreaming about Frank Sinatra; she was dreaming about a relationship she felt smothered by. They will eventually break up.
Sometimes people ask me to interpret their dreams. I’m good at interpreting dreams because I’m good at interpretation overall. Part of my professorial life is to interpret. The basic rule of dream interpretation is something like: something is bothering or troubling you, and it just manifested in your dream as X. What you think is this is actually that. It’s a game of association. To deal with her relationship angst, Annie Hall creates an association with Frank Sinatra based on word play and materiality: singer/glasses. If one dreams about showing up for a high school exam naked many years after one has graduated high school (a fairly canonical dream), one is associating current stress or anxiety with the stress and anxiety of school. The formula is basic. Mostly, when I interpret others’ dreams, I ask about that person’s troubles/anxiety and form an association with whatever manifested within the dream. It’s no secret that we dream anxiety. The dream is an ideal outlet for feeling anxious.
I won’t interpret my own dream about the dinner. I’m pretty sure I know what it means. Food is often central to my dreams: eating, banquets, eating in markets and shuks and trying to find that one food stall I may have visited in real life or in a previous dream. Many of my dreams repeat: technology that won’t do what it should (such as email not working on my phone; Google Maps not providing directions), trying to walk or crawl down a street but feeling completely weighted down, using the toilet in front of everyone, boarding a plane for somewhere but realizing I don’t have enough snacks for the trip, having to pack up everything I have brought somewhere for a return trip home and realizing I have too much stuff, most of which I never used in this other location, and most of which I cannot take with me. I have a catalog of symbolism within my subconscious that my inner being draws from repeatedly. Rather than Netflix and chill, I dream and anguish.
I won’t interpret these repeating dreams either. I think I know what they mean. Still, I’m thinking about the food photography dream. What is the difference between how we imagine our past and our dreams at night? Roland Barthes fascinated over what was and will never be again. His focus was photography; photographs capture what is no longer. “This person once existed!” “I once lived in this house!” Instead of marveling over a memory or moment, we might say when looking at a photograph, this once was. With a dream, we are not as sure. I awake sometimes thinking: did that happen? Was that real life? During turbulent and uncertain times, dreams have been associated with prophecy: Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream to the king’s satisfaction; he was “lavished with gifts” for his work. We are divinely spoken to while we sleep. Quite possibly, I might assume, if we are spoken to while awake, we will not believe the prophecy; we will not receive gifts. We trust dreams more than reality. The dream may or may not have ever been. Reality is. Its harshness makes its existence known. Its harshness would cancel out that prophetic moment with a simple “no fucking way.”
Scattered real life memories stick with me, but I have no photographs to prove they occurred. In one memory, I am maybe four or five and we live in Perrine Florida. I am wearing a football helmet while standing in the front yard. A rock hits me in the head or something falls from a tree and hits me in the head. Whatever occurs, I eventually will wear glasses because I claim that my sight is blurry. I think this memory is real and not a dream. I think it is. I also have another memory. My dad’s Porsche 914. We now live in Kendall, Florida. It’s a tiny car with a roof you can remove and put in the tiny trunk. There is no backseat, but instead a small area where two small kids can sit without seatbelts. My sister and I sit back there, without seatbelts, while my dad drives. I do not have a photograph of this car either. I think it existed. Why do I mention these memories in a short essay about dreams? I cannot tell if I dreamed these moments or if they occurred. I feel that about other aspects of my life, even now, almost 52, living in Lexington, Kentucky with two kids and a dog in a 1949 house in a bougie neighborhood. Where am I now? What once was? Did I dream that pervious life? Did it exist? Will photographs confirm its existence or not? As David Byrne noted: “And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” I may have dreamed it.
I often awake from a dream at five or six in the morning as if I have been yanked out of another life. The overall effect is startling and, to some degree, physically painful. Sometimes, I awake from a dream so strongly that it feels as if I have been pulled through a sheet of glass and shattered along with all of the pieces. Imagine a glass plate separating this life from another life. How did I get here? That other life is the dream — supposedly. Or this one is. There is the famous and often repeated story of Chaung Tzu, who dreamed he was a butterfly. When he awoke, he wondered: am I man who dreamed of being a butterfly, or am I butterfly who is right now dreaming about being a man? This is the symbolism of existence.
Dreams reflect fantasy. When my son has insomnia, I tell him to imagine a situation that is either fantastical or pleasing. “Once you are caught in that fantasy,” I say, “you will enter into its existence and fall asleep.” Every so often, he awakes crying that he cannot sleep. The last couple of years have been rough for him and his sister. I imagine the stress and anxiety of family dissolution penetrating his dreams or inability to settle the mind and simply dream. “Just find a fantastical place in your mind,” I suggest. “Here’s what I do,” I tell him. “I’ll imagine myself in some future war. Since I was in second grade I’ve done this. As if wherever I live there is a war and I am in the resistance. We fight and then reside underground in secret networks of apartments and hideaways.” He likes this idea. I don’t, however, interpret its meaning. When he was younger, I would ask him as I tucked him in for bed: “What will you dream about?” He would answer every time: “Elephants.” I don’t think he dreams about elephants anymore. I used to dream a lot about my dad. They were angry dreams. I would dream about my ex-wife too. They were very angry dreams. I’ve stopped dreaming about both. It’s as if once you stop dreaming about someone, they will no longer exist for you. Such is the fantasy. “To die, to sleep — to sleep, perchance to dream.” We all know that quote even if we don’t know exactly what it means. Perchance to dream. To not be here. To be there.
In dreams begin responsibilities, Delmore Swartz wrote. Freud based analysis on dreams. Roy Orbison lamented that “it’s too bad” what he desires can only happen in dreams. Dreams, Stevie Nicks sang, is where you think about what you lost and what you had. Dreams are sites of regret and of hope. When I was in my early 20’s, I dreamed that my then girlfriend wanted to break up with me and that it was my fault. “I now killed you,” a voice yelled in my dream. That was a symbol. She broke up with me a couple weeks later. Some people claim that they awake and write down their dreams. People take various drugs to enhance their dreams or to find their true selves. I wish I could write down my dreams. I seldom remember them. The food photography dream is an exception.
I don’t think “hope” is an appropriate synonym for “dream.” Hope should not be anchored in fantasy the way dream is. Too often, we equate “hoping” for something — a better future, love, money, security, happiness, equality — as “dreaming.” “I Have a Dream” may be the best example of this metaphoric equivalence. I don’t want to be dragged through a sheet of glass when that “dream” does not become reality. I am not dreaming in order to hope. I am dreaming to be there. Not here. Hope wants us here. Our psyches are built for hope and for dreams but in different ways. We consistently hope and remain aware of what we are hoping for. But the dream. . . .it vanishes. “It was all just a dream,” Dorothy realizes.
Often, I awake in the morning with the dog panting in my face. I know I just had a dream. It was real. Detailed. I felt that I was there. I could smell the food. I could taste the food. I could feel. I could experience. I felt pain. Desire. Anger. But what exactly did I dream? I don’t remember. I don’t have a photograph of my dream to show that it was once.
That experience, as well, is worthy of metaphoric breakdown and interpretation. I won’t do it. I won’t. I can’t. I won’t bother my dreams with interpretations that only further highlight anxiety or worry or need. I’ll just try, each night, to sleep. Perhaps. To dream. To dream on. To dream on. To dream on until the dream comes true.