Saturday, February 9, 2013

Museum Musings: A Word About My Dreams

A hummingbird nesting outside my boyfriend's
bathroom window. The moss cup is the
size of a large egg. 
I had a dream last night in which a hummingbird came an perched on my shoulder. I've been thinking about hummingbirds a lot lately. One of the things I have been most sad about in leaving the Palace of Fine Arts for Pier 15 with the Exploratorium is abandoning the amazing birdlife that proliferates in the Palace lagoon - blue herons, egrets, swans, and, yes, a wonderful hummingbird I used to see almost every morning in the bushes. There is something so fantastical about the hummingbird, this tiny ball of green iridescent fluff vibrating madly though the air, a quickness and brilliance and impossibility. My old commute took me on a winding path through an elaborately landscaped garden, past a deep green duckpond, and under the arches of a truly beautiful dome of golden stone; my new commute is a straight shot through the glassy heart of San Francisco's financial district, a grim gray walk full of busy people in expensive shoes bowed under the gaze of reflective, glossy monoliths. So you can imagine my absolute delight when I discovered, my second day navigating the sour concrete shadows, that the financial district has hummingbirds as well. There's a little parklet I pass by, a bump of green and hunched trees, and almost every morning I have been astonished to see another hummingbird buzzing and darting at the edges for all the world as if it didn't know it was surrounded by skyscrapers, those largest and grandest blandishments of human indifference to natural world. (There's also a murmuration of starlings nesting there, as I discovered on my way back: a raucous cacophony of cawing birds fighting and swirling in the trees. They are loud enough to cut through every city noise. They are wonderful.)

So I woke up this morning with the clear memory of a moment in a dream where a hummingbird, wise and minute and glittering, came to sit weightless on my shoulder under the drift of my hair; it was a guide of some kind, although I can't remember why, or to what. And the memory of this dream startled me, because it was a dream-moment of a kind I have so rarely that I can count every instance I remember on my fingers: a moment of gladness and joy.

It's not about egrets, either, but here's the one
I miss seeing every morning at the Palace of Fine Arts.
Surprise: this post isn't actually about hummingbirds! It's about dreams. Specifically, my dreams, and a very particular peculiarity in my dream-life I have never written about before. Here's the thing: I dream all night, every night; I can't remember ever having a night without dreams. I dream in color, often narratively. I have fabulous landscapes and exciting adventures. Occasionally I fly. I dream about real things and imaginary things and the intersection thereof. I have recurring themes, although I've never had a recurring dream that I'm aware of. All in all, fairly normal, I should think. But there is one thing that is sharply absent from my dreamlife, so absent that the few and fragmentary times it has appeared have been extraordinary and noteworthy experiences for me. I'm talking, of course, about joy.

But not just joy. The entire part of me - my favorite part of me - that sees beauty, and wonder, that makes meaning, that loves poetry, that feels divinity or exultance or delight, the part of my brain that allows me to imbue the world with any kind of radiance or importance, is not there when I dream. At all. In any way. I may wake up in the morning and recall a landscape my dream-self saw and know that it was beautiful, but my dream-self did not experience it that way. Although I rarely have nightmares (my dreams don't fall into the categories of good and bad so much as interesting and frighteningly, horrifyingly, stickily boring) I never have good dreams. Wish fulfilment, sure, but always with panic and excitement, not real happiness. I don't feel any of the things that make life beautiful to me in the waking world - there are rare times I've really enjoyed eating something in a dream, but I count the three or four instances in which that's happened as belonging among the handful of exceptions that I mentioned.

Once, just once, I dreamed I glimpsed the full moon through the window of a train and thought how beautiful. In my waking life, these moments happen to me every single day, in multitudes. Gladness, gratitude, joy, exhilaration, the sense that there is wonder in existence - obviously, if you know me even a tin bit, these things are a huge part of my life. But they do not enter my dreams. In fact, if you had to ask me to describe my idea of hell, I would describe to you my dream world: an existence in which I am given no chance to experience the things that matter most to me. I've fought zombies and climbed mountains, but it's flat. Interesting, but meaningless. A world in which joy is absent. I do suffer in my dreams; I feel every other emotion normally. It's just the part of me that makes me most myself is glaringly, bizarrely gone.

I find it sort of terrifying and sort of fascinating simultaneously. The terror comes from the possibility of getting stuck there; the fascination comes from wondering why on earth this is. If dreams are a kind of dumping ground, as scientists seem to think, am I clearing out all the non-joyful junk in order to make more room in my conscious brain for joy - a kind of nightly housecleaning? Or is there something darker and weirder at work? It's hard for me to feel that there's not something of value in being given a glimpse of the world-without-joy when joy is so intensely important to me, but I can't say exactly what the lesson's supposed to mean.

I don't have a good daylight picture, but this is my view at sunset.
It does seem right and just, I think, that there should be this dark underbelly to my consciousness, that my startling and incomprehensible luck in being born naturally extra-joyous should come with a warning, or a reprimand, or something to balance the scales. I am envious of many of my friends, who have dreams that are weepingly beautiful, saturated with color and importance, dreams that serve as guides or insights, dreams full of birds and blossoms and revelations or rest. In my dreams I am a different person, a person with the best parts of me left out, a person with no hope of ever just enjoying a sunny morning and a cup of coffee with the simple sweetness welling up in me that I feel right now as I type this. I am sitting on my patio with the orange trees and clover in bloom and Sutro Tower a bright crown on the horizon. Just a few hours ago this natural, gentle world was shut utterly away from me, not as something cruelly removed but as something inconceivable, something that did not exist.

Whether or not it is the lesson I am meant to learn from this, because my waking self can make meaning as it chooses, and furthermore delights in doing so, the sense I choose to make of this disparity has to do most of all with gratitude. Perhaps it's no more than neural flickers, a cranial logic that has nothing to do with the complicated webs my conscious mind can weave to see a pattern, but for me, the whole and conscious self, awake and curious, it goes like this: I have dreams without joy so that I don't take joy for granted. I am aware that joy is a gift, a blessing, not a right, not just the way things are, because every night I descend into a world without it.

I often like my dreams; they can be fun and even funny. (Humor, oddly enough, does not vanish when I sleep, although it changes slightly; my dream-jokes are rarely funny in waking life, but at least I don't lose the ability to laugh. usually, however, it's based on some kind of irony or an elaborate, dreamy pun I could never hope to explain, any more than one can explain why things are funny when stoned.) But there is an unshakeable bleakness in them, too. And so, although I see the world in all sorts of shining, luminescent ways, I never get so light that I forget that there is weight, and fly away into the cloudless skies of improbable serenity, into the realm where the truth of things-that-are-not-joyful are ignored and overlooked. My dreamlife is a braided thread that tethers me to the reality of the earth. How necessary that is, how beautiful, how frightening.


  1. I don't often remember my dreams, and, when I do, there is rarely anything worth hanging onto. I used to just sort of think I didn't dream.

    1. Some people dream less than others, I think. And not all dreamers are alike. I was flabbergasted to discover that a friend of mine dreams completely non-visually - dreams every night, very intensely, but with no visual element whatsoever. She had never really talked to anyone about her dreams before, and when I expressed my inability to even imagine what that was like ("So is it just, I don't know, dark?") she in turn expressed her bewilderment that I saw things. ("Wait, what do you mean, you see places that don't exist? Like, from books and stuff?") They're amazing things, dreams are.

    2. Actually, studies show that people mostly dream pretty much the same amount. It's when you wake up during your sleep cycle that determines if you remember what you're dreaming. I'm not remembering how that works, at the moment. I do know that I don't actually ever get enough sleep, which I never have, so I guess I've trained myself to wake up in non-dream times.

    3. Oh, and I love hummingbirds. I love it when they stop and perch, because it's just so odd. We have a rosemary plant in front of our house that attracts more than a few hummingbirds. I love seeing them out there.

    4. I'm not sure I have any faith in dream studies, honestly. There's all this stuff about how REM sleep is when you dream, which doesn't explain to me why I can have a long, elaborate, epic quest adventures between snoozes on my alarm or during a 20-minute nap. I'm simply not convinced that we can understand dreams just by measuring brainwave activity. I'm usually not a science skeptic, but dream research is one of the exceptions.

    5. Well, I can understand that. I don't think we have any real idea of what dreams are or what they're for, but I do think we probably have a decent idea of when they're happening. Maybe.

  2. Not to minimize your elegant, soul-stirring post into one story, but on my parent's porch in Wyoming, facing these gargantuan, glacier-capped, timeless Rocky Mountains fourteen thousand feet tall, they had a hummingbird feeder and these tiny, marvelous creatures would become so comfortable with us they'd buzz around our heads for hours, carefree, as if in defiance of the ageless beasts on the horizon.

    1. That's wonderful. I love how hummingbirds just don't give a fuck. With their speed and those needle-like beaks, they can do whatever they want, mountains and skyscrapers notwithstanding.

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    1. I let this comment through the spam filter because I'm in love with the idea that's there's a dream researcher out there who bought this bot breakfast.

  4. Excellent exploration of this topic. I think you've done a splendid job of recreating your dream life for us. It very similarly describes dreams as I experience them. I don't know if you've ever visited my dream blog, but I cover many dream related topics there.

    A Faraway View
    An A to Z Co-host blog


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