I know many people have recurring dreams, or maybe recurring motifs in dreams, and (shock) I am just the same. Last night, I had one of my recurring motif dreams, but before I get to that, I’ll go back into my history of recurring dreams. (Just indulge me!)
I used to be very good at remembering my dreams. Now, not so much.
When I was in kindergarten, I went to a local school we were able to walk to. On the way there and on the way back, we could walk on a street parallel to the main (very busy) road my family and I lived on, and that led directly to a wooded area surrounding a creek with concrete bridge connecting the end of the street to the school grounds. Every school day, we’d cross that bridge at least twice.
The wooded area, which wasn’t that wide but seemed like it when I was 5, was dark and dense, with the creek running through it. As a kid, I could never understand where the creek went. Once it got to the main road and went under it, it disappeared. (In actuality, the creek was made or modified by humans, and flowed into an underground system in use around the Chicago region.)
As a child, my recurring dream here was running away from monsters or bad people, down that suburban street, as the sun was setting, or at night, and all the houses were dark. I’d be running towards that wooded area, and the bridge, and the safety of the school, but then I’d realize there were monsters or bad people in the wooded area too, so I would be trapped.
There were many a time where I woke up in a sweat from that recurring dream.
Our family moved to my grandparents’ old house when I turned 6, so that recurring dream decreased greatly in frequency. But another two recurring dreams took its place.
My brother Brian and I were talking about the source of one of these recurring dreams the other day on our Christmas FaceTime chat. The basement in the house we grew up in was longer than it was wide, and at the back of the basement (from the stairs), it was always darker and a tad bit scarier. At night, if you went downstairs to turn off the lights — they were on two or three different switches around the basement originally — you did it quickly because that back part got awfully creepy, moreso when it went dark.
More than that, Brian and I both agreed, there was some really creepy and really evil presence down there, especially at night.
I’m sure you guessed that both the recurring dreams I had as a child was the basement. To be honest, it bounced between the two different dreams: one, the evil spirit in the basement; and the other, about hidden areas in the basement.
The evil spirit one was a run-of-the-mill dream. Go downstairs because someone left the lights on, and there was this evil feeling, and it trapped me or paralysed me or chased me, but I couldn’t leave the basement. Pretty stock standard nightmare.
The other dream was a bit more random though.
I’d head downstairs and find a secret entrance. Sometimes, this was at the bottom of the stairs leading in the opposite direction from the basement. Other times, it was under the stairs in a small closet that is there. And yet, at other times, there was a deep cavern that opened up behind the water meter (which was in a wooden box post in the basement near the stairs).
These dreams were filled with excitement and wonder. Secret passages! Hidden rooms! Wait til everyone hears about that!
In reality, I think these dreams were spurred from a little design feature my grandparents put in the basement when they remodelled it. There was a kitchen area downstairs, and over the sink, my grandparents had a “window” looking out onto a lush tropical landscape. This was somewhat three-dimensional; the vista was a photo put on the real wall while another wall (the kitchen wall) was built away from the real wall to give it the illusion of being a real window. As kids, we discovered there was a gap running between the two walls and sometimes could sneak in there through the closet that had the furnace and crawl in through the back of the cupboards. Well, I usually didn’t do that as I hate confined spaces, but my brothers and some of our friends had no problems doing that.
By high school, the recurring dreams were replaced by two new ones: being late to class (getting lost); and being unprepared.
The late to class dream was basically wandering the halls of high school (which was one large square, three story building attached via a curved section to a one story gym and shop area) and not knowing my schedule or what class I should be in. Sometimes this would be between the second bell (four minutes into between periods and one minute until class began) and the third bell (time for class to begin), where the halls would quickly clear out of students as they made it to their classes, and other times, this would be after the third bell, where the hallways were deserted, and I couldn’t find my classroom.
The unprepared dream was a lot scarier. I was in a play, or a musical, or giving a concert through our singing group, and I didn’t know the words, or my lines, or the melody, or the song. Sometimes, I was on stage by myself, and other times, there were other people relying on me.
Sometimes, even, I didn’t even have my costume on.
I would be brave in some dreams. Tried to keep the performance going and hope someone else would pick up on me being unprepared, and they would step in and save me. In other dreams, I would stand there and blank out.
Both dreams were very prevalent.
This leads me to last night’s dream, which is my recurring dream as an adult.
The dreams are not always the same but the contents usually are, and they are not far off the dream I would have in high school.
Last night, I was in an auditorium at a new place I had never been before, and they were holding auditions for Into the Woods. I was going for the Baker, a role I had played before and would most likely be comfortable playing again. The auditorium was pretty full with those auditioning. I was reviewing something when the director called me up, and then weirdly told everyone to applaud for me as I needed the support, having been through such a hard time. The auditorium broke into applause, and when I got up to the stage, I didn’t make eye contact with anyone but waved politely and bowed. (I was embarrassed.)
Looking down at the score for the audition, it was comprised of the entire nearly 20 minute opening of Into the Woods. That I didn’t feel so uncomfortable about as the Baker isn’t in all of that part, and it was moderately easy to remember. But then I flipped further into the songs to find a new song added to Into the Woods that the Baker sang alone. I could read the music but didn’t know the tune.
My thoughts went like this: make an excuse — I only have the original score and music at home, so I don’t know this song; make it up as you go along — Hope the song is slow and you can keep up; walk away — Give up and say you aren’t interested in auditioning any more.
Crazily enough, I was calm throughout the entire calamity crashing around in my head, and I came to the conclusion that if we got to that point where I had to sing that solo, then I would be honest and tell the director I didn’t know that song, and ask if I could sing another song instead.
Usually, I panic in these sorts of dreams. But post-earthquakes and during depersonalization, the element of panic is mostly gone. It feels more like acceptance of what is going on, maybe even more passive than active in trying to make things work.
In this dream specifically, it ended with the director coming to speak with me after. The conversation was mundane, and it felt like he was talking to me because he’d made such a big deal of me before I went up to the stage but also because he felt guilty that I wasn’t getting the part. We talked about dry eye, and eye drops, and food choices, and all sorts of random blather. (This recurring dream usually doesn’t end that way.)
There is an element of shame, in myself, that I am not better prepared. There is an element of embarrassment, that I feel so overly-confident in what I am doing that I manage to screw it up because I am not better prepared. There is an element of disappointment, in myself, that I am not better prepared, and that I am letting both myself and others down.
In this specific instance, I think the dream is related to my submission for a mentor through the New Zealand Society of Authors. The applause is aspects of me building me up in a false sense of security, or even me mocking myself as thinking I am better than I might really be, and my acknowledgement of that applause is meek because most of me feels that recognition is undeserved or even shaming me. The first part of the audition is familiar territory — it’s safe, it’s known, it’s not relying on me and my abilities fully — and the second part of the audition, the unfamiliar song in the libretto is unfamiliar territory — something new, something unknown, something fully relying on me and my abilities fully to get it right.
And then the choice is removed from me by the director (perhaps depersonalization or the critic in my head), and I’ve built up all this worry about nothing. I won’t need to worry about singing the unknown song, I don’t need to worry about speaking up, I can “rest easy” by returning to that familiar territory, because that choice has been taken away from me. Much like depersonalization has taken choices from me, and tried to keep me in a safe place mentally.
The conversation is the return to my mindscape now, with depersonalization: repetitive, mundane, scattered, unfocused. Stay in that space, it seems to be telling me. You are safer there. No challenges to upset you, no leaps to be made, no pushing outside your safe zone.
All I can do, in real life, in the dream, is try my hardest with what I am given. While I have a strong idea of the beginning, a moderate idea about the end, and very loose ideas about the middle of the story I want to write, my worry is that I am far less prepared than other writers applying might be.
On the other hand, what a writer sets out to achieve, and what a writer actually writes, can end up being two different things. The writer takes the reader and the characters on a journey. Just like the characters in the story, the writer may have goals or a set destination in mind, but the story, as it unfolds, takes them a different way.
I learned in my Advanced Fiction Writing class in 2014 that sometimes a writer writes best when nothing is prepared, nothing is set in stone. It lets the journey take place naturally, without constraints, and then the writing can unfold in a way that is healthy for the writer and the characters. When I adapted this way of writing — and, to be honest, it has been difficult for a person who likes all his i’s dotted and t’s crossed — I found it was very much more successful for me than trying to hit all the plot points and character moments I had planned in previous outings. It’s like the difference between paint-by-number and creating a watercolor from scratch: one stays within the lines and already pre-plotted, and one is wholly made through perception and skill and randomness.
Our dreams try to tell us something, and they reflect the thoughts and events we’ve gone through in our waking life and try to decipher and store them for later reference. I’m a great believer in that our dreams sometimes try to tell us or teach us something too, and by picking apart the recurring themes, sometimes we can find the answers.
Sometimes there is an illogical fear in there — the monsters chasing me down the street, the evil spirt in the basement — but sometimes there are lessons to be learned in there too. Sometimes, our minds are trying to tell us something: something to set us free.