Pablo Picasso The Dream
To paraphrase the problem of the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, I may be a woman who has dreamed herself a skunk, or a skunk still dreaming she is a woman.
~ Louise Erdrich “The Blue Jay’s Dance”
They say you know you’ve made it in a different language when you start dreaming in it. What they don’t tell you is that before that happens, your dream language will likely sound like gibberish for a while, comprised mostly of the howling vowels and stunted consonants of a child learning to speak. I, too, am in that stage. My dreams—when I remember them—have a nightmarish aspect about them these days. People of consequence discuss matters of life and death in breathtaking alpine landscapes—and I’m at a loss trying to understand what they’re saying, unable to participate in those momentous events. Even though I don’t understand the words, I know they’re talking about serious things, like stopping a war or saving the world from a terrible epidemic. Or, in a different scrap of a dream, passers-by ask me things in French and—oh miracle!—I do understand the questions, but when I open my mouth to answer, what comes out is ridiculous and foreign to any language I’ve ever heard.
I take comfort in the belief that like all things, this stage is transitory. Dreams have always been important to me, but I have never really figured out (and I’m not sure I ever will) to what degree they influence my work and my life. I remember a time, many years back (way before my marriage, my children, and anything else with claims on my personal schedule), when I used to record dutifully every dream I had. I hoped that the everyday practice would shed some light on my future. I usually got tangled in too many details and innumerable interpretations, and ended up spending the first half of the day thinking about what the second half would bring.
So I had to give up thinking about living and just live. I was aware of losing hundreds, thousands of clues with every dream that went away unremembered, unrecorded. I felt somewhat guilty, but it became a pleasurable guilt. I had chosen to live without paying attention to dreams and that decision gave me a sort of power over my fate. In the meantime, the dreams I was still dreaming quietly and thoroughly permeated my writing. They invaded me silently and claimed ownership of the realm that has always been theirs. Many of my poems at the time had something to do with dreams. I wrote about dreamlike situations and fantastic creatures, about entering a dream, being chased by a dream, finding solace in a dream, the impossibility of waking up, dream as terra incognita, dream as a world I had known before I was born, dream as afterlife, dream dream dream.
I’ve always found truth in dreams that I sometimes cannot find in real life. The life of a dream pulses on its own, as if all it needs to do in order to be is to project itself onto my being. Writing is akin to dreaming while awake. At the end of feverish writing session, I am stranded for a few moments in an in-between place, where I can’t be sure whether I’m a poet dreaming about writing a poem, or if the poem is weaving me, the poet, into its own life.
These days my dreams do not attempt to tell me the future—or if they do, I fail miserably at interpreting what they say, as always. But my current dreams silently hand me clues to my past and my present. Yes, I have left a world I was comfortable in—and fully functional—for the unknown. Yes, I am still lost in translation, still find myself in this limbo between cultures and mentalities. It’s a threshold fraught with danger and shame at my linguistic inadequacy. The world of my dreams needs saving and I’m not available—I’ve got to learn French first.
But this threshold is also ripe with possibility. Like the in-between place where I write, this world I’m in allows me to reinvent myself, to weave together the strands of my fluid identity into someone recognizable as myself, yet entirely new. True, I might never speak French well enough to carry on a conversation about matters of life and death. Also true is that I could end up speaking French—and German, and Italian!—better than I do English. Perhaps one of the advantages of the stage I’m in is that, like I child, I could go anywhere from here, I could do anything. That’s one way to look at where I am.
Another way is to stop thinking altogether—a close to impossible feat for someone who overthinks simple situations and overprepares for what life may throw her way. How about following the example of my younger self and simply living? Living—and dreaming—in Swiss, yowling vowels and garbled consonants included? And if some truth unfolds in a dream that can shed a light on where I am, what I am becoming, what I am to do, then I say to it, “Welcome, bienvenue, I have been waiting.” And also, “I’m glad you are here.”
Essay also published on the Ruminate Blog on August 21, 2018.