Author’s Note: Today’s post is written by a dear friend of mine: Mr. Joseph Lucido. Joe is currently a candidate of the Master of Fine Arts program at The University of Alabama. If you enjoy this post (which, you will), do check out some of his other works here and here.
I teach Introductory Composition at the University of Alabama, which is a class designed around standard reading, writing, and analytical skills. My students will tell you that their favorite topic in our class is the unit on dreams—specifically, why we have them. There is not a specific answer to this question, though there are a handful of theories we discuss: We dream to respond to threatening situations, or, We dream as a form of psychotherapy, or, We dream to create wisdom. I encourage students to explore specific dreams they’ve had, to try and plug them into the various theories we discuss and see where they fit. Negotiating the unknown is always a fun thing for students, and it’s a fun thing for me as a teacher. Through our discussions and my students’ insight, I learn just as much about myself as they do about themselves. Together, we marvel at the unknown and what imagination we are capable of without being aware of it. We traverse the abstract and build meaning from our experiences.
The following, then, is an exercise similar to one I give my students. It is an exploration of why we dream, and what, if anything, dreams are good for. Specifically, it is an exploration of a dream that changed me.
In my dream, a woman named Lilly died, and I thought she was dead for the better part of a day. Even now, weeks later, when I pass the row of pines where she was stabbed to death, my heart sinks, and I feel unshakeable sorrow that I did nothing to help her, that her boyfriend left her on a bed of pine needles to bleed out. I do not know what Lilly looks like, only the sound of her voice refusing to come back inside and the echo of her boyfriend’s demand that she better not touch his truck.
Lilly is alive. I remind myself every day.
What was real was that I awoke from a deep sleep at 3am to a domestic dispute outside my window in the apartment parking lot. A man yelled across the parking lot to Lilly, who, I assume, was or still is romantically associated with him. He slurred his words and paid no attention to his public display of aggression. His goals were clear: get Lilly back inside without damage to his truck and do so by intimidating her. I was frightened, as if in a nightmare, though this was post-sleep, a waking moment between sleep where I was forced to hold my phone in front of squinting eyes with my finger ready to dial the police.
What was real was a moment of silence followed by the man shouting, “You know what, I don’t care. The cops are coming, anyway.” Shortly after, I saw the blue and red lights across my blinds and felt safe to go back to sleep. I was short of breath. My heart pounded in my chest.
I have always been a vivid dreamer. My family reminds me every year of several sleepwalking episodes I had before I turned ten. Frantic, I once shook my sister out of a dead sleep, shouting, “The machines, Kathryn! The machines!” She slapped me and cried, neither action enough to wake me. Mom simply guided me back to my bed and asked me the next morning if I remembered the incident. I didn’t. I apologized to my sister. Dad laughed.
As a second job, my mom used to type medical reports late into the night after everyone had gone to bed. When I couldn’t sleep, which was often, I would sit next to her computer desk entranced by her fingers pecking away at the jumbled alphabet. I would doze to the bass drum cadence of the spacebar and the rapid tapping of the backspace key, curled up at her feet like a dog. Eventually, she’d carry me to bed. One night, I returned to my mother’s desk and tugged at her sleeve. I said, “It’s on the back of the green disc, Mom. Just flip the disk over, and it’s on the back of the green disk.” This is how she tells me it happened—she tried to reason with me for several minutes and prayed I wasn’t about to unplug the computer and ruin her hours of work; she says I was calm and matter-of-fact, like I wanted nothing less than to help her. Again, she walked me back to my bed where I slept until morning. My dreams in these scenarios became reality.
All of that is to say, when I fell back asleep after the domestic dispute, I dreamed a dream so vivid the feeling still exists inside of me. The dream has become part of my reality.
I dreamt that I woke up and did the things I normally do before going to teach my 8am class: I put on a pot of coffee, I showered, I read my lesson plans, and opened the blinds. Outside, four squad cars were still parked and a small crowd gathered outside of some caution tape. Stunned, I walked downstairs to learn that a woman had been stabbed to death during an altercation with her boyfriend. I was devastated. I offered to make an official statement about what I had heard hours earlier. Then I woke up again—as kids we called this a dream inside a dream.
I thought I had already put the coffee on and showered. I thought I had reviewed my lesson plans. I thought I had already opened the blinds to see a crime scene and a bloody bed of pine needles. I anxiously walked to my window and lifted a single blind to find a sunny day and a quiet parking lot. But for the life of me, I could not find my shoes, the shoes in which I teach my classes, the brown leather wingtips that sit against the North wall of my apartment every morning without fail. I thought for sure this must be the dream. My shoes wouldn’t be missing in reality. Though, I knew it couldn’t be the dream, that the death of Lilly surely wouldn’t sit inside me as real as it sat. I tried to wake myself up, but I was already awake. My shoes were in my car. I had left them there after changing for the gym the night before.
I remember speaking with a friend that morning in a quiet school lounge. I told him about my confusion. I told him a woman had died in my mind and my heart, that I couldn’t shake the feeling of tragedy and loss and the various ways I could have prevented it. I knew Lilly wasn’t dead, but she had died. This is the way I repeated it over and over as I tried to explain myself to my colleagues and friends.
That evening, just as the sun was setting and I arrived home from school, I parked my car next to the pines where Lilly died and stared at the bed of pine needles untouched by blood. I told myself I was being unreasonable, that people dream all of the time and don’t have this much trouble dealing with it. Maybe they do.
Instead of rationalizing my grief, though, I allowed myself the gifts of empathy and grief. I allowed myself the fiction of Lilly’s death and the reality of my sadness. I even celebrated both simultaneously. I realized what I had experienced was a moment of fortune, a moment where I could express my gratitude for everything I have and everything that will eventually fall away from me, or I from it. I remembered why I read, and more importantly, why I listen when someone has something to say, why the touch and warmth of another human being, however slight, can feel like eternal safety. I realized that not a single person I spoke to that day trivialized my very real and emotional experience. Every person I told listened. They were kind, lovely.
Lilly is alive, though I’m reminded of her death every morning when I drive past the pines. I hope she is okay. I hope she kicked a dent in her boyfriend’s truck. I hope her friends and family have set her down in a place that reminds her of the sheer unlikelihood of everything around us. I hope she is as filled with awe as I am, thinking of her life.