John J. Clayton's fourth novel, The Mitzvah Man, will be published in fall 2011. Wrestling with Angels: New and Collected Stories (2007) is about to be reissued. His stories have been published widely. Clayton has taught modern literature and fiction writing at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He teaches now at Hampshire College. His stories have won prizes in O.Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. He has written a good deal about modern fiction, including Gestures of Healing, a psychological study of modern British and American fiction.
So strange the way dreams live in us. All the time they're there. We don't wake up from dreams and leave them in the bed. They're never not there. It's not like the Freudian unconscious, like secrets whispered into a box, the box shut and locked, and you swallow the key, or maybe you only hide it, then can ease it open, or in your dreams you can encode those secrets and then with your therapist you can discover—ah, I always knew but didn't have accessible—and the box opens and you give old half-memories new shape, put them into new boxes.
Not like that at all. It's like stars in the daytime: where do the stars go? They're there, always there, but invisible against the ambient light. Aristotle introduced the false idea that if you stand at the bottom of a very deep well you can see the stars overhead in daylight. You can't. There's too much atmosphere. Still, they're there, the stars. But daytime dreaming is different. If you quiet yourself, you can shut out the light, tune in on this dreaming, what I'm calling dreaming. The surface of consciousness is sunlight, keeping dreams invisible. Sometimes images from your life arise. But more often, the voices, the faces of people you've never seen arise, talking in a hallway, a stairwell, a landscape, a porch. Faces I'm sure I've never seen. How do I make up these faces? As if I were some great dream artist, a Vermeer of dreams!
And the words they say—apparently nothing to do with my life—where do they come from? The dream figures pay no attention to me. I can't quite capture what they're saying. A few words. It's as if you've picked up a stray channel but the volume is too low, the image too fleeting to let you catch it. Too fleeting and then, there's no context—as when you turn in a subway car to see a face in profile and catch a few words.
You need context. But if you try to listen hard into a dream in the day, the faces and voices instantly disappear. The activity of focusing dissolves the dream. You've got to listen soft, and then sometimes they let you in a bit longer.
You'll say they're my invention. I'm not sure. It certainly doesn't seem that way. I get a little frightened knowing now that the voices and faces are always there, always changing, changing for no apparent reason. Maybe what happens to the mad is that the faces and voices don't disappear. They grow stronger, they take over. You can't change the channel.
For me the channel changes all the time.
Close my eyes and a boy of about thirteen is speaking to his mother. He's wearing a soft leather cap with a peak, a cap of a kind no one wears now. As if he came from England or Ireland or maybe California about a hundred years ago. Then he speaks to her (I somehow know it's his mother) about "hundreds being arrested." In a political demonstration? I have no idea. How did I make up his face? Have I seen this face? I feel the presence of a life; he has a life story though I'm cut off from that story.
There's no interaction between me, the dreamer, and these figures. They are utterly foreign, yet unnervingly familiar. In a dream at night, consciousness stilled by sleep, I may be a character or an observer or both. Somehow, I'm in the dream. But in the dreams I'm living underneath my daytime life, the figures are totally separate from me, the dreamer. Sometimes they're no more than the shape of an industrial building, the rise and fall of a wooded landscape. As far as I know, I'm not taking them from movies or my own forgotten experience—though how am I to know? It feels as if I'm channeling other lives, other places.
Surfing a transpersonal web, tuning in on this channel and on that. The Talmud says—in which tractate? Is it Berachot?—that if a dream is dreamt three times it may be understood as prophetic, as divinely inspired. But do we remember? Maybe we often dream three times but don't know. And even dreamt once, a dream may be prophetic, though especially during the day we may not be aware of it. We touch fragments of the truth. There are all the stars we don't see.
At night there's more continuity.
My mother, oh, dreamed terrible night dreams, dreams that revealed truth. In one, she told me in guttural whisper, as if letting me in on a terrible secret, "a man in a strange hat is being beaten, being beaten on the head, he's bleeding, bleeding, lying in the grass." Then, that afternoon, she held up a newspaper, "Look, look, the poor man!" She showed me an article in the Post: a Sikh, a diplomat, taking a foolish walk at night in Central Park, was beaten on the head, cut with a knife; blood filled his turban. Found by the police, he was taken to hospital too late.
Then the beautiful dreams of my own daughter and her young husband, who were searching for the perfect name for their first child. And both dreamed the baby's name, the same name, the same night. "I had a dream," Harry said. "It gave me the name." "I had a dream, too," Sylvia said. "I dreamed the name." "The name I dreamed was Shira," he said. "But that's the name I dreamt, too!" she said. "Shira." It was a name neither had thought of before the dreams. Now I have a grandchild, Shira.
I've always known we live, when awake, inside a continuous dream. That's a different dreaming, expressive of distortion, not of truth. We've dreamed up the world we inhabit. Cobbled it out of our nighttime dreams and desires and shame and longing—and the dreams of the culture. For instance, walking into Stop & Shop, I see this woman, blonde, in her thirties, bloated with thirty, forty pounds of fat, I see her swagger down an aisle, hostile expression on her face, three children trailing. She makes no contact with her children. Boxes of junk food pile up. She's enraged at something. She's wearing a tee shirt with the logo of a band, and both arms are scrawled with colorful tattoos, words, designs, images. A skull. Don't mess with me. Right away I dislike her a lot; right away I'm sorry for those children. I have contempt for what I imagine her life. I see a motorcycle boyfriend swigging beers with her and tossing the empties while the kids eat junk food in front of the TV. And the thing is, I don't know her, not at all, not at all. This is dreaming, too; she's playing a character in my dream. I'm imposing my dream on her. I've got her bottled and labeled.
Then, there are my ordinary dreams, I mean night dreams: boring, anxiety dreams of, say, my ex-wife; or, better, happy dreams of our two children; in the dream they're younger, we run cross-country, we lift up and fly, I tell them "Don't be afraid to fly."
But most of my night dreams are frustrating. I need to visit my mother, who in the waking world is dead but in my dream is still alive. I try to get home by train but the station is on the other side of this strange town; I can't cross a busy traffic circle. An interstate runs through town and no one knows where the overpass is.
For ten years after her stroke, till last year when she died, I did her shopping, read to her, pushed her wheelchair. Now in night dreams I can't reach her. The subway I catch is always the wrong one. I've left my backpack at home and can't call to have someone bring it to me because my cell phone is gone and my wallet, with my credit cards and money, it's in my back pack. In dreams I long to see my mother's face, to know she's not angry I'm late.
She is angry, as so often she was angry or hurt. She showed her victimhood by a sigh. You went shopping? Very nice, very nice, but why did you forget what I specifically asked for . . . ?
Or . . . I'm a burden, you wish I'd die and get off your back.
She wasn't always like that. At times after the stroke she was splendid, a charmer, still vain, a smart cookie, a passionate reader who loved to talk about what she read. I want to find her in dreams, to dream of her even if she's angry, hurt, but I never can. I try to reach her through the maze of a strange city. I never can. My car is held up by police because of construction, so I take a detour, and there seems to be no way back. Everything conspires to make me late.
During the day, too, if I close my eyes and try to see her, I see no one.
But if these night dreams enact the personal, those wisps of dream that go on all day, dreams every time I stop to listen down into the channels where the voices and faces live, they seem to have nothing to do with a me. Maybe they're not dreams I'm making up. Maybe these are voices and faces of the living and the dead. Or listen: the unconscious is outside of time. Maybe the true unconscious doesn't belong to me. It's ours, as Jung imagined. Then it's not surprising that these dream figures are so complete. Suppose the people I see and hear are real, from another place, from another time. Or maybe I saw a face once and I've forgotten but, like a costume designer for a movie, I've dressed that person as a character. I leave it to you. But if I let my mind wander into itself, dream takes over at the back of the mind. I say back of the mind, and at once, down a corridor with oiled shiplap wainscoting, I see a store-room, and, in the storeroom, old furniture, the smell of old wood. Materials for the dreams under my day are piled up here. It seems that I, the dreamer, live in this storeroom. Will I be locked inside? Am I already locked inside? But no—I simply open my eyes. It's been a very few seconds.
Someone's still speaking words, back of my day brain. I'm considering a new possibility: that the mother in my brain, mother in that storeroom—and not only my mother but my angry, humiliated father, dead fifteen years, and all the leftover pieces of my life, discarded, unfinished, broken—find costumes and faces, find voices and speak like mummers in my daytime carnival, just as they do at night.
Unfinished business. Why all that unfinished business? Didn't I mourn my mother according to Jewish law and custom, sitting shiva for a week? Mourned in spite of Lois, my then-wife, announcing that she never liked my mother in the first place and wouldn't pretend to mourn now, and why the hell are we covering mirrors and holding religious services in our home? I didn't shave the first month, I said Kaddish for my mother almost every day for the customary eleven months. By that time Lois and I were separated. She didn't even come to the unveiling of the stone a year after my mother's burial. My mother had been trying to separate us for the thirty years of our marriage and finally went to the trouble of dying in order to succeed.
It seems I'm having it out with myself. My miseries with Lois, hers with me, are over and done with. I'm alone, she's seeing someone. We're almost friends, friendly enough to spend last Thanksgiving together with our grown kids. Of course we're each living/dreaming inside our separate stories—our separate dreams of the marriage. Those dreams—of desire, of interpretation—were what we fought over. Now, not much of the furniture from our long agony remains in the storeroom down the corridor. It's all been spoken of, worked on, discussed ad nauseum. Enough, enough! But though I'm sixty years old, it seems I still need to dream my mother, dream my father, back into the world—need one more miserable, inconclusive battle, one more session of squeezing the boil of guilt. The pus runneth over.
Or maybe there's no meaning in these fragments of dream, no storeroom of the broken and the unfinished. Is it possible that the figures behind my day are just brain static, synapses gone astray? Detritus of old links—a cap, a child, a mother? No, I don't think so—these wisps are as filled with meaning beyond conscious control as are night dreams. It's when I try to direct them, force them, I get nothing, get garbage. I close my eyes and tell myself I'm going to look for my mother on her favorite bench in Central Park. All right. I can see Central Park West. The pocked stone wall of the park is there, the path past the Diana Ross Playground. But my mother, no, my mother is absent. Instead, I see a homeless man in a stained, knitted cap and heavy wool sweater, a green plastic bag holding, probably, his clothes.
You're going to say—in fact, you've already said to yourself—Well, of course, you dummy—that homeless man is you. All right. It's entirely possible my mind is playing a joke on me. Looking for your mother? At your age? Here's who you are: homeless. Ha ha. But I don't know this man. An old alcoholic, scruffy, bad-smelling, in a torn wool sweater, mumbling to himself. That's not me. Is that me? I let go, I peer at him, I accept him—come in, come in; maybe it is me.
I close this dream and crush it into the garbage. Now, I simply let words and images rain on my head. The crooked line of a mountain range I somehow know is in Afghanistan, the St. Agnes Branch of the New York Public Library, funded by Carnegie money—rebuilt last year, but I see it in the form I knew it, the old library where I went most days after school.
And now, at last, out of the corner of my eye, I am permitted to see my mother, young, in the retro floral dress she wore; there she is, walking past a park bench, her cane a regal emblem, a scepter, more an image of dramatic self-expression than a prosthesis. She lifts her cane and points the silver tip at me. It lights up my brain.
Her cane and that look of hers, what are they saying?
This is, of course, no longer subliminal dreaming, the dreaming that goes on all the time. Now, I'm dreaming awake. I follow the lady in the floral dress. I'm in the dream and in control, though surprised when she goes into the playground, changed from what it was when I was a child. The black iron protective fence is still there, but now there's an imaginative, sprawling, wooden play structure. She sits on a bench, holding her purse on her lap so no one outside the black iron fence can hook it and run. I sit beside her, and we don't speak—strange, since in the daytime world, we always spoke. We spoke and we spoke. But if she spoke now, it would be make-believe, would be me making her speak; she'd be a puppet, I a ventriloquist. So I sit quietly with her. How are things in the other world, I don't ask. It's good just to be with her again and smell the soap she always used, and she not an ancient, bent crone, so shrunken and stiff her last two years, but the funny, charming young mother who taught me to read and took down, on her 1918 Underwood, stories I dictated to her, while her cigarette burned in the crook of an ashtray.
Now, at sixty, I'm living in a little apartment on West 76th near Broadway, in hunting distance from Zabar's and H&H Bagels. Tell me (I don't ask her), how can I live a decent life? I'm ashamed at my age to be so incomplete. But then, why should I ask her, even if it weren't monologue posing as dialogue? She's about the last person. Didn't she live inside a fraudulent dream of standing separate from everyone; everyone supposed to look up to her. She wore a tinsel crown and blamed my father for not giving her a real one. It's true, it's true, yes, but maybe in death comes perfect knowledge. Do you think? Or is she still separate, alone with her newspaper while she smokes her cigarettes in a world where there are no cigarette taxes or lung cancer, as I sit alone with a cup of coffee and write a feature article on my laptop or take a walk through Central Park.
I go to synagogue Saturday mornings. I claim B'Nai Shalom as my community, but my only contact with fellow congregants is during services and afterwards at the Kiddush. What do I do? I write, as I'm writing now; I visit my children, see a couple of friends. Mostly I'm alone. To see the stars in the day I turn the day dark, go down into a deep well of darkness where, unlike the stars, dreams are visible. Sometimes I wonder: do I pay too dearly? Are the dreams worth the cost? And then, I wonder: are these dreams mine? Or am I dreaming the dreams of my parents, of their parents, back and back and back? The world is in me, but am I in the world? It's as if my ancestors and I whirl round and round, sucking all the air out of the world, making this dark vacuum in which I dream.