Tuesday, March 8, 2011


I dream about running.

Think of how many ways that sentence can be read.

Think about why I just wrote in the passive voice.

All those thoughts are related.

When one “dreams about” something, it often means “aspires to” or “wishes to do” or simply “wants.” For my mother, an unspoken but fervent version of that sentence was “I dream about getting away from the farm.” To her, that represented a life that had more ease, less harshness, fewer insults and slanted critiques, less cruelty from her difficult mother, her taunting—and favored—brothers. For me, it was “I dream about making a difference in the world.” That statement verified my own powerful sense that if I believed in God—which I wanted to, tried to, struggled to—then that belief should influence how I lived, should give me a satisfying sense of mission.

When one “dreams about” something, it also suggests a return, a sharp sense of longing for something that has passed or is impossible. I confess I often dream about having another child, getting lost in reveries and daydreams. But it won’t happen. For all I know, it can’t; nearing 48, I know that conception after 35 becomes difficult, after 40 almost miraculous. At my age, it probably is impossible. At least, that was the conclusion of a discussion my husband and I had. We’ve both been married before, both produced children who are now grown up. Our having a child together would lend a sense of completeness to our fulfilling union, but his hesitations are understandable: our children would resist the idea; they might even balk at it and withdraw; we love each other, but by the time any child of ours grew up and graduated high school, we would be quite old; it would be hard to find the energy to raise a child, harder to enjoy our retirement with one in tow.

And yet. The other day I read a story about a woman who had her last baby at age 49. Wistful, I sighed. No use weeping. Longing is at its core toughness.

When one “dreams about” something in the traditional sense, while sleeping, it’s largely unconscious, as desires often are, expressive of things that aren’t easy to say in the day light. In our dreams, we are more or less passive; our strict consciousnesses, that determine the speakable, become passive, inactive. The dream subjects arise as if unbidden, sleeping giants, powerful statements about our deepest impulses. Only in a dream could I confront my father, tell him to fuck off. But then, only in a dream could he kick my pregnant belly, trying to destroy my child. In real life, I never saw him when I was pregnant, and if I had I wouldn’t have let him get close enough to do any harm. Only in a dream could I conflate the identities of my younger sister and my youngest child, a two-in-one being at whom I scream, unable to stop because I am unable to help him/her, since they won’t help themselves.

The late Donald Murray, writing teacher, poet, essayist, a hero of mine, wrote that if he was working on a poem and couldn't finish it, he took a nap because he knew that the “answer” to the riddle of the poem’s ending would come to him in his sleep, if he invited it.

It doesn’t work like that for me, but I dream about running, and in my dreams I am a miracle of motion, energetic, graceful, running long distances—forever—without stopping or tiring. I don’t feel anything in these dreams: no discomfort or muscle strain, no heat of sun or splash of water upwards as I step in the stream trickling toward the storm sewer, no slow relaxation of stiff ankles. I just run. I run with no anxiety or compulsion to get anywhere. I run with no pride or worry about competition. I run without confidence, really, because running is just what I am doing, who I am, but also without any lack. In those dreams I AM, I exist, and my existence boils down to effortless motion.

In a similar dream, I experience flexibility to rival the Russian contortionists I saw once on a cruise ship. I can do the splits, I can stretch one leg straight in the air while standing on the other, I can bend without hindrance or pain. Nothing tenses me, prohibits me.

The ease with which I move in dreams is exhilarating. I wake to a life of effort and deliberate, forced motion. All day, I fight against the tides of my teaching schedule, students I can’t reach or who don’t care, my own questioning doubts about whether I’m any good at it. I slog through self-consciousness and criticism, through exhaustion and hopelessness. My active resistance of these forces defines my life; I AM through impediments to fluidity, opposition to smooth progress.

Even if it means being passive, a condition that horrifies me while awake, I give in to passivity in my dreams, when all the weights that clothe me in consciousness fall away and I see what rises, now unfettered, from my daytime desires: grace, freedom, a voice.

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