In elementary school, I walked to school with a group of kids in my neighborhood. A different parent accompanied us each day of the week. One parent, who was the most stern and least fun to walk with, once informed us that the most boring thing in the world is having to listen to other people’s dreams.
At the beginning of sophomore year of college, I started to dream journal, and immediately began remembering my dreams. It was the first time I ever had, and it felt like my life had doubled: All of a sudden, I could potentially wake up to one or two or even three little stories about crazy things I had done, without actually doing anything at all. I subsequently discovered that as boring as dreams may be to other people, they are endlessly interesting to yourself. In my first clearly recalled dream, I rashly decided to cut off my thumb. I realized it was a bad idea shortly afterwards, because although I wasn’t in pain, it just looked kind of stupid. I thought about calling my dad and asking for help, saying it had been a mistake, but that would be lying, because it wasn’t a mistake. Intellectually, I believe in the prevailing theory about dreams, which is that they are nothing more than the random firing of neurons. Personally, however, it’s hard to accept that this means there’s nothing to analyze. For instance, it was instantly clear to me what the thumb dream was about: I’m too afraid to get a tattoo and permanently, purposefully change a part of my body as it is now. I think about this a lot, because I want a tattoo, and certain things about me (mainly my nose piercing) suggest that I should have one by now. Whenever my friends and I talk about tattoos, I bring up this dream. “That’s why I can’t get one yet,” I say. They don’t care, because the only thing more boring than other people’s dreams is the tattoos other people don’t have.
Once, I dreamed that I yelled at a friend in public, telling her all the things about her that annoy me in real life. After that dream, our friendship improved markedly.
Like many people my age, I am now back in my childhood bedroom, in a bed that’s just as thin as the one in college but a little shorter. My sheets are printed with zebras and probably belong to one of my brothers. My pillow has a white pillowcase onto which I once sketched the moon with a Sharpie during a pillowcase decorating birthday party. I am surrounded by graying stuffed animals. The room is filled with objects I didn’t want to bring to college, like a “30 Rock” poster I don’t even understand anymore and all the books I’ve read or never will. They seem smug, teetering in unstable piles or cluttering up the desk I now have to use again. “You thought you were too good for us,” they say. “Well, look who’s back.”
Amid this chorus of judgment, I have begun to dream more vividly than I ever have before, reaching for my phone in the long stretch of morning that I now use to fall in and out of sleep (instead of going to the gym, or to breakfast, or to work, or to an outside world that wants me in it) and writing down any scraps I can remember. It may be because of some big reason about chaos and disruption, but I think it’s just that I’m sleeping a lot. I haven’t heard my morning phone alarm in six weeks.
One character comes back again and again. He is my dream boyfriend. Usually his name is Jackson. He looks somewhat like the character Jackson Avery on “Grey’s Anatomy” (a show I frequently watch before going to sleep), and is similarly sweet and handsome, but he is a complete stranger. Although in the dreams I understand that we are romantically involved, I am full of discomfort, and feel no affection or warmth in his presence. The first time he appeared, he was an older man, and a woman and her daughter left us alone in a hotel room to get to know each other better. I stood on the bed, which was covered by a cool white comforter, until I heard a noise. When I turned around, it was a real-life friend, not the man, and the dream ended with a flood of relief and happiness.
One night, I woke up to a version of this in my notes, full of typos, and switching between past and present tense: I stood in the doorway of a room with a very low ceiling. The walls were a zigzag pattern of white and coral-red stripes, and a low, king-sized bed took up almost every inch of space in the room. The bed had a quilt in the same red pattern as the walls. Crouched on the floor on the far side of the room, wedged between the bed and the wall with her knees to her chest, was a woman with black hair and bangs. Jackson lay back on the bed in a long-sleeved shirt. He and the woman looked at me as I stood in the entrance. I didn’t get the sense that they wanted me to come in, but I was convinced I was supposed to, or had been sent to. I leaned my right arm against the door and stared at them, particularly at Jackson, who at once confused me and seemed to be the only possible resolution to my confusion. Although the room wasn’t large, I knew that we were all very far from each other.
Over spring break, I had only one dream. In it, my econometrics professor showed us a table comparing odds of getting the coronavirus against happiness and wealth. While it appeared that both were correlated, the regression he performed in the slides showed that coronavirus is actually only correlated with wealth, not happiness. I woke up excited to share this new information. At that point, I thought there were answers.
And because I have nowhere to go, and nothing to do, I don’t mind spending more time in the impermeable world of my own dreams. I’ve been reading about lucid dreaming, where you are aware that you’re dreaming while you’re doing it, and thus gain control over the dream. My high school friend says that if you get too good, you can end up confusing waking and dream life. The way to tell, she told me once, leaning in close in a way that made me doubt her own sanity throughout our friendship, is to look at clocks. You can’t read clocks in dreams. Nor, apparently, can you see your own hands, look in mirrors, feel solid surfaces, or make yourself stop breathing by holding your nose.
Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the idea that when we see or touch things, they also see or touch us. When you see the Grand Canyon, the Grand Canyon sees you. Especially lately, the fact that our gestures are interventions in the world has turned dangerous. Not only do we avoid touching banisters so that they don’t give us the virus, we do it to avoid infecting them. We share our power with objects. In dreams, we can’t intervene in anything. It’s very safe.
They say to lucid dream you should take something that’s often found in dreams and think hard about it. Although I don’t particularly want to spend more time with Jackson, he’s the only recurring dream character I’ve ever met, which makes me think I’ll have higher odds of success in making him appear, so I think hard about him, in the following specific scenario, several times a day. I am walking with Jackson on the trail near my house. It is how it is now: There are three times as many people there at any time as there ever were on the busiest pre-coronavirus Saturday morning. Some people wear masks and walk with friends. Older people don’t smile at you. There are electric scooters toppled over on either side of the trail where nobody is willing to touch them. The air is cool and a little bit rainy, and the river nearby is moving faster than usual. When it comes time for me and Jackson to pass other people, we veer off to the side to give them space. Jackson talks about whatever. I walk ahead of him. It hasn’t worked yet.
My favorite theory about my dreams is that I have met Jackson. He’s not a strange perversion of a television character, he’s someone real, whom I brushed past in a hallway or talked to once at a social event or even had a class with, under a different name or with a different face. In his dreams, I’m a strange, recurring presence, and in that way, we have what almost no one else in this world does right now: kinship with someone we are not living with. If I manage to lucid dream, maybe we could talk about it.