A few weeks ago, I saw photos of the house where I spent my formative years. The residence had been expanded, gut-renovated, and impeccably appointed. Among the things I clearly recognized were the nook in the kitchen, where my family had shared a decade of meals, and the tree out back, which had often been the focal point of our imaginative play. But the tree, instead of being surrounded by untamed plants and uneven rocks, was now paved in with bricks and encircled by manicured shrubs.
Just a few days ago, after I had already started writing this post, my best friend from when I lived in that house texted me from the property! She described it as “totally different, but so familiar.” I could identify with her statement, based on the photos I saw—and on my own regular visits. You see, although I haven’t set foot in the house in over 30 years, I dream about it every few weeks. My unconscious mind returns there to weave new stories. And while the action is different from what actually happened in my childhood, the setting remains deeply familiar.
Action and setting are just two of the classic story elements present in our nocturnal adventures; others include character, plot, and mood. In this sense, we are all master storytellers! Last week, my husband relayed a vivid dream that could easily become a short story (or an episode of The Twilight Zone): Aliens abducted him and a group of people, imprisoning them as livestock to be eaten. As the captives realized there was a hero among them who could engineer their escape, our real-life dog insisted on her breakfast, and the dream ended. I wish I knew how the story ended! (Dogs must be amazing storytellers, too, given how they twitch, whimper, growl, snort, and yip in their sleep.)
The scenarios in dreams feel very real to us at the time. Only after we awaken do we have the perspective to say, “I had the weirdest dream!” Then we seek more stories, both fiction (movies, novels, television dramas) and nonfiction (news stories, friends’ stories, stories we tell ourselves and others about our own experiences). We invest ourselves in these stories as we do in our dreams, and then pull ourselves out in order to carry on with our day.
When you think about it, our lives are essentially stories in progress, bookended by birth and death. We wonder, “What’s next?” (in the plot) and “How will all this end?” (on the last page). Being unable to answer these questions with certainty makes us anxious, and perhaps we find comfort in the worlds of stories that have defined beginnings, middles, and ends. Some belief systems maintain that life itself is a dream, which would suggest that we author our lives just as we author our dreams. Maybe, eventually, we will awaken to the real reality and have no more dreams and seek no more stories.
Whether life is reality, a story, or a dream, we may as well row our boats gently (and merrily) down its stream.