Like so many people these days, these weeks, these years, I’m not sleeping well. Mostly I don’t mind waking in the middle of the night because I often have work to do and I love the experience of coming to my desk in the dark, feeling my way to the chair, the lamp. But some nights I don’t want to leave my bed and those are the times I lie awake and feel my heart racing, my mind trying to make sense of what the world’s become.
Or I dream, and then wake trying to find the meaning in what I’ve dreamed. Two nights ago we were driving somewhere near Lillooet and we took a side road over some hills. On the other side of the hills, a small town so peaceful and beautiful that I was crying as we drove up and down its quiet streets. The houses were small and close together, every window uncurtained, and through one we saw a tall Black woman helping her young son iron a shirt, its crisp sleeves hanging off the board. In another, a wedding was taking place, with soft-faced people lit by golden light, some of the party spilling over into the tiny garden. Why have we never come here before, I asked, as we slowly drove past a few wooden buildings, a general store, a wide square with benches by a fountain. Why. Leaving, we saw the sign for the town: Wharton. It’s not on any map. I’ve checked. But remember Melville?
It is not down on any map; true places never are.
Last night I woke from a dream of shells. Hundreds of them, white and clean. I was trying to decide how many to bring home. How could I choose? They were all perfect, all beautiful. In the dark, trying to make sense of what it meant to dream of shells, I suddenly found myself saying some words to myself and I realized they were the missing section for an essay I’ve been working on. I usually have paper and a pencil on my bedside table but due to an accident with coffee yesterday morning, my table was bare. Never mind, I thought to myself, Just keep saying the words. You’ll remember. And this morning I did. The essay, “Seams: piece-work in 19 uneven stitches”, now has 20, which feels more complete somehow.
But back to the shells. What do they mean? I’ve been looking at various sources of dream analysis and, well, there’s no consensus. They can reference death, the soul leaving the body, or strength and protection. They can indicate you are in hiding. Or that you need to let go. Dream grammar is as difficult to learn as any other.
Sometimes I dream of old friends, ones I haven’t thought about in years. Or friends long-dead who are somehow waiting for me to talk to them. Maybe they’re living in Wharton in those of those houses under the leafy chestnut trees, maybe the house with the golden light where a wedding was celebrated with laughter, on a quiet street with no other cars but ours, slowly passing in wonder and a kind of sorrow that we’d never known this place before. I returned to sleep, hoping to dream my way back to Wharton but it’s gone, hidden away in a pleat of hills near Lillooet,. Oh goodnight.
Clouds drifting the whole day;
a traveler traveling who never arrives.
Three nights you have been in my dreams;
as your friend, I knew your mind.
You say your return is always harrowing;
your coming, a hard coming;
Rivers, lakes, so many waves;
in your boat you fear overturning.
–from “Dreaming of Li Bai”, by Du Fu, trans. Mike O’Connor