By Laura Miller
“Strange things have been spoken, why does your heart speak strangely? The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror.”—NK Sandars, The Epic of Gilgamesh
In a dream I had about a week ago, my friend and I rafted down a river where we passed beneath the arching necks of friendly green dinosaurs, and elephants sprayed us with their trunks. Lena Dunham was there, too, reading some notes I’d written aloud to our fellow rafters. I loved this dream so much that I didn’t want to wake up the next day where I would most certainly be staring into a computer screen for at least eight hours, isolated and immobile in the peculiar way that technology has allowed us to be. Never in my dreams am I staring into a cell phone, and rarely am I alone.
As an American, I feel as though I’ve been conditioned to believe that dreams don’t matter. If you’ve ever seen certain American films that claim to be about dreams, you’ll have witnessed a clear bias. Anyone remember Inception or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus? Dreams in these films are mere plot devices or, worse, eccentricities unmoored from our past, present, and future selves.
Western psychologists commonly hold the view that because metacognition is absent while asleep, dreams can primarily be defined as deficiencies in mental functioning. This philosophy is known as the “deficit theory.” In other words, consciousness is the superior state of mind, and what happens in our dreams is detritus from sensory perceptions encountered in daily life.
Unlike Daoist cultures, which don’t distinguish between waking and dreaming states, we place all the value on waking life and its desires and ambitions. Too often we fail to consider that the opposite might be true. As James Hillman says in The Dream and the Underworld, “The less underworld, the less depth, and the more horizontally spread out becomes one’s life.”
Daoists also believe that the purpose of dreaming has always been to communicate with one’s ancestors. In my dreams, I visit my deceased great-grandmother to discover that she’s paved over the entire cactus garden in their backyard. I speak to my cat, and he speaks back. I remember these dreams because I keep a dream journal, and I share entries with family members on a semi-regular basis. Recently, they’ve started sharing their dreams with me, too.
Last weekend, I received two text messages. One from my dad in Texas who said he dreamed I was a four year old, and he was carrying me through a military base, happily showing me the sites. Another from my mom in Florida who said she dreamed I was a little girl playing with fire ants and one of them bit me. “So stay away from ants I guess,” she wrote. We remain connected to each other’s interior landscapes through our dreams.
Harvey came limping down the street with his black paw bent and lifted. I wished he could tell me what happened, and then he did. Sitting in front of me on the gravel driveway, yellow eyes as bright and confident as ever, he opened his mouth, and I could see his red tongue flicker in and out as he relayed the cause of his injury: that he had been attacked by a giant porcupine.
This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Laura I. Miller is the program coordinator at Lighthouse. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in Passages North, Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, and Entropy, among other places.