For most of my adult life I have had a recurring dream. I got rid of it for a while, but it’s back now, with a vengeance. So as not to bore me to death, it arrives in a variety of story lines, but it’s as reliable and repetitive as a Hallmark Christmas movie.
Before I describe it, I will declare, with the wisdom that comes from a bit of therapy, that I get why we might be having bad dreams these days.
My wife Karen has survived two bouts with breast cancer. However hopeful her prognosis, cancer patients and their caregivers live their lives suffering from what our doctor called “canceritis.” Wake up with a sore earlobe, and you fear cancer of the earlobe.
Let’s add to that existential fear a pandemic, an economic collapse, global social unrest and, here in Florida, just a hint of hurricane. That pluperfect storm assures uneasy rest.
Here’s the dream, so common it’s been featured in Psychology Today. I am a student. It is senior year, and we are approaching graduation. I need just one more credit to graduate. To get that credit, I must pass a final exam. But, for unknown reasons, I have not attended a single class. Not one. I could fake my way through the exam with my clever writing, but the content matter is something I know nothing about, say, quantum mechanics.
Many teachers have told me that they have had some version of this dream.
Here’s a variation: I may not have attended the class, but I know the subject. It doesn’t matter because I can’t find my way to the room where the test will be given. I know it’s in Building X on the third floor, but the stairwell doesn’t go that high, or some other obstacle presents itself.
* I’m in a play, which opens tonight, but I have never learned my lines.
* I am playing in the finals of a hockey tournament, but I don’t know how to skate, I only have one skate and my hockey stick is broken.
* I am a great keyboard player invited to sit in with a big-time band. I know the song. I get there on time. But the keyboard has keys as sharp as razor blades.
There is one other version I am a little embarrassed to share, but it recurs so often, it demands confession. I am in an unfamiliar place — a restaurant, conference center, office building — and I am busy and productive, but suddenly realize that I have to use the restroom. Except that there is no restroom, or, perhaps I should say no restroom of the usual variety. If I find one, there is often a line with dozens awaiting their relief. I go off into some labyrinthine basement in desperation. Then I wake up. Oh, yeah, I usually have to pee.
It seems to me that all of these dreams have a common theme: the curse of incapacity. The need to be somewhere, do something, pass some test, achieve some goal without the means to accomplish the task.
It feels like no stretch to extract from the effects of pandemic and recession these symbolic, subconscious narratives. We are doing our best, but we are doing without.
At the high end, we were without enough hospital beds, respirators, COVID-19 tests, even cotton swabs. We hustled face masks, hand sanitizer, even toilet paper.
Then people lost jobs. We lost money. Unable to attend brick-and-mortar schools, some children were left without food. The losses became more personal: no access to friends and family, no hugs and kisses, no canoodling at the coffee shop, no holy communion on the tongue.
I mentioned at the top that I once managed to shed my troublesome dream. Here’s how I did it. I showed up for a final exam which turned out to be a one-on-one oral exam with a stodgy professor. The course was in the 19th Century English Novel. I’ve read some Dickens, but that’s about it. The teacher asked me how I would define “realism” in the work of a particular novelist, whose work I had never read.
I thought about it for a second, looked the teacher in the eye, and said, “I’m not familiar with that work, sir, but I think I know a lot about literary realism, especially from studying Shakespeare.” I described how the character Hamlet directs the traveling players at Elsinore to avoid over-acting in their performance. “Hold a mirror up to nature,” he tells them. Make your speech and actions feel natural. Like real life.
He gave me an A+. I got to walk across the stage.
So maybe there’s a lesson here. Maybe the antidote to our current dilemma is to work from what we know rather than from what is uncertain. To better use the tools available to us rather than mourn our losses. To fill those abandoned spaces and places with new insights and experiences. In short, to go with what we know.
Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. He is the author of many books on reading, writing, language and journalism. His latest is “Murder Your Darlings.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.