I rarely remember dreams. My brain atomizes everything before I wake. The imagery and action dissolves, and the swirl of the morning whisks it away. But I remember daydreams—perhaps because they’re such a big part of my life.
Psychologists say we spend one-third to one-half of our time daydreaming. My days are too full to imagine five to eight hours of reverie, but I might find bliss in that life. I might enjoy it too much.
Daydreaming is supposed to be mental rehearsal, practice for encounters you’ll have later or a chance to shuffle and reshuffle what you want to say. Some people believe we should harness the power of daydreams to conceive and create a better life. For me, they are mostly fantasy, meetings I wish could happen and phrases I know I’ll never speak.
James Thurber’s Walter Mitty imagined life as a pilot, surgeon, and assassin. My mental sorties are never so dramatic, but just as impractical. My daydreams return to crossroads and take the other way, moving to other cities, pursuing other careers, befriending other people, arriving at other intersections altogether. “If I could go back knowing what I do now,” they begin, “I might now be more abstemious, wise, warm, and sane.”
The other day, when I should have been grading my 32nd paper, I started my own school in a brownstone in a Philadelphia. Downstairs, the living room holds a giant seminar table, and at its center sits a bowl of fruit, a carafe of coffee, a pitcher of orange juice, a plate of bagels and cream cheese. The students arrive one by one, each shouldering a heavy backpack or satchel but smiling, anxious to begin. Upstairs, another student toils at work he’s started early. His typing is loud enough to be heard downstairs, and when he drifts down for our morning meeting, we tease him about his work habits. Then the seven of us—“How can you really educate more than seven people at a time?” I often daydream—we begin to eat and discuss the day’s business. My partner (and also my best friend) teaches science and math. I teach history and English. But really the subject headings don’t matter because we all teach everything, so we take turns interrogating the students about their projects and progress. They are earnest and bright and say so much that demonstrates how far they’ve traveled in our care. When we send most of them upstairs, they groan playfully. The two who remain fish work from their laptops and move to sit beside us.
They are visibly grateful for all the personal attention we give them, and their parents pay us very well.
Sometimes I worry sighing over what might have been steals oxygen from my real life. Contemplating revisions suggests I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere and am all wrong. Yet I don’t feel a failure in my daydreams. Quite the contrary. When I’m too busy to daydream, troubles gather in tight knots nothing teases apart. Maybe I can’t find hope without practicing impossibilities.
I probably don’t need to say how far the brownstone is from my actual school. I hear Pollyannas telling me the scene is a vision of a life I ought to lead, but to me building something practical between them isn’t the point. Planning like that isn’t even interesting enough for a daydream.
What I want from daydreams is relief, thoughts to drift through the bars of here and now, visits refreshing enough to get me back to work.