Category Archives: Dreaming

About Time (parts 1-8)

artworks-000023974245-wycgon-originalThe first half a long lyric essay…


Kierkegaard said we must live forward but only understand it looking back.

Stendhal said a novel is like a mirror carried along a road.

E. M. Forster said if we’re told the king died and then the queen, we call it a story. If the queen dies of grief, we call it a plot.

Einstein said physicists know past, present, and future are fictions but each is nonetheless convincing.

I say time is clothing, wearing it makes us part of humanity, saves us from isolation, spares us madness. Yet we never entirely, consciously or unconsciously, accept its imposition.


In police procedurals they sometimes ask suspects where they were at a certain time on a specific day. Anything but the most obvious dates would stymie me. I might be hopeless if the disputed moment were anything more than six months back.

If you could return to some arbitrary day, so much would surprise you, but most of it would likely be forgotten, what you might remember if you tried. The rest would be more interesting, parts your present makes visible, what you couldn’t see then.

Yet you won’t know more. You’ve lost your place and revisiting won’t restore it.

Some scholars say the Modernists Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot didn’t actually read all the literature they claimed to. One of the chief characteristics of Modernism is its free quotation of diverse sources and connectivity of thought we take for granted. Some of what Pound and Eliot cite from books comes from footnotes about those works in other works.

I read this revelation in a footnote to one of Eliot’s poems.

My relation to time is similar. Relying on what I’ve written is reading footnotes.

In the closet upstairs are a series of spirals I filled between 11 and 22. Though it’s been years since I opened them, I’m sure they’d seem familiar, so much so I’d think I remember when, actually, I’m selectively stealing that sensation. My journals have never been exact. Their reports contextualize, not define, and context is impossible to retrieve.


Someone asked me if I was close to my father, and I fumbled for an answer like I was pulling a kitchen tool from a neglected drawer. To find a tool, I need to remember some part of what it looks like. Clues come from recollected color or shape or context and, lacking those, I have so much to shift around and learn anew. It could be anywhere… and anything. I pause because I can’t remember what might tell me I’d found what I sought.

If any answer will do, I’ll say, “Yes,” but I’ll take longer to consider a response apart from this drawer. Time has it and who can extract it?


Consider how regular time is in passage and how variable in perception—try to hold it and it vaporizes, wish it vapor and it runs like sap arresting each moment by moment.

Time, it’s said, aligns like beads on a string, and you won’t have one instant apart from what precedes or follows it. Yet, a broken-stemmed flower, a glance averted to prepare for the next word, a bottle midair, the light touch of a finger on your elbow, laughter not including you, the wince of hulls brushing, a loose and forgiving smile, the sun hooded by storms… all sit sacrosanct on a shelf, memorials to isolation, attachment, and the eternity in memory.


I often attempt to remember my father’s voice, but he seems even more silent than in life. Perhaps I’m listening so hard I’ve silenced him then as well as now.


I knew I was late but arrived to find the event not underway but entirely over. No one I knew walked among those talking and laughing and streaming in the opposite direction discussing what just happened, something someone said or an amusing, remembered image.

You’d think I’d feel sorry or sad or chagrined to have missed what they experienced, but instead my invisibility seemed magical, as if I’d escaped time altogether, at last found a way outside it.

Then someone said, “David! Where were you? We waited, but—“


Time has no youth, no need to recollect. He stares forward, and if, as he moves, some trailing reverberation winds around to face him again, he takes it as new. It can’t be exact repetition if it’s before him, though it may seem familiar. To Time, the familiar is ever fresh and, therefore, ever the same. Time makes no distinctions. He babbles on.


As I child I sometimes played with disproportionate toys, a troll beside a green army man, and Barbie, tip-toe, smilingly towering over both, threatening to fall and bring chaos to every order I created.

These scenes rested on willful poise—a balancing spell—and fragile assumptions shored up their existence. Foreground and background, past and present, matter and imagination mixed in belief.


Filed under Aging, Desire, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Experiments, Identity, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Memory, Recollection, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Time, Writing

Again, What—Exactly—Am I Doing Here?

doughThe other night, I dreamt of baking or, more accurately, of trying to bake. My dough reached the awkward stage when it should have formed one mass and instead insisted on crumbling cliffs of loose chunks falling in landslides, the relentless earthquake of failure. I worked the mass with a spoon and with my hands, added water and oil and a number of dream ingredients like tubbed bouillon and lemon zest. Still—no bolus, no bread.

For any Freudians listening in, I know, I know.

Even without Freud, however, this dream seems pretty transparent. It’s about the creative process, about times (like this one) when the moment calls for collection and synthesis, and nothing will satisfy more than a combination of incongruities ending in miracles. That my dream dough doesn’t achieve bread says something big and speaks to questions my recent writing raises.

Most notably, what magic will transform parts into a being?

Some nights I swing between unconsciousness and nutty, irrational, aggregating thoughts. I can’t think where I am and can’t answer how many hours I’ve “slept.” The clock says “11:17,” then it says, “12:45,” later, “3:28.” I hate these numbers and remember them. And each feels, at the time, like revelation.

Somewhere in my dream of dough I thought of Gollums, creatures assembled of clay and enacted by rabbis. My Gollum didn’t speak or walk, didn’t blink. He gave no sign of cooperation in genesis or animation. He never was, and yet I summoned him as if he’d come.

That’s faith. Even unanswered, it persists. You’re sure something must happen, if only by accident, some combination of words will form a spell.

I used to be a prolific visual artist. Every week and weekend, I’d produce a new image. Most of it was abstract, improvisational, and surprising because it was unplanned. More serendipity than scheme, my paintings arose from some deep unconscious memory or impulse. Their yeast was self-assurance and confidence the next step would swell the stuff. It’d declare its own end. I knew—or thought I knew—an outcome would materialize.

What do you do if such assurance disappears?

There’s much to be said for ambling, overturning rocks in hopes of finding something interesting beneath. That said, I sometimes long for an assignment. I’d welcome the chance to receive direction in place of supplying it myself.

A professional writer might say, “Be careful what you wish for,” but conception is tiring.  Twice a week I need a subject that mustn’t be world-weariness. I count on inspiration. I count on novelty. I’m waiting for another voice to tell me to get going on the ark or to desist building this crazy tower to God.

Maybe every artist, on some level, desires direction. It’d be nice to feel moved, to find compulsions quite outside yourself. Yet muses rarely speak. You invoke them, invoke them again, and still they wait, looking for the perfect entry. You hope, in the end, to produce something and experience a glancing brush with inspiration, and to speak.

Whoever knows if you actually do.


Filed under Ambition, Anxiety, Art, Blogging, Doubt, Dreaming, Ego, Essays, Hope, Identity, Insomnia, Laments, life

Que sais-Je?: After Montaigne

008-Anonymous-17th century“I believe it to be true that dreams are the true interpreters of our inclinations; but there is art required to sort and understand them.”

“If my mind could gain a firm footing I would not write essays, I would make decisions.”

Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592)

The other night I dreamt I stood outside an unfamiliar room. We discussed going in—someone was with me, though I can’t remember whom—and he was all for it, ready to turn the knob and march on. But we didn’t. Instead, we kept whispering in the golden, lamp-lit lobby of the old hotel. The burgundy Persian rug, rich with patterned foliage too ornate to be untangled, oppressed me. The wood grain of dark, over-varnished paneling oppressed me. They say you can’t read in dreams, and that’s how looking around felt. My companion listened to my reluctance to intrude, my concerns about propriety, my fear of reprimand, my questions about purpose. We never entered.

Before you interpret this dream, let me try. Work will start again soon, and I’m worried about whether I’m ready to begin teaching again. My companion is my double. He reassures my apprehensive part. He’s rational. The rug and wood grain are the complexity of starting something new and yet familiar, not knowing where to—or knowing why or whether I want to—begin.

Over the last few weeks, it’s been unusually cool in Chicago. We’ve kept our windows open, and I’ve been listening to workers on breaks, to kids playing in the neighborhood, to dog walkers exchanging small talk about canine life. In almost every case, I’m envious. The rest of the world seems to feel abandon I seldom experience. It knows, or senses it knows, everything. It laughs freely, thinks of adjacent moments, and revels in light companionship. Meanwhile, my brooding imagination dwells on how different it is, sending it deeper into brooding.

Another part of me laughs at how absurd my worries are, can think of no reason not to chide me, and discounts doubts as wasting time that should be spent in action. That alter-ego means to cajole me, sometimes to shame me. Too bad neither side wins. I suspect I could be happy if either felt confident of its rectitude. The argument isn’t angry, but it goes on, and neither side seems purely convinced by its position.

When I was young, I sometimes lurked in my bedroom, rehearsing scenes I’d face. As I played both parts, my fantasies devolved into Mitty-esque displays of wit and charm, smooth grace and social aplomb. It didn’t take me long to understand even my worst improvisation surpassed my best performance. Speaking my intended lines felt like quoting. If I listened to myself talk, I heard a stranger who needed shushing.

The difference now is that I rehearse and don’t use the material.

Silly as it sounds, I want to blame society. Who can exist in our advertising era without living in gaps between what is and—according to absolute, invisible standards—ought to be. Yet, intellectualized consolation isn’t satisfying. When you hold yourself to higher ideals, you have a mirror before you. No one else matters. Your actions are your responsibility.

The most enjoyable moments I know are undoubled, and they’re rare. My education tells me the unexamined life isn’t worth living and self-consciousness—that’s what we’re discussing here—assures twice as much (and twice as profound) experience. I believe that. I only wish my stereoscopic view were more focused.

Without self-recrimination, I might act immediately. I might always be prepared because I lived between waves of experience, fielding one and bracing for another. There’d be so much less effort in compelling myself to get busy, so much less torture.

I undo surprise with seven layers of anticipation and eight layers of after-the-fact analysis. I want to open the door.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Anxiety, Art, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Michel de Montaigne, Modern Life, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Worry



Stalingrad at the end of World War II

Another 20 minute fiction… So grim. What does it say that such stories surface in me?

How strange the day after surrender—the city still ruined, the same deprivation, the smoke, the ash, the puddles darker than the sky. So what changes? I’ve slept, that’s all.

And I dreamed. A convoy of vehicles came down the block, each panting hefty clouds of exhaust, and, hanging from every possible perch, was everyone I knew gone. The neighbor’s son beamed with the smile of a saint, and his father, who died just a week and a half ago with a gun in his mouth, watched him with sheepish regret. In my dreams, I’m the one missing and so I wasn’t there, but I believed myself, somehow, like the place itself, space that never changes no matter what happens in it.

I don’t know what to feel but that may be how I feel. Surviving isn’t the burden I expected. It’s invisibility. Some stream of time sweeps by you, and you’re a rock that parted it. What came together before you split around you and rejoined a little farther on.

Early in the war, every breeze of news lifted us. We didn’t just expect to triumph but thought a new order would rearrange the world. Our beloved state would be a great civic garden of monuments and blossoms. We wasted a good deal of colored paper, lost precious energy in dancing, marching, and shouting.

Old-timers knew to begin secreting supplies and heard our pleas long before we made them. Later, they shut their eyes and wagged their heads. Some wanted to help, but all blamed us. They would rather have slept. We were sorry to rob them. They were regret we wished to silence, and now I wonder if all they hoarded was our shame.

This morning the street is not as empty. People scour the remnants of kitchens, stores, and factories for anything that might sustain them—surrender won’t feed us—but those spots are worn bare. No one missed anything. We have taken it all, witnessed it all, the noisy fires and teetering crumble of cement and tangled skeletons of houses and flesh smells.

You want to forget, want to remember. Another morning and another after that might let amnesia creep in and then all will seem morning again, all promise and light. How do you sustain a nightmare when the only cure is waking?

I’d like to see something beautiful today—would like to make something beautiful—but no raw material remains to create it. And my mind, empty of nearly every face once floating through, lives only because it insists.

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Filed under Aging, Allegory, Ambition, Doubt, Dreaming, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, Jeremiads, Kafka, Laments, Memory, Metaphor, Parables, Place, Prose Poems, Sturm und Drang, Survival, Thoughts, Voice, Worry

Exercise #87

il_fullxfull.257143996This exercise may be less about the task and more about the workings of a nocturnal brain.

A crown of sonnets or sonnet corona is a sequence of sonnets, usually addressed to one person, and/or concerned with a single theme. Each of the sonnets explores one aspect of the theme, and is linked to the preceding and succeeding sonnets by repeating the final line of the preceding sonnet as its first line. The first line of the first sonnet is repeated as the final line of the final sonnet, thereby bringing the sequence to a close. An advanced form of crown of sonnets is also called a sonnet redoublé or heroic crown, comprising fifteen sonnets, in which the final binding sonnet is made up of all the first lines of the preceding fourteen, in order.

Write a “heroic crown” of sentences using the definition above, substituting words for lines.

1. New nights bring new angles of moon and darkness, and—between sleeping and waking—black and glowing shadows attack and retreat like great fronts of weather.

2. Weather penetrates even dreams, rain pouring so suddenly it soaks my clothes, and the loss of comfort shocks.

3. Shocks like these stir in a mind like a muddy field already filled with loose roots of leaning, menacing trees.

4. Trees loom when the dreaming brain can find nothing to turn them into.

5. Into empty hours come worries budding.

6. Budding and building and knotting, fears proliferate in brain soil like planted eyes.

7. I don’t know if a promise to face them in waking hours is anything more than another wish.

8. Wish the rain would stop, wish I might, into sodden hours, bring sun.

9. Sun might do more than hopes could.

10. Could I control my thoughts, write a forecast my brain could then enact, what a difference that would make.

11. Make another metaphor and I create more fabrication… another trouble of mine.

12. My inventions lie deep in my nature.

13. Nature in the outside world happens without care or compulsion, saying endlessly, “ It’s as simple as….”

14. As the planet makes its required revolution, so the world becomes new.

15. New weather shocks trees into budding—I wish sun could make my nature as new.


Filed under Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Insomnia, Laments, life, Lyn Hejinian, Meditations, Play, Prose Poems, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

Then Again

revision_logo_smallLately my dreams cut and re-cut fabric until, if it were assembled, it’d barely fit a doll.

Here’s a dream: I’m drawing a truck on commission. My unknown patron makes peculiar requests. I’m to use a certain sort of marker and a certain sort of paper, to work under a certain lamp, and to make marks of certain character and quality. Yet every pen touch is wrong. To correct them, I extend lines or bend them or double them or cross them with other lines or reverse the page to use the shadows bleeding through.

I can’t see the image in my dream, but it isn’t a truck because the drawing erupts like mad cancer, budding, growing, budding, and growing again.

Finally, I get up to read on the couch.

I also form a question for my patron, reworded twenty times: “Is anything un-revisable?”

In the waking world, so much seems so. Bullets don’t return to guns. Physics carries bodies on dire headings. Our responses, however, morph endlessly. We want tragedies to change our thinking but can’t agree on what the tragedies mean. After a moment’s fact, we have only implications.

The other day The Chicago Tribune included the story of a woman who died when she fell down the trash chute of her high rise—17 floors—and wasn’t discovered until a day later. When my wife encountered the story, she asked, “How does a person fit in a trash chute?” and my daughter asked, “How did she fall in?” and I said, “Can you imagine the agony of trying to explain it?” No one was there, and a story—reimagined, revised—replaces truth.

And here I am, using the story myself.

I’m really asking what we can leave alone. One of my son’s lower school art teachers used to say, “There are no mistakes in art, only opportunities.” Her approach suited a nine-year old whose creative train derailed at the lightest breeze, but I’m not sure how deeply her advice penetrated. Once, cleaning out a closet, I found a sketchbook he’d nearly filled with starts—ovals, boxes, the hind legs of headless beasts, and houses that fell before they stood. Many he’d abandoned with angry waves of his pen snaking through what lay beneath.

Teaching revision, I stress the word “re-vision” as a way to urge more than editing. “To really re-envision work,” I say, “pay attention to the possibilities individual comments create for changes elsewhere. Every essay is infinitely perfect-able.”

But I don’t work that way. I adjust, adding and subtracting until I’m finished or abandon the attempt. If grooming prose doesn’t find the answer, there is none. Expedience wins, what suffices. Other writers describe poems, stories, or essays reaching the form they wanted. I’ve had a glimmer of that feeling but distrust it—isn’t that just the rapture I desperately desire?

Here’s another dream: Cards litter a room. Each is white on one side. Stripes of various colors and widths appear on the other side. I’m sure I’m meant to match similar cards, so I wade in, trying to find a card exactly like the one I hold. When I can’t, I pick up a new card, and, unable to match that… you get the idea.

One of my graduate school teachers touted “radical revision.” She made me read essays from the last paragraph to the first to uncover what was misplaced. She instructed me to put my essay in a drawer and try to rewrite it from memory to find, “what ought to stick.” She bisected pages with commands to rearrange them any other way.

These exercises, she said, train intention, revealing reasons behind composition and establishing conscious control over the otherwise accidental. I didn’t enjoy being radical. Words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages became furniture. I bruised my shin on a sudden coffee table or tumbled, unbalanced, into a shattered lamp. When anything can go anywhere—or not go at all—something is always in the way.

I told a friend about my dreams, and she said I might be doodling or writing too much. Fixing and re-fixing can’t be good for a brain. Your mind trips into a sixties-style reverb where the frame of things disjoints, then pulsates. Echoes echo on themselves.

Who wouldn’t mind a steadier camera and crisper fidelity, but has that human age passed? A world of possibilities offers no end to revision, and no end to revision offers little relief.

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On Resting

6a00d8341c595453ef010536b12fe0970b-320wiThe frontier between wakefulness and sleep is a demilitarized zone planted with bulbs and landmines. It’s where silly thoughts arise—a casting agency for dreams, methods of organizing sound effects, plans to market masks of people’s younger faces—placed next to all things horrifying. One of three nights, I suffer potential illnesses and accidents followed by unreeling deliberations about how to survive the end of the world.

I either drift into unconsciousness or take a u-turn, embracing gentle senselessness or fighting cold sweats. Sleep has never been easy for me, and sometimes I concentrate on images—one picture leading to another and another—and gingerly celebrate when an arational association suggests utter darkness ahead. When I fail, a shovel swings, and one dire possibility outdoes the last. I dig deeper until I achieve hyper-consciousness, staring up at the still bright sky from a trap I’ve made myself.

Stephen Wright used to joke: “People ask, ‘How did you sleep?’ I answer ‘I made a couple of mistakes’.”

The other night, I started thinking about my son’s spring break road trip and tried to settle all my questions about medical care in faraway states and the various ways to reach him quickly if he needed us. I finally fell asleep when I considered how difficult it might be to travel with penguins.

There is, in all this wavering between worry and fantasy, a larger observation about how we humans operate. The mind has its own agenda and carries us directions we don’t control. Were I an inventor or one of those exceptionally creative types who turn accidents into opportunities, were I sure each random thought offered limitless potential, I might be glad, but mostly I want rest, relief from ambition and aspiration and promise.

A rear-guard reaction comes with every hope—“This will work if…” or “What we need to pay attention to is…” I wish I might put everything aside and live. It’s an unpopular perspective to offer in a society obsessed with what wonderfulness awaits us, but I’m not sure what our “progress” has wrought. Have you ever considered humanity without a fixation on the future? What dreams do plants or other animals have? What rest—offered to every other organism—eludes us? Are we superior or tragic, endowed by our creator with special powers or damned by our minds and our pride in our intelligence and get-up-and-go?

These questions may revisit me tonight. If they do, my only real defense will be slipping past them and into random, spontaneous, and unplanned whimsy. Another moment may bring something new, and, if it’s a splash of the surreal, something visited upon me rather than constructed with my all-powerful, all-anxious human brain, perhaps I’ll delight in it. Perhaps I’ll be. Perhaps I’ll rest, assured a place after all, a role in the world that isn’t running it.

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