Recurring Dreams – T. Michael Roberts

Some of my dreams recur. This recurrence is not random but linked to events in my life at a given period of time. I will not have a particular dream for years and then this dream will recur. The recurrence is not always exact but individual iterations are always close enough to all the others that it makes sense to me to see them as versions of the same dream. They differ in exactly the way that one’s impression of a film might differ if one watched it again a significant period of time after the initial viewing. One of my dreams this week was a recurrence.

I earned an MA in English at the university of Alabama-Birmingham in the early 1980s. The degree was actually in creative writing and my specialty within the program was poetry. During that time, I lived in an efficiency apartment so close to the UAB building where all of my classes where held that I could see that building from my tiny apartment. I worked at the time selling office supplies nation-wide over the phone for a company called West Brothers. The phone room I called from was also within walking distance of my apartment, as was everything else I needed. I called from a list of established customers to ask them which supplies they had used up since last I called.

Describing what I did as “selling” was actually a bit of an over-statement. Turn-over was high because many people found the job painfully boring. I never did. 30 hours a week was considered full-time for this kind of work at the time. I fit two three-hour shifts M-F into my life without stress. I read, wrote poetry and made enough during those 30 hours to pay my very low rent, buy food and have everything I really needed. I’m describing the least stressful time in my life and the happiest. I did something not unpleasant for 30 hours a week so that I could live a life built around reading and writing.

I was a poet and I was not starving. Later, when my life had become very stressful and very full of uncertainty and anxiety, I started having a dream about being in my old apartment in Birmingham. Nothing happens in the dream. I am just there floating disembodied through an apartment that is still empty of furniture, as if waiting for me to come back to a place and a life that I wondered away from in search of things I never needed, as if it were easy and logical to go back, after a wild goose chase lasting years or even decades, to the place that felt more like my place than anyplace ever had before or has since.

I am so easily able to link these recurring dreams to issues that become highly salient in my life for a time and then recede that one of the many theories of the psychological function served by dreams put forward by psychology feels obvious and true in relation to these recurring dreams at least, though I am not sure that this explanation fits all my dreams. These dreams recur when a pattern I can recognize from my past repeats as an episode or set of circumstances in the present. The recurrence probably serves to fit current experience into the thematic filing system (memory) created by previous experience while, at the same time, altering this thematic filing system in subtle ways necessary to the accommodation of unique aspects of my current reality.

This would mean that these recurring dreams are triggered when a current experience or life-situation fits into a thematic pattern created by earlier experiences but not exactly, as when a current life situation can best be interpreted in light of these previous experiences but also presents the opportunity to learn something new that alters one’s basic orientation to experiences of this kind. The recurrent aspects of the dream are the past as context. The dream recurs when something new is learned that calls for the editing and revision of the thematic pattern itself as an interpretive context determining the felt significance of a current episode or situation that fits the pattern. This process deconstructs and reconstructs the remembered past in light of insights newly gained through current experience in ways that will alter the way future experiences of this type are felt when current and when remembered after the fact.

The surface content of the dream is what recurs. The latent content or felt significance of the dream changes with each recurrence. I would almost want to say that the dream recurs when the latent content or felt significance needs to shift to accommodate something current that drives a revision of past episodes which fit that pattern. The recurrence of this dream at this time in my life surprised me at first. The feel and texture of my life at present is as close to what it felt like to be living the life I enjoyed in that apartment as anything I’ve experienced since. This dream typically recurs not when one profoundly negative event occurs but when the routine stress of one ordinary day after another after another adds up to enough stress to make just another day like any other distressful enough that I have to numb out a little to keep plodding along. That is anything but my situation at present. I miss deadlines only because I am involved in too many projects all at once because I want to be and can’t bear to give anything up.

I think I understand why this dream needed to recur now in terms of a shift in the felt significance of the dream. The dream feels more peaceful now and less haunted by nostalgic longing. When I lived in that apartment, I was always preparing myself for something that was not yet, getting ready for things that would happen later and hoping to look back at where I was and who I was then as a humble beginning. I could never have imagined that I would ever want to go no further than back to that humble beginning where I had very little, only everything I ever really needed. I am at home again, and I know it this time. I never grew up or even decided for keeps what I wanted to be when I grew up. I only realized that today recurs like a dream until one day it does not, and that someday never comes.

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