… what’s common among my diverse nightmares – and I’ve come to understand that this is different from the way many people dream – is that they follow a classic narrative arc: beginning, middle, dénouement. They have resolution. My nightmares, over the years, have become my own private library of stories, with a roster of favourites that I return to in my waking thoughts from time to time, to see how well they’ve held up or whether I might be able to coax some new meaning out of them. I’ve come to treasure this secret storehouse of anxieties and disturbances. For nightmares, not unlike works of literature or indeed any art, are an investigation into the deepest,most primary forces that drive us. Not only that, but they even conform to one of the classic theories of literature: the defamiliarization of the familiar. Like ghost stories or Greek tragedies, nightmares allow us to confront our fears from a safe distance, and the catharsis that results is as powerful as any that I’ve experienced through literature. It seems no accident that the same word, ‘haunting’, is used for both nightmares and particularly affecting works of art. And so I’ve come to see my nightmares as less a burden than a gift, a private theatre for the safe staging of my personal melodramas, where the bombs detonated during the night won’t shatter the peace of my waking life.
I’ve watched my children closely for signs of nightmares. My son, at age four, is a sound sleeper who rarely articulates his dreams. (Men are said to experience fewer nightmares than women.) But not long ago my little girl awoke during the night with a shriek unlike any I’d ever heard from her. I ran to her crib and found her sobbing.
‘Did something happen?’ I asked, and she nodded.
She took a shuddering breath. ‘Lion take me,’ she said.
I rocked her, trying to imagine what she might have seen. The sleeping lions at the zoo she had visited that day, risen up, claws bared, to grab the toddler watching from above? The lion night light in her room, transformed by some trick of shadow or imagination into a live, frothing beast? ‘To dream of a lion,’ Gustavus Miller tells us with his typical combination of absurdity and gravitas, ‘signifies that a great force is driving you’ – a statement at which every parent of a two-year-old will nod knowingly. As she drowsed back to sleep, I imagined that lion standing at the gatepost of her own personal mythology, guarding the gulf that separates reality and imagination, and perhaps someday extending its paw to help her across.
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