Lately, I’ve been having been have bad dreams. I am not the only one. Mine aren’t all that interesting, but I’m interested in how so many of us seem to be having them. They aren’t necessarily about the political moment but they probably aren’t disconnected from it either.
Sometimes, lately, I’m just scared. I mean, I find a lot of courage and balm-for-the-heart-and-soul in all of the resistance and in the knowledge that this resistance is working. But, just for a moment here and there, I’m also scared. There is no real reason except for, oh, you know, all the reasons.
It feels sometimes like there are no grown ups around. Even though I’m a real grown up (that’s what I keep telling myself), it’s hard to shake the flash of vulnerability that these bad dreams open up. As Aparna Tarc writes in her beautiful essay on the nightmares of a Fatima, a Syrian child who witnessed so much horror, "A Child is Dreaming": “ we all were once children with nightmares, we may still be too close to the violent truth of feeling vulnerable at the mercy of grownups in charge of a big scary world.”
This disquiet, this vulnerability, reminded me of the dreams of terror that Charlotte Beradt collected, with considerable difficulty, in Germany between 1933 and 1939. I found myself rereading them last week. These are the dreams of ordinary people who knew that something bad was happening even if they couldn’t quite pin down what that bad thing might be. This structure of anticipatory knowledge, of knowing before knowing, strikes me as something to hang onto in a time when things can feel really scary really fast.
And when things happen so fast, it’s hard to hang on to the small moments where something bubbles up, reveals itself to us, especially when they don’t feel that great. I’m not a fan of waking up from a bad dream and staying with all those bad feelings. But maybe we can recognize that this disquiet is also a kind of knowledge. As Sharon Sliwinski so brilliantly recognizes in Mandela’s Dark Years: A Political Theory of Dreaming: “Dream-life is one of the key points of contact with this unconscious knowledge that each of us carries but does not quite possess.” Sliwinski’s distinction between possessing and carrying knowledge is important here. There are some things that we know and we know them because we will carry them, maybe only for a while, but we don’t have to keep them. Possession is its own kind of entrapment. We don’t have to fall in. We might just need to hold on for a bit.
Hold on and also remember that there are other dreams too. I had been driven to reread the Beradt dreams of terror because I wanted to remember that one is not alone in one’s bad dreams. Then I remembered that there was another great collection of dreams out there that connect, albeit obliquely, to this moment. During the 2008 US Democratic Primaries, Sheila Heti collected “real dreams that people have had about Hillary Clinton.” I reread a bunch of these too and remembered how funny and charming this project was back then and thought about how strange it was to read them now. It is tempting to fall into nostalgia, to feel as though these dreams captured another, sunnier, time. But we all know better than to think that the past is ever really just about the past. I don’t have a grand theory about the dreams Heti collected but I do know that they helped me remember that not all dreams are bad. I know that seems obvious. But, when you’re scared, even the obvious can seem stupidly out of reach.
Waking up from a bad dream is one of the loneliest things I’ve ever known. And then I lie there in the dark and remember that we are all dreaming and it is not all bad.