Thursday, February 11, 2010

Writing is Nothing More Than a Guided Dream

“You will never be more than a mediocre poet, but with those ears you could be successful clown.” —advice remembered from a dream.

It isn’t a good idea to tell people what you dreamt last night. Dreams, after all, are designed for a very specific audience and tend to lose something in the retelling. It is hard to resist the temptation to make things make more sense than they actually do. The same thing can be said of life in general. There are a few people who can tell great stories, but way too many people try.

But Marvin could tell really good stories about his dreams. He was bony and intense, and stalked through the library like a heron in crepe shoes and a sweater vest. One day he told me his favorite dream: He had sneaked into a house in the dark—and it was not just any house, although it didn’t seem that special—it was Frank Sinatra’s house.

I realize that it may not be such a great story to you. You may not be the audience for it. But I most certainly was, because my favorite dreams for a long time were of wandering into houses where the kitchen lights were on and there were peas in a pan on the stove and nobody was home, not even a cat. I could just look and look and see how people lived.

Where do those ideas come from? The ideas we use for dreams?

I’m sure Marvin would have had a well-reasoned opinion about this matter. He always had well-reasoned opinions. His opinions were based on life experience; he had the advantage of living widely and long. Take, for example, hallucinations. Marvin had become a father rather suddenly when he married a woman who had three children. Up to that point he hadn’t had much to do with children. Many people don’t.

He was no shirker, though, so he took the duty of sudden-fatherhood as seriously as he took his stint in Korea or his painting, and he was a brilliant painter. Left alone with a sick child he had no idea what to expect. So when a tiny daughter began wandering the house bright-eyed with fever and obviously hallucinating, he sized up the situation and told her to brush her teeth. She did, and went straight back to bed after, cured.

A prescription for hallucinations...

I only wish I had known what to do when I was plagued by fever myself as a child and spent a restless night trying, and failing, to rid my bed of the platypuses that kept creeping out from under the flowers on my quilt. My own children have managed to avoid fever dreams thus far, but if a hallucinating child should present itself in my life, I will immediately order tooth brushing. There is no arguing with success. I trust you to rely on this should you encounter a feverish child.

I’m surprised, actually, that Marvin didn’t tell me to brush my teeth, back then. If anything, he fed my fever. Once he brought a little cardboard box to the library. Inside there were two things: a rough little ceramic figure from a Korean grave and the dried head of a trout.* Trout have enormous teeth, usually hid by their watery flesh. The head of a large trout, stripped from the fish and nailed to a board in the sun loses all of that and becomes a set of staring teeth. He wanted me to see those things. I'm grateful that he did. 

* Notice this trout. When I worked in the library, the better part of my coworkers were supporting a serious art-making habit and were so devoted to fly fishing they could hardly bear to strip off their neopryne waders to work the front desk. At Christmas, there was a tree in the library lobby decorated—a little haphazardly but under the guiding eye of the mailroom guy who was an expert at origami and a visual artist—with things brought from home. Mailroomguyhimself brought a rubber trout, large; he jammed the open mouth down over the top of the tree. From on high, it watched us with its rubber eye as the slow holiday hours streamed along. That trout has more to say in the future. The trout illustration at the top of this post is by Ken Bova, library coworker, fly fisherman, and jewelist. The background is a digital canvas the photographer failed to sign. 
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