Click. My mind had taken a picture. Out of the continuous stream of images and sounds and thoughts, that one instant was recorded. And, after thirty-five years, it remains.
It was winter in Cincinnati. A small group of us were on our way to lunch somewhere. The driver had just bought a new Thunderbird, and we were helping him enjoy it. I sat next to him, and two others were in the (rather cramped) back seat. (Expensive or not, Ford didnít make a better car in 1958 out of the perky little Thunderbird. Anyway . . .) There was a lively conversation going on, mostly about the new car, and I had turned to see those in the back seat and to participate in the conversation. In the opposite corner of the lush cabin sat a woman wrapped in an elegant coat, its fur collar high on her cheek and almost blending with her light brown hair. Next to her was a small window, a trademark shape for the ostentatious automobile.
That picture could have graced the inside front cover of Atlantic Monthly, an advertisement for luxury, status, beauty and well-being. Immediately after the "click" of the picture, something in the center of my body moved, ever-so-slightly.
Lately, Iíve been experiencing my dreams more vividly, for some reason. Perhaps itís due to a change in my sleeping pattern, and that is probably because of a recent change in the medications I take. Iíve read that if one wakes up during a period of REM sleep, or immediately thereafter, one remembers oneís dreams more clearly. At times in the past, Iíve wondered if maybe I wasnít dreaming at night, for I couldnít remember any at all. I understand that isnít likely. My recent rash of dreams hasnít been particularly troublesome, merely strange. Usually, I think about them for a few minutes before getting out of bed or turning over and going back to sleep. The mind is a wondrous piece of work. I wonder how it came to be.
The longer I think about a dream, the more I can remember of it later. I remember dreams I had at about four years of age, dreams of terror, of being chased by bulls or trucks. Freudian symbolism, without a doubt. Then, just before puberty, I had frequent, awful dreams of drowning, until one summer when I learned to swim. After that, when I dreamed I was under water, I found I could breathe a little if I kept my head close to my chest. I remember all those, but today a minute after waking from a dream, it disappears like vapor unless I think about it for a while.
Neuropsychologists say that perceptions arise in our awareness through several different channels. When we look at an object, for example, the shape is routed to one part of the brain to be compared with memory images of similar shapes. The color goes in a different direction for comparison, and any movement of the object to still another place All these comparisons are made separately, and then combined again in the frontal lobes, where we become conscious of "thatís my dog, Tasha." We remember things in a similar fashion, when something in our environment triggers this process. So when we see something, many times we also remember having seen it before. Thatís what is meant by recognition. Or we may remember only some aspect of it, or something similar.
Emotion is another aspect of perception. When my heart fluttered that little bit thirty-five years ago, along with the visual image there was an emotional sensing that became stored in my memory banks somewhere. And when today I see that distinctive little Thunderbird window in a passing car, something once more moves inside me. When I see a bull in a pasture, even though my mind acknowledges that there is no danger, I feel a tiny tug in my gut. When I awaken from a frightening dream, the last thing that fades away is the feeling. I may wake up after a dream with nothing remaining but the feeling, and wonder where it has come from.
I may witness the brief flash of a scene on television, a close-up of hair or fur brushing a cheek, and find myself feeling something like what I felt in that car so long ago, even if I donít remember the incident at all. Even if Iím not conscious of the television image itself, flicking by while the story unfolds. Iím left with a vague feeling that seems to come from nowhere, irrelevant in my life as it is now.
Something like that actually happened the other evening. I was watching a drama on television, and when it was over I felt very sadógrieving, almostóand I had no idea why. Oh, yes, the drama included a tragic situation where a character revealed that she was dying but didnít want others to know. That doesnít remind me, exactly, of anything in my life. Iíve had losses, like everybody else, and once I came close to death myself in an operating room. None of those things, now recalled, arouse the feeling I had after that television program. And now the feeling is gone. I remember only that I had it. I canít bring it back the way I might recall bits of the program that triggered it.
Earlier that same day, I had discovered something quite troubling. Some expectation I had was shattered by a new development, and I felt a sudden lossó perhaps a loss of certainty. Perhaps another one of those "learning experiences" we all know. But then I went on with my day, and the feeling passed. By evening, I had forgotten it.
After the program ended, I knew only that I was moved by sadness. It was the night before garbage pickup on our street, so I lugged the cans through the cold out to the curb, wondering why I was in such distress over a TV program. The physical activity seemed to loosen something else, something like anger. That was mysterious enough that I started up my computer and opened a journal file. It took about fifteen minutes of writing for me to put it all together. The "loss" from earlier in the day may have been thoroughly repressed, but the emotion lay just beneath the surface of my consciousness.
Once I was aware of the connection, I sat down with Judith to discuss our "development." With the air cleared about that, my mood eased.
Itís the mystery of emotions that give them such power over us. The mystery and the awe. In psychotherapy, the aim is often to lift those nameless, faceless emotions out of the murk of our minds so that we can get a more realistic measure of them. A personal example: The panic I used to feel when jealousy crept into my life was really a fear of abandonment. As an adult, reduced to helplessness by the terror of a three-year-old, I simply couldnít understand what was happening to me. The genesis of my fear was lost because I couldnít remember any related situation in my childhood, only this awful dread. Talking with relatives gave me some clues, but no, there was no actuality in my history, nor even a threat, of being abandoned. More likely it was a misinterpretation of events, or perhaps some teasing by an older sibling or friend that created my terror. It doesnít matter now, because Iím not at its mercy any more. I might feel itóthe emotional vulnerability is still thereóbut I can now recognize it for the bad dream it was, and then it dissipates rather quickly.
I suspect that everyoneís life is as riddled as mine with the seeds of suffering. The emotional memories that are no longer linked to events, events that we long ago forgot or forgave or finally understoodóthose are the demons of our dreams. They reveal themselves in the little clutch in the midsection, or the far-fetched fears of imagination. They are also the sensation in the throat while we sit in a dark auditorium watching shadows on the screen pretending to be us.
And just as likely, they are the faint tremble in the groin when a bit of fur brushes lightly across a cheek. They donít really "mean" anything more than that we are each a feast of memories, a fantastic garden of emotional scents and colors. Thatís why we read novels and watch movies. Those give us the opportunity to taste ourselves again, over and over. Those allow us to experience again feelings we once knew, without the complications of living our lives over again. Those give us new contexts for our tingles.
And so do our dreams. A dream is but a smorgasbord of memories, thoughts and images and emotions dredged up from the dark places in our minds, related by the flimsiest of connections, assembled into fantastic, multidimensional collages without limitations of reason or reality.
And yet . . .
Itís tempting to believe that thereís an intelligence behind the scenes, a sense of humor that smiles at our very seriousness. I wonder, sometimes, about my conviction that "I" end at the surface of my skin. Who is it that takes those pictures? Who runs the slide show of memories, deftly calling my attention to similarities and contrasts between this feeling and that one? Who reminds me, in my agonies, that Iíve been here before?
Donald Skiff, January 20, 2003