This morning I met a 3-year-old and her little brother in the dentist’s office waiting room. In no time at all I went from perfect stranger to trusted confidant. I said “Hello” and the girl said “I’m Rapunzel.”
She had a slightly spooky way about her: her eyes swam constantly around eye contact with me, rolling in her cute rolling head, and she spent a healthy portion of our little talk slowly spinning. The story she told would’ve been pretty hard to follow anyway. It involved a being named (alternately) Tinkle or Twinkle, and something about bedtime and the night, and she said “wintuhs” a lot. Her little brother didn’t seem to know what to make of it either—or of me. He sat in a tiger chair everybody else wanted to sit in, glanced at me coyly, walked around a little table a few times, then flashed me a look at the card he was holding with a picture of a green animal-like blob on it.
“What’s that?” I asked. He was really proud of it, but this question vexed him.
“Osaur,” he finally managed.
“Dinosaur,” his mom corrected happily. She’d been sitting opposite me filling out health forms, grateful I think for the assist. (“Do you have kids?” she’d asked earlier, smiling and nodding expectantly. My shake of the head aborted whatever exchange would’ve followed a positive response, like it always does… “Nephews and a niece,” I said, immediately second-guessing my honesty. For, reader, I confess: I want sometimes to spy into that moment, to feel the juice of that umbilical tether.
A nice man in a puffy Mets jacket recently sat down at the bar of my coffee shop and had a bagel with lox. Recent transplant from the Island. I said to him, “So, the Mets,” and he took on a philosophical air: “Whata you gonna do.” Instant cultural commerce between strangers. [Let us carve the new wood, said the young poet to the old poet, Let there be commerce between us.] No one sportsy is unfamiliar with this sensation. I imagine something similar links the victims of the white patriarchy in moments of white patriarchal egregiousness: pulses of empathy throbbed across the synaptic gulfs between people otherwise unknown to each other, instants of engagement—as fleeting as a Facebook scroll’s—in which a person is a picture worth a thousand words, never mind the authorship.
But I get away from myself. My point is: she asks, I lie, say “Just had our first” or “Two of the little devils” or whatever, what nutso parental emotion rays would she’ve beamed back my way? I imagine it’s a cross between the connection people make with strangers witnessing something wild together—the uncorked-ecstatic Can you believe this shit? you might get at shows or ballgames [which really do lead people to high-five perfect strangers], but sleepier—and that between veterans of wars, who need merely confirm that another had been there to achieve a grim transcendent understanding language could only have approximated.
I imagine it’s like that, ’cause that’s all I can do. The childless do not spark conversations across waiting rooms devoid of children by saying, “Hey, you childless?”)
At some point I said to the mom, “It’s like they’re talking in their sleep,” and she did the puppet-with-her-hand-that-jabbers-and-jabbers-and-jabbers. But the more I thought about it, the more apt an analogy it became.
Not for all intents and purposes, but for a lot of them, childhood is a dream. Think about it! The dreamstate of being a kid, the dreamy babbling. Remembering your childhood: the inability to vividly recall, the pieces that float up into your waking adult days, tripped by some random adjacency… The faces we recall might have the wrong names and vice versa. And consider how dreamlike a child’s days must be! “A nice stranger struck up a conversation with us in a room where grownups wait. My sister spun and talked to him about Twinkle and wintuhs. I showed him my dinosaur and then attacked a sofa at a running start. Plowed into it headfirst. Why not? My chair was a tiger.”
Dreaming then can be understood as a dip back into childhood, where we are always surrounded by strangers yet somehow at the same time safe under a veil of normalcy. (Except for moments of cold panic, of course, which in our dreams we are as like as not to experience for bizarre reasons. Similarly, kids are lousy threat assessors, charmed by fire and completely losing their shit if made to look at a piece of fruit, say.)
A dream is the mind playing when the body is at its most helpless: a nightly state of childhood. My sister spun, I ran growling into a sofa, mom all the while filling out paperwork FOREVER….
I read this to A. and she says “It makes you think, are we looking for chaos?” “When?” I ask. “When we dream,” she says, “I mean when was the last time you had a boring dream? I go to bed all the time thinking: Geez, can I just go grocery shopping or something? Instead of being—I don’t know—raped by an alligator? But no.”
Even kids as kids aren’t very good at remembering things. Their brains are plastic, and sieves, and a gigantic impossibly alien world is pouring through them at all times. Where did I put that toy I was playing with eleven seconds ago? Where is the thing that I am looking at right now—right this second—this thing that I am literally describing right this second and looking at and not seeing? Where is it?
“It’s right there, dude.”
Maybe childhood invents dreaming, and that’s why we’re often so silly, oblivious and incapable in our dreams.
My first memory of a dream is waking up from a nightmare of a lion chasing me. I walked into my parents’ room and woke up my mom. She told me to go back to sleep and tell the lion to leave me alone. It worked! Maybe I remember it because it was the first time adult behavior influenced my dream. The boy in the dream had agency and fortitude. He’d learned from his elders. Maybe this was part of the waking-up process—which is analogous to getting older. Eventually we awaken even in our dreams.
(Awaken… What a word. Lord of mind. Light of days. “To spring into being, arise, originate…”
Believing it an effective form of self-hypnosis, etching words into the grapefruit of my brains, “saying” them in my head, I pray most nights. Mostly I pray for good dreams: entertaining, charming, frivolous, bright, funny, quirky, so on. Indie movies Greg Kinnear would star in. I pray for A.’s, too, since she’s for as long as I’ve known her been more or less terrorized by dreams at least a couple times a week. It works for me pretty well. Better at any rate than does praying for random pots of money or a miraculously single chin.)
As kids, the only domain we’re ever truly masters of is that of our dreams. If our eyes are open, someone else is in charge; if closed: free as the wind! For argument’s sake, consider Merlin, who as everybody knows was born in the extremity of his old age and then walked backwards through time. Informed already by a lifetime’s worth of vocabulary, experience and knowledge, Merlin would’ve cultivated a unique dreamlife actually impossible for the nonfictional person to imagine. But let’s give it a shot:
They’d be pretty much like real life, if flavored with a certain tang of senescence. Maybe random pains and forgetfulness would replace falling and unplanned nudity as dominant themes. Instead of flying, just getting around OK on your feet. But the idea of “dream logic” as a thing contrary to waking logic wouldn’t exist for Merlin. Forged in the set schema of an established mind, his dreams wouldn’t add much spice to his life. They’d be like watching a sequel of his day every night, instead of tuning in to a broadcast from a parallel but goofy universe. Merlin, we can be assured, dreamt of grocery shopping.
Which all suggests that as children we’re constructing a kind of time machine we’ll then inflict on our adult selves for the rest of their lives. As if to say:
You, you who just laid awake absorbed for some precious minutes of your life churning through your ever-updated itinerary of fears, you who’ve ranged so widely beyond your early limits that you like to think you’re only a distant relative of that helpless little guy who didn’t know shit from Shinola—yeah, when you sleep? That’s my house.