Your Old Men Shall Dream Dreams

The Bible tells us (in both the Old and New Testaments) that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.”  God says it through his prophet Joel (Joel 2:28) in a vision of those “last days” when Israel shall be forgiven and restored.  The Apostle Peter quotes it (Acts 2:17) when questioned about why Christians are speaking in tongues and filled with the holy spirit, suggesting that these are the “last days” predicted in the Book of Joel.  In any case, it is interesting that it is the old who will dream, and the young who will see visions. 

It has been an accepted phenomenon that the elderly dream  less than the young, although this is usually measured in “dream recall” – meaning that  (possibly) the old might dream as much but recall less than they used to.  The major drop-off appears to be in middle age.  Recent research also shows that young adults pay more attention to their dreams than older people.  Time and time again it has been shown that when attention is paid to dreams, they start getting remembered more often.  I have to say for myself, that since I started researching this topic, I have remembered more dreams.  In fact, for months before this, I would have said that I remembered no dreams at all, although I often woke with the unsettled feeling that I had been having a “bad” dream.

When my mother was in the mid-level grip of dementia, I was convinced that she was having trouble telling the difference between dreams and reality.  She would call me early in the morning with tales of boys who visited her apartment in the middle of the night and wreaked havoc in her kitchen.  Or she would go into great detail about a boat trip she had gone on where the boat got marooned for hours.  The first time that happened, I called her assisted living center to see if such a trip had happened – the center was on the side of a small lake – but, of course, the trip was a figment of my mother’s imagination.  Or, more likely, it was a dream.

There is actually a term, oneirophrenia for a state in which a person becomes confused about the distinction between reality and dreams.  Surely, we have experienced this to some extent when we woke shaking from a nightmare and had to spend a few moments convincing ourselves that everything was fine, and that there was no awful monster outside the window.  In dementia, the confusion naturally worsens.

When I was younger, I had recurrent dreams that had to do with the pressure to get things done.  One was academic:  I had to take a test for which I was late; I ran through buildings encountering ridiculous obstacles and never actually made it to the exam before I woke up in a sweat.  When I was a young mother, I had dreams about needing to find food for my children.  In middle age I had dreams about wandering around in a big house, looking for my room.  Looking for a room of one’s own, perhaps? Long after I retired, I had dreams about audits and the end of the fiscal year, and about not being able to find a parking spot and missing a meeting. Anxieties about responsibilities seemed to be played out in my dreams.  Note that I said played out, and not worked out.   My dreams never contained solutions or advice, and only offered awareness of what my subconscious was struggling with.  Most of these anxiety dreams have disappeared as I grow old – or perhaps I have stopped remembering them.

Dreams are often used as literary devices in movies and books; in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,  the ghost convinces Mrs. Muir that their entire relationship was just a dream.  Young Rip Van Winkle falls asleep in the hills and dreams until he is old, thus escaping a nagging wife and other responsibilities. Alice in Wonderland and The Christmas Carol are simply the records of the dreams of a very young person and a very old person.  Alice has an adventure; Scrooge confronts his past and his probably dreary future.  Is this the difference between younger dreams and older dreams?  Is the Biblical promise that the old will “dream dreams” a promise that they will be renewed in some way?

And, on a more basic level – if dreams are manifestations of the struggles that are taking place subconsciously, what struggles do the elderly manifest?  One research psychiatrist says that our dreams keep up with our needs:

Older adults tend to dream more about creative works, legacies and enduring concerns, while the dreams of dying people are filled with numbers of supernatural agents, other-worldly settings and images of reunions with a loved one who has died. Dreams that transport the child into the social world of his caretakers during early life gently escort the dreamer into the arms of his loved ones when life is nearing an end. Dreams accompany us literally from the cradle to the grave. 

This is a gentle interpretation, though, and doesn’t consider the effects of dementia or the fact that some people don’t want to be reunited with their caretakers.  One can hope, though, for some kind of comforting dream sat the end of life..

I am no expert in the analysis of dreams, but – as I said above – dreams will respond to attention.  Think about your dreams.  Intend to remember them and see what they tell you.

Meanwhile, you might read my story, “The Widow’s Dream,” which gives an example of how literal interpretation of dreams might be harmful, and skillful creation of dreams can solve some problems.



A Different Kind of Bucket List


I have been thinking (and reading) about a different kind of bucket list.  Merriam Webster defines bucket list as “a list of things that one has not done before but wants to do before dying.”  The books I am reading – The Bright Book of Life  by Harold Bloom and Horizon by Barry Lopez –  are about the things or places or books that the authors wanted to revisit before they died. Both authors died within a year of writing their books.  Bloom wants to reread the books he has loved one more time; he says he is desperately lonely in his old age (having outlived so many friends) and goes “back to reread novels to find old friends still living and to make new ones.”    Barry Lopez, one of the great travelers of our time, is interested in going back to some of his favorite places (in mind if not always in body) to determine whether his journeys taught him anything: “Having seen so many parts of the world, what have I learned about human menace, human triumph, and human failings and fallibilities?”  Bloom and Lopez both invite us to come on their final journeys and to plan one of our own – back through experience, physical or textual.

A few years ago, Bloom published an anthology and commentary on late poems by various poets:  Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last PoemsBloom looks for comfort, for answers, in these late poems, but says in the end: “Confronting illness, pain, and dying, we learn quickly that eloquence is not enough.  Neither are even the most authentic poems of consolation.  Still, the beauty and wisdom of these poems reverberate into the coming silence.”  However, he expects more from the novels that he reviews in his last book.  Its title (The Bright Book of Life) comes from an essay by D.H. Lawrence:

The novel is the one bright book of the life.  Books are not life.  They are only tremulations on the ether.  But the novel as a tremulation can make a whole man alive tremble.  Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science, or any other book-tremulation can do…. To be alive, to be man alive, to be the whole man alive: that is the point.  At its best, the novel, and novel supremely, can help you.  It can help you not to be a dead man in life.

One of Lopez’s abiding concerns is the state of the world we live in and the degree to which it has deteriorated in his lifetime.  He is a genuine and literate environmentalist, and not unaware that his own physical deterioration is natural, but that of the places and indigenous peoples he loves on the earth is not.  He can accept his mortality; he has trouble accepting what we have done to our home. 

Going back is not easy.  That place we loved when we were twenty may now be overdeveloped and all serenity replaced by noise and concrete.  The book that meant so much to us, that changed our lives, when we were adolescents may somehow now feel…  juvenile.  And yet it is a brave venture and one that might assist us in making some sense of the path of our lives.  Barry Lopez puts it very well:

There is no originality in this, of course.  We, all of us, look back over our lives, trying to make sense of what happened, to see what enduring threads might be there.  My further desire in planning this book was to create a narrative that would engage a reader intent on discovering a trajectory in her or his own life, a coherent and meaningful story, at a time in our cultural and biological history when it has become an attractive option to lose faith in the meaning of our lives.  At a time when many see little more on the horizon but the suggestion of a dark future.  

I have long been intrigued by the idea of limiting myself to rereading in my old age.  I have often thought old age would be a good time to revisit my favorite movies and television shows.  Maybe, if my memory is bad enough, I will laugh just as hard at reruns of The Office as I did the first time.  If my memory is good, maybe I will remember the laughter of the first time, and that will be a joy in itself.

 I even visualized this as a kind of spiritual practice in my story “Nothing New,” where one of the characters strikes anything new from her life in order to relish the old.    But that was probably going too far.  Yet, when I read Bloom and Lopez, I find myself making lists of books, music, drama, and places I want to revisit (at least) one more time.  Most of these intentions will never be realized; however, just creating the list is a useful exercise.  Try it.  And think about ignoring the best seller list in favor of something you already know is wonderful.