Sunday night we watched an old Jimmy Stewart film set in World War II-era Chicago (downtown and old tenement districts) and Illinois State Penitentiary Stateville, Joliet, the maximum security prison designed after Jeremy Bentham’s plan for the “Panopticon,” and after the movie (“Call Northside 777”) was over I read myself to sleep with Dante’s Inferno, following the burning red river of blood and fire descending almost to the bottom ring, so I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that my dreams were full of complicated geography and fabulous architecture on a grand, confusing scale.
In the first dream, I was working in a large, crowded, institutional room, where my job was to separate little bouquets from mountains of blood-red flowers. The place seemed to be a hospital, and the bouquets for patients’ rooms, but I had no vases to put the flowers in. This sent me off on a search through corridors full of steam pipes until I found a large room that had similarities to a kitchen and/or a canteen, and there in an open cupboard were vases and jars—a motley assortment, all needing to be washed, but I thought they would do. For a while I worried about having left my original work station but gradually realized that I had been given a public service assignment as some kind of punishment (for what, I don’t know) and that none of the supervisors in any of the work stations cared what I did, as long as they didn’t have to worry about keeping me busy. The place was a veritable formilière, an anthill, with all the uniformed people-ants rushing here and there, and every corridor and room full of stuff of all kinds.
A second dream involved elaborately constructed Japanese gardens with water features and narrow footpaths on many levels. There were tunnels and trellises and terraces, steps and gutters and miniature waterfalls. For some reason I was speaking French in this dream. There were two young men who could have been my grandsons, and when my foot slipped into water running alongside a footpath, and somehow a bit of water splashed into my mouth (I have no idea how that happened) I exclaimed about it to the two young men, asking them with great concern why the water was so bitter (amère) and what was in it. Though it looked fresh and clear as it flowed along, in my mouth it was frighteningly caustic. The whole place looked like a simple Michigan small town that was trying to reinvent itself, to become something exotic, for the tourist trade. It was fall, and the leaves on the simple old trees outside the gardens were November brown.
In the longest, most complicated dream David and I started out from Kalamazoo (where we did live, in fact, many years ago) with a group, on a bus, but when we arrived at the day’s destination, where we had a limited number of hours before the bus would depart once again for home, he and I (this is so like us!) separated from the group and went off exploring on our own. Our bus had dropped us off at very ornate, large, tall building that towered over the rest of the landscape, and we had the vague, general impression that it formed one of the furthermost ends of the huge, sprawling, campus-like place we set out to explore without a map. My dream impression was that this main building was at the north end of the complex and that we started out walking south and would have to turn back and walk north to reach our bus again.
It was the strangest place. I don’t know what it was supposed to be, but when I woke up and thought about it, the scariest part was that I could imagine people planning and building just such a place! It was a weird combination of college campus, shopping center, condominium development and TV evangelist “retreat” and residential worship center. All the buildings were unlocked, with no indication of what they were, so that we might (and did) wander into what looked like a beautifully wood-panelled, 19th-century clubhouse only to discover that it was a private house with naked people strolling around in it, very annoyed at our intrusion.
Inside the buildings, some of the hallways were more like mazes, with dead ends lined with vending machines, and some of the exits led outdoors not with simple doors and/or sets of steps but with elaborate garden statuary of miniature mountains to be descended to the ground. It was when leaving such a building that I realized David and I had become separated from each other.
I tried to hurry, but the thing I had to descend slowed me down considerably: the narrow ledges for feet were far apart, and the handholds far from the ledges. Someone gave me a hand, and I made it to the ground eventually, but David was nowhere in sight, and it was then that I tried to run, but you know how it can be with dreams, especially when one is asleep in bed, sandwiched between a spouse and a dog, with no room to move a leg! I seemed to be running underwater, except that the water was a thick syrup. My lungs were near bursting with effort, and yet I could hardly put one foot in front of another, and the buildings and the rooms in them and all the people buying hamburgers, shopping for cosmetics, proselytizing for their religions and hurrying to their classes were much too busy to help me.
Then I found a crowded fast food place where all the placemats were maps, and on the wall was a larger map, and I could see at last an overview of the place, with the building where we had started (it looked like a gigantic old-fashioned radio towering over the rest of the scenery) at the top of the map poster. Since I couldn’t get up any speed running, I leaped into the air and began to fly. This helped in terms of being able to see where I was, but even in the air my movement was frustratingly slow.
Where was David? Would the bus leave without me? Without us? Would we be trapped in this horrible Wonderland forever?
Dante and Stateville do not combine to make soothing dreams, but they don’t make boring dreams, either.