I had a writing teacher once who said we should never write about dreams, or menstruation, or school, or coming of age, or drugs or…he had a long list. But the dreams were verboten because, he said, your dreams will only be interesting to you and no one else. I hope that’s not true.
At the simplest level, things you see during the day can show up in your dreams; a character on a TV show, a wheat field, a cow, a striped shirt. And maybe it’s significant and maybe it’s not. It’s just something you noticed that day. This happens when you write fiction too. You need a location or a character and, consciously or unconsciously, you grab from details you saw that day, a hat someone wore on the subway, a dog in a pet store window, a car, a smell, a song, a sound.
But we also dream about the things that trouble us, things from the past or the present or a jumble of the two. Our old stories get reset in new locations, or new stories get stuck in the labyrinth of the old places. I tend to have a lot of bad dreams set at the house I grew up in, and an inordinate amount of dreams about serial killers, but the most upsetting dreams I have are about puppies.
I started to do dreamwork for therapy when I was still in college. My book of Genesis at my Orthodox Jewish high school had one or two lines from the actual book on each page, with paragraphs from different commentators picking apart each word and offering every possible interpretation and interpolation one could think of. So that’s what I did with my dreams. I wrote down everything I could remember, as soon as I woke up, and later, I’d copy the dream into a special notebook, and write down my general impressions, and then do a line by line exegesis. One dream could take up ten pages of college ruled paper.
But with these puppy dreams, no matter how much work I put into the interpretations, the dreams stuck with me. I could put aside a serial killer, a flood, a crashing airplane, a car flying off the side of a bridge, but squashed puppies haunted me, not only for the rest of the day, but for weeks, and months.
Sometimes the puppies in my dreams were as small as mice, and hairless and pink, and sometimes they were barely formed and looked like pieces of raw chicken cutlet, or balls of play-doh. The puppies seemed to represent the deepest, most real and identifiably ME parts of me. As if I were made of puppies, as if I am a stringing together of puppies inside rather than the usual human organs.
There was the dream when the puppies surrounded me in a circle and I kept tripping over them and squashing them by accident until I couldn’t move in any direction. There was the dream when the lead puppy of a pack pointed a tiny machine gun at me and told me it was all my fault, without specifying what “it” was.
When my Doberman Pinscher, Delilah, gave birth to her first set of puppies, I was seven or eight years old and there to watch their birth, early in the morning, with the sun streaming in through the kitchen windows. Each puppy came out in it’s own sac and Delilah carefully licked them free and set them on their feet to wobble about and figure out how to walk on solid ground.
I loved those puppies. I brought a handful of them to school for show and tell, and put another handful in a basket to carry up to my room. I got used to the overriding smell of puppy poop mixed with newsprint and sawdust, from their puppy box in the basement. We had two sets of puppies for seven or eight weeks each, and I guess that gave them time to imprint on me.
I often have trouble remembering how small and vulnerable I was as a child, especially because I was tall for my age, but thinking about those puppies reminds me what vulnerability really is. Even the wiliest of the puppies was in no position to truly protect herself. She could try. She could fight. She could put everything she had into saving herself. But if someone wanted to squash her, she’d be squashed.
For some reason, maybe especially in America, adults want to imagine that children are the superheroes they pretend to be. Children can call 911, climb out of burning buildings, save the dog, if only they would apply themselves.
I remember a dream where I am standing in a living room, in front of a bay window, at night. There are cages full of the tiniest puppies I’ve ever seen, but they have no newspaper or mats in the cages and I’m worried that they are going to fall through the slats of metal. I’m there to save these puppies. I am planning to take the cages with me to a better place, though I can’t picture that place in the dream. As I pick up the first cage, it’s too unwieldy and I lose my grip on the cage. This is when the dream goes into slow motion and I watch as the puppies are torn apart as they fall through the sharp metal bars of the cage to their deaths. I went there to save them, and I killed them instead.
The dreams are so dark that I feel like a terrible person, hopeless, and useless, until I wake up, because my real dogs are barking at me to take them out to poop.
Which is an incredible relief.