The other night I had a disjointed dream that seemed to take place in my 20s or 30s, when my life was filled with uncertainty and drama.

I was apparently still married to (and trying to separate from) my ex-husband, although he himself never appeared in the dream. I was both living in and trying to move into the Zen Center, and I both had and was looking for a job, recognizing I’d need a source of summer income if I was leaving my marriage and moving, too.

In the midst of so much uncertainty, I was also afraid I might be pregnant, so I went to the doctor for an ultrasound, only to discover I was carrying…a stick of butter.

Japanese maple leaf

Last night I dreamed that J and I took one of our dogs, Djaro, for a walk in a park. It had recently rained, and one of the grassy fields was flooded with ankle-deep water. Djaro charged into the water and laid down, covering himself with mud.

When I tried to take a photo of Djaro lying in the water, I tapped the wrong button and changed my phone settings, making the camera unresponsive. In the meantime, J called for Djaro to come, and Djaro jumped into J’s arms, leaving a dog-shaped muddy imprint on the front of J’s sweatshirt. By the time I got my camera to work, the mud had dried and I’d lost the moment.

Later in the same (or a separate) dream, J and I went to a large, crowded shopping mall. We had lunch in a restaurant where we sat in a booth, and I went to the restroom before we left. When we exited the mall, we had to descend a long, crowded escalator. Halfway down, J and I were separated, and as J reached the ground level, I realized I’d left my purse and phone upstairs in the mall.

Shouting to J that I had to go back, I turned around and fought the crowds to climb the escalator. I returned to the restaurant and checked the booth where we’d sat, but my purse wasn’t there. I returned to the restroom and had to wait in line (of course) to enter one stall after another, looking in vain for my purse and phone.

Although my smartwatch showed my phone was still connected via Bluetooth, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I wished I could tell J to call my phone so I could hear it ringing in the crowded mall, but he was outside and I had no way to reach him.

The dream ended before I found my purse and phone, and without me reuniting with J outside. I awoke with the unsettled feeling of waiting for a resolution that never comes.

November stairwell

The other night I dreamed I was in a high school musical. Inexplicably, I had only one number, and it involved none of the other cast members: I basically swooped in to sing a song independent of the rest of the cast, then I’d exit the stage, and the show would go on.

Unfortunately, when the time came for my solo, I walked on stage and forgot both the lyrics and melody of my song. It was just me, a spotlight, and an expectant audience waiting for something to happen.

So in my dream, I winged it. I energetically improvised a melody and lyrics that had little to do with the ones I’d supposedly learned. Instead, I crooned and tap danced and waved jazz hands for my allotted time, then I left the stage, hoping my audience was none the wiser. And indeed, the show went on.

Normally, I’d chalk this off as the usual nonsense that passes as dreams: no analysis necessary. But after teaching for decades, I can’t avoid seeing this as yet another version of the Imposter Syndrome. Here I am standing in the theatre of another college classroom, faking it until I make it.

This dream doesn’t happen in a vacuum: dreams seldom do. This semester I’m teaching a new-to-me curriculum that is forcing me to rework my syllabus, rewrite my assignments, and revise my teaching approaches, all while learning a new language to describe the pedagogy behind my practice.

This semester, in other words, I’m singing from a new script.

Masterful performers take lines they didn’t write and make them their own. They breathe life into words on a page, memorizing lines until those words become automatic: a natural, fluid expression of a character they’ve embodied. But before that happens, performers sometimes forget their lines and have to improvise.

Before you can sing it, first you have to wing it.

Babson Globe in winter

This week is the first week of the semester at Babson College, and last night I dreamt I had to teach my classes from a hotel room.

In the alternate universe that is dreamtime, there was no pandemic, no masks, and no need for social distancing, but for some reason the college announced I couldn’t teach on-campus or from home. Instead, my “remote” classes were booked in a hotel room where J and I stayed overnight. Because the room had been booked at the last minute, neither one of us had any luggage, and I didn’t have a laptop, so I had to keep checking my phone for emails from students asking where we were supposed to meet.

Although the class was billed as “remote,” it was actually a face-to-face session, so at the scheduled time my students and a guest speaker (writer Walter Mosley, who wrote an essay I assigned last semester) somehow piled into my hotel room, which by then had morphed into a suite containing an odd assortment of furniture, none of which was conducive to an actual class session. Fortunately, Mosley had a laptop and was able to show slides during his talk, and I was reduced to “teaching” from bed, first in a babydoll nightgown, and later in a pair of flannel pajamas.

Maple leaves

Last night I dreamed I was at a bustling marketplace: a place similar to Boston’s Faneuil Hall or Seattle’s Pike Place Market, but not actually either. It was a setting I couldn’t identify in real life, but in dreamtime it was somewhere I’d been to before, albeit not recently.

In my dream, I went to this marketplace to browse: I was just looking. I walked among other shoppers without buying anything: I had no shopping list and no urgent need. I was by myself and free to duck into any store that looked interesting. I was enjoying the simple anonymity of being among other random shoppers: no rush or hurry, just gentle mingling.

At one point, I passed a corridor I’d never had time to explore. It was a passage I had always hurried past or through, as it was a narrow connector between two shops you could more easily reach from outside. In this corridor I found a favorite shop I thought had closed. It carried the kind of jewelry and beautiful tchotkes I adore: paperweights and snowglobes, pottery mugs and wooden puzzles.

Then through the nonlinear logic of dreams, I wandered into a science museum, admiring exhibits with no particular agenda or hurry: a desultory ramble through the land of Look Don’t Touch. Next I found myself in a quiet church in between services, with random strangers lighting candles and praying quietly in pews. I blessed myself from the communal font and gently touched a rosary someone had left beside a stack of church bulletins.

Only on my way home did I remember I was supposed to be in quarantine, the strangers around me all potential vectors of invisible contagion. After more than a month of meticulous isolation, I would have to start my quarantine anew, worrying for fifteen days whether I had been exposed to sickness by the innocent act of walking unmasked among strangers.

Was it worth it, this risk of contagion in exchange for a casual afternoon spent window-shopping like we used to do without worry? The dream ended before I could decide.

Gone to seed

Last night I had a long and rambling dream about being at a party in an old abandoned building. Throughout the dream, groups of party-goers and I set out to explore the building, which was dilapidated and structurally unsound: at times we had to climb ladders and crawl through windows to move from one floor to another, and we took care to warn one another whenever we found a loose floorboard or (in one instance) open trapdoor.

At one point we stopped our explorations to have a Secret Santa-style gift exchange. I had brought a handful of gifts to contribute to the swap, figuring there might be people who would show up without a gift. When the gifts were distributed, however, there wasn’t anything left for me, and I tried not to act disappointed. After another round of wandering through the house, though, someone gave me a gift they had found: an audiobook narrated by Ellen Degeneres.

After the gift swap, we resumed our wandering, and in one of the rooms I met and briefly talked with Magic Johnson. He had just gotten a new phone, and he wanted to add me to his contacts. Magic wanted me to take a picture of him so I could add it to his contact information, but I told him I had to explore the building and would take his picture later. Through several rounds of wandering in circles through the maze-like building, I saw Magic patiently waiting for me, but when I finally returned to take his picture, he was gone.

Dried hydrangea

It’s probably not surprising that, as a birder, I occasionally dream about birds. Almost always, the birds I see in my dreams are unidentifiable. Instead of dreaming I saw actual tanagers, buntings, or grosbeaks, I often dream of seeing some weird creature I’ve never seen in books: the kind of creature you’d say you’d never dreamed of.

Rain on hydrangea leaves

In these dreams, I’m always without a field guide, so I spend most of the dream staring at the unusual bird and reciting its field marks to myself, forcing myself to remember a combination of colors that seems so striking, you’d think it would be easy to identify later. In nearly all instances, though, I wake up without remembering exactly what I saw. Was it an orange bird with green wings and a purple head? Or was it a purple bird with green wing-bars and an orange rump? Whether or not I actually remember any of the details, though, the simple fact remains: the birds of my dreams don’t exist. Even if I could remember their field marks, I’ll never find them in any field guide because they represent an idea that doesn’t exist outside of dreams.

One night last week, I dreamed I saw an unbelievably bright, lemon-colored bird, the size and stockiness of a large sparrow. It literally glowed in the tree it was in, its plumage similar in color to the reflective, Day-Glo vests that runners wear after dark to avoid getting hit by cars. More incredible, though, was the texture of its individual feathers, which were curly, giving the bird the nubbled appearance of a close-cropped poodle or short-tufted Berber rug. In my dream, the astonishing nature of this bird’s plumage reminded me of the overlapping, crowded and curled petals of dry hydrangea flowers, leading me to repeat to myself over and over, astonished, this most remarkable of field marks: “It looks like a yellow hydrangea-head! It looks like a yellow hydrangea-head!” And then I woke up.