Subconscious Humor

It’s good to know your subconscious has a sense of humor.  What with all that’s going on in the world these days, God knows we could use a laugh or two.  At least a smirk now and then.  One of the less-anticipated aspects of becoming old and wise is disrupted sleep.  Our bodies did not evolve for the 925 schedule, and the “eight hours a night” trope is more naturally along a pattern of sleep for maybe four hours, get up for a while and get things done, then sleep for a few more hours, until dawn.  That doesn’t fit well at the office, so we try to cram all of our sleep into one unbroken stint.  When you’re young that’s often not a problem, at least in my experience.

Then you reach a certain age when, with no discernible change in habits, you have to visit the restroom in the middle of the night.  Modern people, of course, have a lot on their minds, so after that mid-night pee it’s difficult to get back to sleep.  For those of us who can’t break the long-term commuting habit, any waking after midnight is likely to be the end of a night’s sleep.  Once you get tired enough, however, you tend to overpower the full bladder and snooze on to the usual rising time.  (For some of us that’s earlier than it is for others, but that’s immaterial.)  This is where the subconscious starts to play its role as the comedian.

Mildly thalassophobic, I tend not to go out on very deep water, especially in small craft.  To be fair, I don’t live too close to the ocean and I don’t own a boat of any kind, so this often isn’t an issue.  One of my biggest traumas in college was meeting the “swim a length of the pool” requirement for graduation—I understand that’s now been abolished.  I nearly didn’t make it, but the last semester as a senior I had a private show—which must’ve been funny—for the swim coach.  So when I need to pee and I sleep through the middle of the night, I have deep water dreams.  I’m on a small boat in an ocean.  Sometimes I see paranormal geysers bursting from the surface and wonder what they are.  Then I wake up and dash for the bathroom.  Hey, it could be worse—my subconscious could find a humorless way of waking me.  Meanwhile, it probably wouldn’t hurt to take some adult swimming lessons.

All that water…

Pennsylvania Dreaming

“I finally understand what I’ve come here to learn,” I said.  I was incredibly happy.  I recall the sun was shining, making its way up from my feet to my legs in a symbolic way, soon to reach my head.  I was on the cusp of an epiphany.  That’s when I woke up, needing to head to the bathroom.  Of course, after that it’s difficult to fall back asleep.  I knew that even if I did it would be to a different dream and I wouldn’t learn what it was that I’d come here for.  So it is with the great experiment of consciousness.  Either we’re continuously learning or we’ve already died.  Nobody has all of the answers.  Consciousness may be the true final frontier.  There is no scientific explanation for what it is that is universally accepted.  We all, however, know what it is though daily experience.

Dreams are considered part of our subconscious.  While we sleep we’re said to be not conscious, although we all know that at times we are.  Sleep can be somewhere between.  And we don’t even know what consciousness is.  The study of dreams is still valued in psychoanalysis—it is a form of thinking too—but in our materialist, capitalist society we tend to dismiss dreams.  They generally don’t bring in money.  In ignoring them we move further from understanding consciousness.  Enlightenment, while not a scientific category, still seems possible, even should it come in dreams.  If only we could stay asleep long enough to see it through.

I have a friend who also thinks too much.  He sometimes wonders if this constant focus on what the “they” want isn’t a plan to keep us too busy to think things through.  I often think that the monastics had it mostly right.  At least the part about taking time to contemplate.  When you encounter an idea that feels like a key and you know the door that it opens will be profound, it always seems that work comes to interrupt right at that point.  The job where you can wrestle with ultimate reality and not worry about not producing “product” for which you’re paid, is rare indeed.  That’s why waking from this particular dream was so difficult.  I had a semester break while teaching where I read three books that changed my outlook forever.  It was possible because I had a few weeks before I had to be back in the classroom.  Since then the dream, I guess, has been to return to where you’re paid to learn, for the betterment of all.


Weird Dreams

It’s almost like we’re all part of a huge experiment, perhaps orchestrated from outer space, to see how we react to being caged.  The pandemic and its associated lockdowns have held us in place for nearly a year now.  Long enough that I’ve started to dream about it.  For the longest stretch of time my dreams remained in “normal mode.”  That is to say, people talked about the pandemic very little and it was represented only by the occasional dream anxiety that I wasn’t wearing a mask.  I have yet to recall a dream wherein people are wearing masks.  Recently I dreamed that I had to start commuting again, and I climbed on the bus only to remember I’d forgotten my mask at home.  It was like one of those showing up to school without your pants on dreams,  only scarier.

Dreams are an antidote to the sameness of our days, I suppose.  I’ve watched as stable folks I know start to show signs of isolation stress.  I’m sure that I’m showing them too, but the thing is we often don’t see such things in ourselves.  We’re social animals and we’ve been kept in separate cages for a long time now.  I used to go to zoos and feel sorry for the obviously neurotic animals bored out of their skulls, isolated from their species.  Even as we were being told that animals don’t think and don’t have emotions, it was clear that their having interactions with our species was like us having nothing but Zoom meetings to keep us in company.  It’s artificial, but since the zookeepers have us in separate cages we try to act as if it’s normal.

Speaking of neurotic, at least around here since Trump’s been mostly out of the public eye people have begun wearing masks.  Nothing demonstrates that we’re herd animals better than the fact that an obvious charlatan was able to convince millions of people that he doesn’t care only about himself.  Funny how people can be used and not even know it.  We’ve been enjoying national sanity for just over a month now and things seem like the meds may be kicking in.  Vaccine production is booming and, apart from logistic issues, many people are receiving the necessary protection.  It’s always made sense to me that other beings exist in the universe.  I’m not so arrogant as to assume that we’re all that special.  Looking over the past year, it seems as if we may all be guinea pigs after all.


Dreamland

I don’t keep a dream journal, but with my odd sleeping habits I’m thinking maybe I should.  You see, waking in the middle of a dream is a good way to remember it.  Often I bolt awake in the middle of the action.  Well, I assume it’s the middle of the action, but how would I know?  Dreams are that way.  Whether in the middle or at the end, I wake up able to remember them in some detail for a few hours.  I have noticed a pattern over the past several months.  Not surprisingly, the characters in my dream worlds know about the pandemic.  It often plays a role in the story.  I have yet to remember a dream where the people are wearing masks, however.  They sometimes talk about it, but never do it.

The subconscious is a slippery place.  Although psychologists are often fascinated by dreams, nobody can say for sure what they mean.  One class of dream that I often have on an annual basis is the AAR/SBL anxiety dream.  The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting has been a fixture throughout my professional life.  Usually I have a dream where I’ve forgotten something important for the conference, such as forgetting to stop in the exhibit hall to see the new books.  I recently had my annual conference anxiety dream.  This year the conference is virtual so I’m not actually going anywhere.  In the dream I did.  And nobody was wearing masks.  The dream, however, was mainly about keeping my boss happy.  That’s simple enough to understand.

Most years I get several blog posts out of the conference (which takes place in November).  The virtual conference has been postponed until after Thanksgiving, and lengthened out by over a week.  Accommodating all those papers (thousands of them) via Zoom must be a logistical nightmare.  Since editors go to these for meeting people, there’s no reason for me to sign up.  Instead, I’ll be right here in eastern Pennsylvania, huddled down waiting for the pandemic to be over.  I’ll be wearing a mask whenever I venture off my own property.  It is my hope that others might do the same.  I read of covid-weary people burning their masks, putting themselves at risk as the number of infections continue to rise.  In my subconscious mind I’m somewhere else.  Perhaps I can convince them to wear masks in my imaginary world.  After all, anything is possible in dreams.


Patina

When reading three books by the same author, most of the time, it seems, it’s good to spread them out.  For the past few years my wife and I would visit an independent bookstore in January to pick up a few books for the year’s looming reading challenges.  We slipped behind this year and I happen to have three unread Marilyn Ross books at home.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Haunted Cave was the second of them.  Since, unbelievably, I didn’t have books to fit into the other categories, I read my second Dark Shadows book of the season shortly after the first.  It is a revealing experience to come back to a childhood influence as an adult.  I’m pretty sure I hadn’t read this one as a child, and as much as I like Barnabas Collins, this particular story was somewhat tedious.  And that’s saying something, considering how formulaic the series is.

One of the reasons I found it slow going—especially for a book of less than 200 pages—was that Ross relied too much on dreams to move the plot along.  I read quite a bit of fiction and I always find writing about dreams tricky.  Even within the diegesis of the story you don’t know whether to believe what’s going on in dreams or not.  Just as in real life, dreams are a break from the tedium of consciousness and they permit the mind to wander.  The dreamer can go anywhere, do anything.  Generally without consequence.  You awake back in the more continuous narrative of your life and the dream is forgotten.  In fiction, which is largely made up, dreams often act as filler.  Given the number of times Ross repeated himself in this particular book, it seems that he had to pad the story out quite a bit.  It would’ve worked just fine without the dreams.  Might’ve fallen short of contracted length, though.

It also continues the conceit of Quentin as a Satanist.  I have to confess that the original series was so long ago I don’t remember much about it.  The theremin music of the opening, with the waves crashing against the cliffs of Maine, yes.  Barnabas, tortured but not evil vampire, yes.  Much beyond  that, no.  I’ve had friends discover Dark Shadows as adults.  I watched it on commercial television during its first run and I haven’t seen it since.  I certainly don’t have time for soap operas in days crowded with other demands.  Still, these little books can take me back to a dusty corner of childhood that has a pleasant patina over it.  But it is best to keep such experiences separated a bit in time.


Beam Me Where?

It’s kind of like the transporter dilemma on Star Trek. Where is the person/Vulcan/Klingon when their atoms are being disassociated in one location and reassembled in another? In the classic series, McCoy was never happy with the technology, and even today our doubts linger about what constitutes a person. The other day in a routine medical procedure, I underwent anesthesia. Lying there in the corridor, staring at the calmly themed over-head light colors (no, they actually were themed covers; the drip hadn’t started yet), I wondered where I was about to go. I’ve only had anesthesia once before that I can remember, and I recalled awaking suddenly from the most profound, dreamless sleep ever. It was very different from ordinary sleep. So where was my consciousness at the time?

We have no satisfactory answer to the question of what consciousness is, let alone where it is. Materialists would say, literally, it’s all in your head. Consciousness is a happy mixture of electro-chemical signals in a dull gray organ that’s busing churning out this illusion that Steve A. Wiggins is something more than, well, a mixture of electro-chemical signals. Those of us who’ve experienced enough to question such simple answers wonder a bit more deeply about it. What is consciousness? We’ve all had that feeling, I suppose, of awaking from a dream and being disoriented, even throughout the day at points, as to whether it was real or not. Or, alternatively, remembering something but not being sure if it “really happened” or might’ve been a dream. Ordinarily we recognize the difference between waking and dreaming consciousness, but sometimes the line is blurred.

My experience this time around was the same as last. One moment you’re talking to an anesthesiologist and the next you’re awaking from a completely blank state of mind, a little confused about where you are. You haven’t been in dreamland since there was nothing there. The exact mix of chemicals isn’t the same as when you fall asleep. For all intents and purposes, you are completely gone for that span of time. When I woke up I remembered the anesthesiologist and the watch he was wearing. His accent. His assuring me that the bubbles in the tube were okay. Between that moment and this, nothing. A complete blank. I went in hoping that I might explore alternate states of consciousness in those few disassociated moments, but that’s not how it happened. I think I’m ready to beam back aboard now, though. I trust my consciousness will follow my gray matter, even as I’m being beamed through the ether.


Neologism

I like a good neologism as much as the next guy. Oxford English Dictionaries recently released a covey of new words added to the famed lexicon. Most of them, it seemed to me, had to do with dangers of technology, like “drunk text” and such fare. Still, increasing vocabulary is one of those rare joys in life that is continues to be free, so I indulge. A friend sent me a BBC story about another new word: champing. Well, my spell-check recognizes that one so maybe it’s not new. In any case, this champing is derived from two words “church” and “camping.” Some locations with medieval churches—which kind of rules out anything on these shores—are now opening them up as camping spots, thus church-camping. The article asks what it’s like to stay overnight in such a place.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, medieval churches were hard to find, but I spent more than one night sleeping in sacred spaces. It’s an uncanny experience. In what may have been more innocent days, our United Methodist Church allowed youth group sleepovers, as long as there were counselors present. (Ever naive, I only learned later that there were ways around such obvious strictures.) On a Friday night, then, we could occasionally gather with our sleeping bags and slumber under the sanctuary. For theological reasons we couldn’t sleep in the sanctuary itself (although that couldn’t be prevented on the occasional very long sermon) but we could go in. Churches are scary at night with the lights out. We may give lip service to holy ground, but large, cavernous spaces suggest so much by absence and implication that it would take a stout soul indeed to sleep there.

Looks okay from the outside.

Sleeping in sanctuaries in ancient times was an acceptable practice. In fact, there’s a name for doing so: incubation rituals. A person who slept in a sacred place believed any dreams had that night were a message from God. Knowing the dreams I tend to have, I do wonder. Once, at the United Methodist camp called Jumonville—famous for its large white, 60-foot, metal cross visible in three states—we counselors (still naive) had our charges sleep outdoors at the foot of the sigil on the bare top of the mountain. In the morning my champers gleefully informed me that I’d been praying in my sleep. “You kept saying ‘Amen. Amen,’” they told me. Alas, I don’t remember the dreams of that night. Perhaps when I find a medieval church on my journeys I’ll be brave enough to try an incubation ritual once again. This time I’ll take a tape recorder.


Powerful Movies

PowerOfMoviesOur friends were shocked. I don’t even remember the title of the movie, but they couldn’t believe we had gone to see it. Not because of the content of the film, but because it had been shown on a Sunday morning. Why hadn’t we been in church? This was back in Edinburgh when we had very little money—wait, we still have very little money. This was back in Edinburgh, and we had won free tickets to an early screening of a new movie. The showtime was on Sunday morning. So in our own version of weak-willed athletes from Chariots of Fire, we’d skipped church to go see the movie. I don’t remember the title and I remember very little of the film. It had something to do with Richard Wagner and a conductor. An art film. We didn’t really feel too guilty missing church to go, since at the time, it seemed like a rare opportunity and the movie was, in some sense, religious. Or at least mythological.

Movies have a way of really influencing people. Thus it has been since the invention of the art form. We’ve all had the experience, I suppose, of a movie hitting us with a profound impact. It never really occurred to me to ask why. That is, until I read Colin McGinn’s The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. I’d always thought that movies were simply a successful form of entertainment, and scholars seldom take entertainment seriously. As McGinn makes clear, there’s a lot more than casual watching going on when we slip into the theater. As a philosopher, McGinn is duty-bound to look beyond the obvious. Time after time in this profound little book I found myself pausing to consider the implications of what he says. Ultimately, he suggests that movies access the same areas of the brain that dreams do, not only giving them dreamlike qualities, but also making films emotional experiences like dreams.

At one point, McGinn draws explicit connections between going to church and going to a movie. Beyond the superficial aspects of a darkened building with a performance meant to impact a person, there are clear parallels between going to the theater and going to church. Both can be transformative experiences. The Power of Movies is a powerful little book. As much as we like to think that we have custody of our minds, the realm beneath the surface—that which gives us dreams and syncs with movies—has more influence on us than we’d generally like to admit. More and more, scholars are beginning to realize that films do have a profound impact on viewers. This is not just entertainment. It may not be worship, but after reading McGinn I think it might not be too far from it. The mind able to dream, after all, is a mind that’s truly free.


Detoxing God

There’s some pretty weird stuff in the Bible. Those who are only familiar with all the “thou shalt not”s are missing a great deal. Some of the material is strange enough to rival Alice’s tumble down the rabbit-hole (Charles Dodgson was, after all, a deacon). Anyone who’s read Ezekiel, or Daniel, or Revelation, knows the feeling of having been slipped into some kind of alternate state of consciousness. As students of the Bible have been saying for decades, “What was Ezekiel on?” I’ve always tried to put these unusual writings into context for my students. Nevertheless, some scholars still explore the possibilities that something more than revelation was going on in the desert. A friend of mine pointed out the website Time Wheel, which has a story about Moses and his experience of the burning bush. Time Wheel is an artistic collective, and the story about Moses is richly illustrated. The title, however, is the attention-grabber: “The Bible’s Moses Was On DMT Says Hebrew Professor.”

The article explores the thesis of Benny Shanon, who suggests Moses may have found DMT in the natural store of psychedelics available in nature. As the piece suggests, you have to accept a literal Moses for this to make any sense. Nevertheless, it does raise an interesting question: did ancient people use hallucinogens for religious purposes? We do know that cultures throughout the world have found alternate states of consciousness to be religious in nature. Before the days of controlled substances certain plants and fungi were known to distort reality. Alcohol was one of the earliest inventions of civilization, or perhaps even predating it. When other views of the world are available, it is possible to say that one is by default the true one? It’s a question we face every morning, to some degree. The dream, another biblical favorite for alternate realities, can be just as real as waking.

Controlled substances are dangerous in large groups of people. Not only have modern scientific techniques refined the active ingredients, but we live very close to one another and erratic behavior, perhaps fine isolated in the desert with a cognizant adult, can lead to problems when other people live right next door. Anthropologists assure us that the use of natural “drugs” is/was not uncommon among many peoples who don’t fall under the rubric of powerful centralized government. But was Moses among them? To me, the burning bush hardly seems fantastic enough to require a chemical explanation. In fact, detailed study of even such books as Ezekiel and Revelation often reveal a much more mundane reality behind the writing. Still, imagination is often the key to unveiling realities left hidden to more prosaic minds. So why not see what might happen when the religious are left to their own devices in the desert? The results could change the world.

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Caledonia Dreamin’

“Edinburgh is a mad god’s dream.” So penned poet Hugh MacDiarmid with sentiments that could’ve been composed by H. P. Lovecraft. My association with Edinburgh seems accidental, but there is little in my life that compares to this mad god’s dream. The Gnostics used to believe that there was nothing in divinity that precluded a kind of divine madness. Philosophers, back when they still considered god a postulate, argued about whether the deity was good or evil. If they’d come to Edinburgh, I suspect, the debate would’ve taken on a whole new cast. In his poem “Edinburgh,” MacDiarmid captures the untamed nature of a city that has never been given the accolades of Paris, London, or New York, but is just as edgy and twice as beautiful.

Dreaming gods, of course, are nothing new. Vishnu, according to some strains of Hinduism, is the god whose dream is the universe. In the Ugaritic Baal Cycle, it is a dream that reveals to the ancient god El that Baal has returned from the land of death. And, of course, Cthulhu lies dead but dreaming in the city of R’lyeh. To me, Edinburgh is a wonderful alchemy of divine dreams. I was a young man, still so very naive when I moved here. Looking back at those old photos, I see a much younger face from the past, telling the camera that yes, he’d found paradise, the very place of God’s dreaming. Our human politics, however, trump divine dreams every time. Although I never wanted to leave, I was not permitted to remain. Yes, the camera does, at times, capture the soul.

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I am on the train that will take me from Edinburgh, having seen it anew through my daughter’s eyes. I came here penniless some twenty-four years ago, but with a head full of dreams. Life has taught me the cost of dreams since that time, and I have had to pay with wrecked careers and uncertain futures, trusting that the god who is dreaming all this is mad indeed. Nevertheless, like the gods, I refuse to stop dreaming. As much as Hugh MacDiarmid captures the spirit of Edinburgh, as I sit here, with a wee bit of mist in my eyes, my mind is on the words of another poet, Baroness Nairne. To her I will have to leave the last words, from this south-bound train. “Fareweel, Edinburgh, where happy we hae been.”



Heavenly Visitors

With Passover hard upon us, I was a little disturbed to receive a letter on Friday that read, “A heavenly visitor will pass your house…” Having been raised on the sturdy fare of Exodus, I knew that heavenly visitors more often take the form of marauding angels than of jocular Santa Clauses. It seemed an ominous warning. Of course, it came from the Saint Matthew’s Churches that sent me such good wishes of divine promises of prosperity some months back, so I had to assume it was a purely coincidental biblical reference. The folks at Saint Matthew’s Churches are, after all, Bible believers.

Perhaps because of that fateful letter, I dreamed, in good Genesis style, a dream two nights ago. I dreamed that I found a dollar coin on the ground at a family outing. A few feet away lay another. And another. Wherever we went in that Morpheus-bewitched town there were silver dollars unclaimed on the ground. My trousers were being dragged down with the weight of the lucre in my pockets. I couldn’t believe my good fortune! Then I awoke, still employed only part-time, still worrying every minute about whether we can meet all the bills. Perhaps the dream was a message? Should the Saint Matthew’s’ folks be right, prosperity was headed my way. Saturday’s powerball jackpot was in the double-digit millions. I very rarely play the lottery, but since state education in New Jersey needs all the help it can get, I offered up a dollar to see if Saint Matthew’s’ prosperity was at hand.

No. Not even one number came close. Perhaps there is a secret clause in the prosperity gospel contract. Perhaps those who prosper must hold certain conservative views on social issues. The views, say, my mother holds. Yet she lives in a trailer on a severely circumscribed income. That doesn’t seem to be it either. Last night I awaited another dream. Instead, the next-door neighbors were holding a loud party until 3 a.m. Perhaps celebrating Palm Sunday? Or perhaps that was the heavenly visitor passing over for Passover a couple of days early? Either way, I didn’t sleep well last night knowing that something was just outside my window.