“Where Do You Go?” Thoughts about the Worlds in our Heads

I am nine years old. I’m walking in my grandmother’s rose garden. I see my mom squatting near the base of a chinaberry tree. As I get near, she begins pulling at her face. The skin is coming off in shreds. I see the skull underneath. I start yelling, “Stop, stop! That’s mine!” 

I am 12 years old. I’m on a dark lane at dusk. I hear and feel sounds, like the vibrations of a helicopter just overhead. It’s autumn and black leaves are falling at my feet. When I look down, they are moving like tiny eels. I look over into a field and see a woman suspended in the air on wires with her arms outstretched. Another woman on the ground is controlling her movements by pulling levers on a contraption.  “Look” I say, pointing, “an electric dolly.”

These are two of the hundreds of dreams from my childhood I still remember. I’ve had vivid dreams all of my life. One time my sister told me she didn’t want to hear about them because they frightened her. I get it.

“I think and think and think, I‘ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.”
― Jonathan Safran Foer

Sometimes Bill will wave his hand at me. He says, “I can tell you’re in deep thought.” 

I was told years ago my face changes when I’m focused on an idea. It’s as if I become temporarily blind. When I wake up I’ll discover (for example) that Bill has refilled my coffee cup beside me. I can’t remember him coming to my chair, or anything at all about how it happened. He has even said to me he knew I hadn’t seen him.

These disappearances started when I was a boy. My dad and I would be in his truck driving to the river to check on cattle. Dad would say something and I wouldn’t respond. My silence would infuriate him. One time, after touching my leg to get my attention, he said “Son? Where do you go?”

It wasn’t a question I could answer. Not really. Sometimes when I surfaced out of the thoughts, they would dissolve or not make sense. This may sound like disassociating — a mental state arising out of trauma. But the truth is more mundane. 

Imagine a grid. A problem is marked as an X. Going out from the X are multiple rays that represent solutions. Almost always, when I go into deep thought, I’m mentally going down one of those paths to solve it. Often, other paths open up. So long as they remain limited, I can go down multiple paths at once to see how they might turn out.

This is the best way I know to explain what is happening. But I acknowledge it isn’t satisfactory. In a way, it doesn’t really answer the question.

“You can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind—things that exist only there—and clear out space for yourself: —By comprehending the scale of the world. —By contemplating infinite time. —By thinking of the speed with which things change—each part of everything; the narrow space between our birth and death.” — Marcus Aurelius

I opened this essay writing about dreams. It’s astonishing how little human beings know about a process everyone experiences. But we all know a few personal things about them: they are vivid; they involve people; they can be unsettling. 

Some dreams spin narratives as cohesive as a novel. Others are a jumble of craziness.

There is a dream I’ve had many times: I am in my home and I discover a room — sometimes a series of rooms — I didn’t know existed. Sometimes it becomes a nightmare as I realize intruders are sneaking in through the windows. But occasionally the dream remains a lovely one, and I think: wow, all this time, and I didn’t even know this place was here. And so close. So much room!

I’ve noticed as I get older, I’m often focused on the past. My memories are pleasurable, but sometimes tinged with regret. I try to make sense of my relationships with others. What do they mean? What did they mean? They seem like complete mysteries.

I believed that thinking would ultimately provide answers. But now that I’m growing older I’m trying to accept how much I’ll never understand about my life and the larger world.

Thoughts — I once imagined they were so important! — may spark an awareness, but most often they don’t accomplish much. Sometimes they lead me to rooms I didn’t know about — I feel thankful when that happens. But mostly they narrow then vanish in the strange confusion of a dream.

One thought on ““Where Do You Go?” Thoughts about the Worlds in our Heads

  1. thanks bart and marcus aurelius for “the narrow space between our birth and death”…….that, and the rest of bart’s posting, found my mind using some of that narrow space leading me to rooms i, too, didn’t know about.


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