Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dream On

“We are such stuff as dreams are made of” said the immortal Bard and he was on to something here. “All things are created thrice” said the mortal Doug in an article he once wrote and Shakespeare hit step one— dream ahead of time what might happen. Project yourself into the future and live it in your imagination. It can be as simple as opening the refrigerator and imagining the meal you’re going to cook tonight or more long range, like the November concert I planned for my kids while riding on a bus in Ecuador in July, or further ahead yet, as in the proverbial “What do I want to be when I grow up?”  (I’m still working on that one.)

Once you have the picture of what you’d like to happen, the Executive function kicks into high gear, starts to put the feet on the wings of the dream. The meal planner makes a list of missing ingredients and figures out when to shop, the music teacher writes out the music and plans the rehearsals, the dreamy child goes to the library to get out books about firefighters. While breathing in and out in the moment, one foot is already in the Future and aimed to walk in a specific direction. (In that Ecuador bus ride, the dream was so strong that as I was picturing it in my mind and hearing in my head, I was so moved by the final notes of the last song that I started to cry. And when the concert happened, that ending was exactly as I pictured it. That’s how powerful the imagination can be.)

Then when the present moment comes—the meal, the concert, the first day on the job of a lifelong career— it’s time to be in the present and give yourself fully to the activity, enjoy the fruits of a short or long labor. It’s time to be wholly present in the Present.

But it’s not over yet. After the meal, concert or career, the Executive function is still awake analyzing what might be better next time. ("Next time, I'll try arugula instead of spinach." "Gotta get that guiro away from the microphone!" "Dang! Got to the top of the corporate ladder, but it was against the wrong wall!") This might be the time to look back at the photos or listen to the recording or discuss how things went with the people who were there. And the dreamer is still awake as well, feeling the echo of the emotions and storing away the pleasures for a future dark time or winter’s night when the mind turns back to the Past for comfort and solace.

All things are created thrice—imagined in the Future, lived in the Present, remembered in the Past. This gives a texture and depth to our life that the mere Present cannot hold. I once read of someone working with troubled teens in prison. When she asked them what they imagined themselves doing when they got out of prison, she was met with blank stares. She discovered that they simply were incapable of imagining their own future and had no inner resources beyond their immediate reaction in the present. And that’s what got them into trouble. What was missing from their lives?

In a word, stories. These were kids who were never told stories as kids and rarely read stories. Stories are the jungle gym of the imagination, not only giving us images to turn over in our minds through the fireworks of language, but inviting us to enter the story and imagine ourself in the characters. Stories are also “storehouses” of situations, challenges, dilemmas, with their multiple pathways of escape and resolution. This also gives the listener/reader a multitude of strategies for coping with life’s issues. And not only reading stories, but acting them out in fantasy play, whether alone with one’s dolls and action figures, playing house or doctor with the neighborhood kids or acting in the school play. One parent, talking about his daughter playing dressed-up, commented that he was watching her “try on different futures for size.” Beautifully said!

How do we become the person we are? A good part of it appears to be dreaming ahead of time who we imagine we’d like to be. We get clues by noticing the people we admire, the stories we’re attracted to, the music we listen to and so on. To paraphrase Shakespeare, we are what we dream ourselves to be. Of course, there are all sorts of obstacles in the path to becoming ourselves—good dreamers with bad Executive functions, good Executives who didn’t’ dream enough, people who mindlessly signed up for the culture’s dream (rock star! Rich guy! Super-model!), kids denied the storied foundation of dreaming, an antagonistic surrounding culture and just plain bad luck. But it all starts with the dream image.

And so, on the last day of the year, the time for New Year’s Resolutions, it’s a good time to pause, to sort through the dream images and find your own, to publicly announce your intention to move one inch closer to who you have imagined yourself to be, to name the particular concrete steps needed. Also a good time to remember this piece of wisdom:

“Be careful what you wish for. It just may come true.”

Happy New Year!

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