For many years I’ve had a strange sleep pattern. I go to bed about ten, wake up at three or four (depending on whether it’s daylight savings or not), work for a while, and then go back to sleep until nine or so. Some days I would sleep longer except that the Baptist church next door has a carillon that starts at 9AM. This village won’t tolerate noisy vehicles or barking dogs, but welcomes bonging hymns. The minister told me proudly that he sets the volume on high. I think he feels people might be converted. I don’t hear it anymore but it drives company, well, bonkers.
In those few hours I call my “second sleep,” I dream my most revelatory and (increasingly) detailed stories. Often they are about cities, roughly the same city, which is a composite. There is a river, hills or mountains, tall buildings clustered in a downtown, and neighborhoods of graceful Victorian houses. NEVER a suburb or a strip mall or even an enclosed mall. Often there are shops, elegant and luxurious, but I never buy anything.
It’s a composite place. Sometimes I can entertain myself by figuring out which little piece came from BBC movies about Edinburgh (the rim of the ancient volcano) or London (the Millenium Wheel), which are from Seattle or San Francisco or Vancouver, B.C. Chicago from the end of the Fifties and Portland from slightly earlier and much later are probably the main sources. Before I left Portland I often preached in Oregon City, making the drive along the Willamette and then up to the top of the bluffs to where the old town is. The four small cities I served as a circuit rider (Helena, Great Falls, Missoula and Bozeman) sometimes contribute in small scraps.
Such dreams key to a mood: the main work is done, the machinery of thought is still fly-wheeling but the content-sorter is idle. Cities are sort of an always available substrate. Cities = books. Not the physical covers and pages that surround me in my house, but the ideas in them. I don’t dream the ideas themselves, I just dream the places ideas come from: cities. Because cities have the libraries, the universities, the bookstores, the theatres, and -- until recently -- films. Some parts of my cities are from sci-fi movie images, but never the claustrophobic ones in the rain.
Cities are places of transcendence as well as grimy ghetto traps. Parts of cities have always been slums. But I don’t dream the times as an animal control officer when I was riddled and gasping from adrenaline left over from danger. I do remember the times as a little child I stood on the end of our block and realized our street ran along a glacial moraine, that I could see across the neighborhood to the West Hills which divert the Columbia River into that sort of tab at the top left-hand corner of Oregon. Another time I stood in Vernon Park, across from my grade school, and realized I was looking across the Columbia at the historical location of Fort Vancouver. The history teachers at that school were pretty effective so I could imagine the log palisade and the bonfires that burned in front of it. I felt the connectedness of the world, its historical substrate.
It was the age of department stores with marble steps and bronze drinking fountains that carried chilled water -- not that Portland water requires much chilling. My parents both grew up on tough water-short farms and felt such a place was the cave of Ali Baba, so I picked up that attitude.
It persisted in the Nineties when I was working for the City of Portland and spent my lunch hour along a little trail that went up a street of shops to The Galleria, a restored department store with an atrium in the middle; to Rich’s Cigar Store where every kind of magazine was carried; to a bead store where I bought two of everything to make earrings; back down to Nordstroms, the glitziest store, with an escalator alongside a huge mirror so dizzying that it took me several tries to go all the way to the top; and then across Courthouse Square, the outdoor version where kids played hackysack and food carts steamed; then through glassed-in Pioneer Place full of shops where the escalator is just as dizzying; back through Saks and up the street to the Portlandia building. It was all a display of sophisticated commodities I couldn’t afford and wouldn’t have bought if I could have. I buy books.
I never dream about Powells, in spite of all the hours I spent there, because in those aisles my inner thinking flywheel had plenty to process and no space for fine china, elegant linens, clothes way too small for me, magazines in French. The whole point of these repeated dreams is “trans” cendance, floating through with no goal, the way the air shuttles go among the pointed white towers of Star Wars or Firefly.
For the last ten years I’ve barely left Valier. Calgary is the closest to one of these cities but since I need a passport to cross the border and a passport costs more than a hundred dollars, I don’t go there anymore. Now the Internet is my city. I slide through the blogs and websites, frictionless and unthinking, their images crossing my retinas but leaving no trace until I find a good book.
I don’t dream of mountains. I don’t have to: they’re right here. I don’t dream of the ocean except when I’m dealing with some much deeper issue than just “Western Civilization” which is what the city dreams are about. In a city dream I’m always moving, maybe walking on sidewalks or even through the spaces between buildings, esp. when the cities are old Mediterranean ones. But most often I’m driving, slantwise down the cliff, across some streets of old houses, turning onto a highway that runs along the river, seeing high bridges in the distance, noting the ship-mast-worthy Douglas firs along the way, accepting the gleam of sun when the clouds leave a space.