Learning to Dream

By Paul Thomas Zenki

I was sitting at a table in my elementary school library when a friend said, “This is just a dream.” He was right.

I woke up to a dark and quiet house, and a new power — it was possible to recognize dreams from the inside.

Every morning, I searched my memory for clues. It wasn’t the outlandish stuff that tipped me off, but the details. In dreams, I couldn’t read. When I was afraid, I couldn’t scream. When terrified, I couldn’t move. So it was the nightmares more than anything that unlocked my power over dreams.

By my teens, I had come to recognize the dream world by feel. That alternate reality has its own texture, and I was rarely unaware when I was inside it. I learned to manipulate the space, to stop scenes, sometimes even replay them, or to make them dissolve, to fly at will and walk through walls. I had become the dream master.

Until the weasel-faced man appeared at the circus. He tailed me through the crowd, always staring with his little steel eyes. I walked through the canvas of a tent and — the first time a dream creature had ever done this — he followed. We stood on sawdust behind a pile of crates. He pulled a skinny knife from his trousers and smiled at me. I dreamed up a gun in my pocket and brought it out.

The weasel-faced man glanced at it, as though it were a flyswatter, then made a little shape in the air with the tip of his blade and said, “I know it’s a dream, too.”

He walked forward, still smiling. I knew bullets would not hurt him. And I could not change him, or make him go away, or escape him.

Ending a dream is not easy. You have to wake your body up. With only your mind to do it. But when a weasel-faced man is coming to put a knife in your belly, you do it.

The best way I know to describe the experience is to imagine swimming to the surface from the bottom of a pool of Jell-O, a suffocating struggle that can only be justified by panic at what may happen if you fail. And I did not fail.

I had just been introduced to Thomas, the true dream master. I call him Thomas because it is Aramaic for “twin”. He keeps my heart beating, drives my truck while I listen to the news on the radio, and creates the nighttime realms that I have no choice but to inhabit. He needs me to navigate the world, but I need him to exist.

For the next 30 years or so I kept up my lucid dreaming, but with much more respect for the lord of the realm. It eased the fear of nightmares that had kept me up as a child, sometimes until the sky brightened outside my window. The insomnia never went away, but at least I wasn’t afraid to fall asleep.

And in that time Thomas and I developed a language. Dreams recurred with small changes, symbols popped up like tokens so that I would know what he wanted to tell me. We were in it together.

But then I read some research. Some scientists somewhere had people play video games before bed, then woke them to learn what they were dreaming. It turned out, their Thomases were training them in their sleep, running them through the paces of the games. Dreams, it seems, are our brains’ way of confronting us safely with the challenges of our lives — practice without the risk of harm.

So now it made sense why I so often woke up with the solutions to problems in my head. Thomas had helped me solve them. And why little children in big cities have more nightmares of being chased by animals than being hit by taxis — the same reason why baby gazelles know to stand and run — because the fear is deep and primal, and useful.

I realized, I’d been cheating myself all these years. By turning off the nightmares, I’d stopped some of the most important lessons. So I decided to stop being lucid in my sleep.

It took several months to let go. My first victory came in a tiny boat floating down a wide tunnel. There were metal grates in the roof high above, but the sun was setting. The sluice narrowed and steepened as the light dimmed and the water quickened and rose toward the arc of the stone ceiling. Before long, it was near black and the sound of the rushing water roared in what was little more than a pipe, still shrinking, pitching ever more sharply.

I did not dissolve the tunnel, or halt the boat in the water. I did not bail from the dream and into the gelatin pond. I withstood it, until the sheer terror woke me with my blood thrashing in my ears.

After a time, I came to forget how to recognize the dreams. As in my childhood, I was at Thomas’s mercy. But I was no longer afraid, as I had been.

Until the night of January 20th, 2017. On that day, Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. And Thomas lost his mind.

The first dream, a nuclear war began outside my window. The next, I was trapped in a tiny freight elevator at the top of a skyscraper when the cable snapped. The following one, I watched a pack of monkeys attack a cat. Finally, I returned to a hotel room to find a girl drowned in a tub of dirty water. I could not scream. I called 9-1-1 but could not speak.

The following nights were no better. Waking up with the blankets on fire. Flying on a passenger plane as it took a nosedive. One night, there were two dreams in which Thomas let loose a creature — a spider the size of a baby with a humanoid head, and no face.

I tried pleading with Thomas. “Look,” I told him, “there’s nothing we can do about it, it’s no use terrorizing me every night, it only makes us tired.” But he is too frightened by the madman running the world, or at least our part of it, to be reasoned with. He wants to train me for chaos. His fear is primal, and deep.

And so I am learning to dream again. Ever on the alert for clues. I will train myself once more to be lucid. When reality turns upside down — when the lords of chaos take hold of the reins of the earth — at least I can make the world sane in my dreams.

Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.