Twice in my adult life I have changed homes. On each occasion, shortly after having moved, I’ve woken from dreams in which I had returned to and entered the recently-sold house as if it were still mine only to suddenly realize I was breaking and entering the new owners’ home and about to be caught. As a lucid dreamer and someone fascinated by the purpose of dreams, I wondered what this recurrent nightmare might mean, but like most people, I quickly dismissed them and returned to my workaday world.
The other day, however, the experience of being a stranger in my former home returned to me in a waking dream, which is an involuntary dream occurring while a person is awake. It was similar, perhaps, to the way Mary Shelley described how the germ for the story that would be fleshed out as Frankenstein revealed itself to her. As I ran on the treadmill and absentmindedly scanned the basement, my now-adult sons’ high school letterman’s jackets, hanging in dry cleaning bags from a bar; the ping pong table, covered with miscellaneous items; the red tubs full of Christmas decorations and stored on racks all suddenly seemed to disappear. Footsteps of children thudded over my head, and the voice of a mother, not my wife, wafted down the wooden steps from the kitchen accompanied by the smell of a phantom dinner cooking in the oven.
For a moment, the selfsame panic associated with finding myself a trespasser in a house that no longer belonged to me washed over me like it did in those dreams. Irrationally, I pressed the stop button on the treadmill for fear of being heard and discovered by the home’s new occupants. In the middle of trying to devise an escape plan or, if caught, a rational-sounding explanation for my presence in the house, I emerged from the waking dream, chided myself for my irrationality, and resumed my workout.
Ever since the experience, I’ve been pondering those dreams, sleeping and waking, and I have come to the conclusion that – whether externally or internally generated – they convey the poignant reminder that life, like the dreams themselves, is ephemeral and transient. Pretty much everything is temporary. From the briefest of sparks to the biggest of bangs, nothing is permanent. Everything is borrowed; nothing is forever owned.
Just as some folks lived in my house before I did, there will be a new set of inhabitants after I’m gone. It is only mine for the brief time I actually live in it, so it’s hardly “mine” at all. This reminds me of Plato’s conception of the life of the soul, which he believed to be permanent, existing both prior to life and after life in a dimension containing perfect “forms” of beauty, truth, justice, goodness, love, etc. The soul’s time in between is spent in a mortal body; the fleshy appetites of which cloud the soul’s memory of the forms and distract it from its ultimate goal of remembering the forms in their perfect state and returning to the world in which they exist. The souls that fail in this quest are continually reincarnated until they learn to value and exercise their ability to reason over their senses and get it right. So, like the homes in which we live, according to Plato, our bodies are only temporary abodes for our souls.
I don’t know about Plato’s notion of the soul and perfect forms. I’m not even entirely sure I possess a soul. And the purpose of dreams – at least for the near future – will remain a mystery. The only surefire conclusion I can draw from this exercise in speculation is that our lives and the bodies we occupy while living inside of them come with an expiration date that is ever-approaching, and the older I get, the faster the meantime seems to go.
If my dreams of trespassing in my former homes tell me nothing else, they remind me to live with a greater sense of urgency and to get my current house, body, mind, and soul in order before its time to make that final move to whatever comes next.
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