Brian Sutton-Smith leaned on the podium as he spoke, a wisp of his blond hair covering his face. He was relaxed and confident, and every student liked him. Many of the women in the senior level class swooned when they saw him. He captured his audience, first with his New Zealand accent, then with his charm and finally with the authority of his words. I enrolled in his class, the Psychology of Childlore, and later discovered that he was the world’s foremost authority on the subject. The year was 1967, and the professor was forty-three years old. Bowling Green State University was lucky to have him on the faculty. A few years later, my neighbor told me that she really enjoyed a morning show on television with Dr. Sutton-Smith as the guest. She had the same starry look in her eyes after the program that I’d seen in the eyes of the women who took the class. “Do you know who he is?” she asked. “Yes, Trudy, I was one of his students.” I replied.
Part of the curriculum in the class was to do content analysis of children’s literature and dreams. But what do the dreams of adults have to do with childhood? Although the content of dreams changes as we grow older, the expression of our instincts, conflicts, hopes and fears will always be a part of the reality of dreaming. Dr. Sutton-Smith didn’t isolate childhood play in some neat category, rather he took a global look at play on a cross-cultural, longitudinal basis. He determined that an adult life without a healthy dose of play lost its luster. And he taught that it was equally important to take a look at our dreams, to learn how to remember them and to learn what they tell us about ourselves. He said that since a third of our lives is devoted to sleep, the time when we’re dreaming is as intrinsically important to our well being as how we conduct our waking lives.
I began to keep a dream journal, logging the content without trying to analyze it. As time went on, I was better able to remember what I’d dreamt, even some dreams that occurred early in the night. It was a good exercise because some forty years later, I’m still able to remember a part of what I’ve dreamt.
I’ve had dreams about flying, meeting celebrities (including JFK), writing, thousands of dreams involving content from the previous few days, sensual dreams, many fear driven dreams and a reoccurring dream that lasted for ten years. Following is some background information that will make the dream more meaningful in terms of analysis.
The last semester of my senior year in college, I skipped the final examinations and failed to graduate. The year before, I experienced my first panic attack in the middle of the night. The interesting aspect of the episode was that I woke suddenly, terrified as if I’d had a nightmare, but I couldn’t recall dreaming at all. The panic attacks were more pronounced and more frequent my senior year to the point that I couldn’t attend class, and I began drinking frequently. My family attended graduation, and I picked up my mock diploma afraid to tell anyone that I really wasn’t graduating. I earned the credits that I needed to graduate the next spring in night school and received my diploma.
Ten years later, my reoccurring high school dream began. In the dream, my mother told me that the university had notified her that my diploma wasn’t valid because I hadn’t taken an algebra class in junior high school. They told her that upon completion of the course that they would validate my diploma.
I was sitting in a classroom in a small chair with a desktop attached to it. I was fully aware that I’d graduated from college and was angry that I was required to take the class. A child was writing formulas on the blackboard, explaining the different variables to the class. He could only reach halfway up the board and wrote faster as the dream continued. I couldn’t understand the math, like I couldn’t understand Introduction to German my last semester in college because I didn’t study and only attended two classes at the start of the course. The dream continued and always began with the classroom scene. I had the dream occasionally, once a year or so for ten years. Then one night, the dream didn’t involve the classroom, but was a scene in the principal’s office. My mother was there, and the principal handed a diploma to me. My mother said, “I’m so proud of you for graduating, but I don’t understand why you were studying in junior high school.” I told her that I returned to school because she told me to do so. She said, “What I meant when I told you to return to school was that you should go back to school to teach.”
I spent many years trying to find help for the anxiety attacks that prevented me from functioning normally. The dream is clearly an expression of the fear that overwhelmed me. I remember sweating profusely stuck in that little chair watching a child scribbling math on the blackboard that I knew would always be beyond my grasp because I was always preoccupied with being trapped in the classroom. The conflict was my desire to finish school and my inability to do so, the same scenario that had been played out years before in my life.
The last dream in the series was the conflict resolution, occurring at a time when I was in remission from panic disorder. It really was beautiful the way that it ended. And it was Brian Sutton-Smith who taught me to listen to the message of dreams. The irony of the final scene finds it’s basis in my waking life, in my tendency to find humor in literal figures of speech. And it has presented itself in other dreams as well, including a dream that I had about Willy Nelson.
I was working as the building engineer in a immense Fort Worth landmark building, the Texas and Pacific Railroad Warehouse. The basement housed a large refrigeration room, a few thousand square feet of space with heavy doors sealing the entry and was a freezer for an ice cream company that once occupied a section of the building. The warehouse was owned by one man, with whom I worked closely.
The dream began in Austin, where the owner had bought a large house. I’ve never been to Austin, but I know that it’s a center for country music. He told me that Austin was our new headquarters and showed me through the house. It had a basement with a freezer similar to the one in the T & P building. When I discovered that Willy Nelson lived next door, I told my boss, and he said that he didn’t care for country music or Willy, and that he wanted me to lock him in the basement if I could catch him. My boss left the house, and Willy came over to borrow some sugar (honest). I grabbed him and locked him in the catacombs. My boss returned, and he told me that he wasn’t being literal about locking Willy up. After my boss left again, I knew that I had to do something to appease Willy’s anger, so I started cooking dinner for him and the members of his band. I’ve never hunted deer, nor have I eaten venison, but I was cooking venison burgers for the entourage, then spam. Everyone ate the meal hurriedly as they were late for a concert, and then they were running out of the door with Willy the last in line. I asked him for his autograph, but he said that he didn’t have any time to spare.
One more piece of the dream’s puzzle is that I had waited to see Willy’s concert at Billy Bob’s Texas, but he didn’t show because he was ill. My disappointment was apparent in the dream. And Austin, my boss, and the coolers were obviously a part of my waking life and were the “day remnants” (as Freud referred to them) in my dream.
When I was working day and night to finish my novel, I often had dreams about writing the scenes where I was stuck. Day remnants appear repeatedly in my dreams with the hope for conflict resolution.