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The Dream Staircase

Essay by

Dallas Woodburn

The sliver of light wanted to flood the darkness away. I closed my eyes and imagined my bedroom filling with light.

A s a writer, I’ve always been interested in dreams—I see them as narratives our subconscious selves weave about our lives. So when my friend Tania told me she was taking a class in dream interpretation at the community college, I couldn’t wait to hear more as we hiked together on a mountain trail that overlooked the ocean. It was a gorgeous summer day, and we stopped at an outlook to gaze at the sparkling blue water far below.

“I’m fascinated by dreams, although I’ve never done dream interpretation myself,” I told her.

“That’s good, because I want to ask you a favor,” Tania continued. “I was wondering if I could analyze one of your dreams.”

“I haven’t remembered one in a while,” I told her.

“Well,” Tania said, “if you remember one of your dreams, let me know?”

I promised I would.

Less than a week later, I jerked awake in my pitch-black bedroom, heart pounding. Numbers on the clock glowed 3:45 a.m. The dream—a nightmare—still felt so real, so vivid, I was afraid of sinking back down into it if I dared close my eyes. Instead, I got out of bed, turned on my light, and read for half an hour to calm down.

The next morning as I ate breakfast, the dream flashed through my mind. I briefly considered telling Tania, but that only seemed like I would be giving the dream more power, more attention, more brain-space. I yearned for it to just fade away. I told myself I would let Tania analyze the next dream I remembered.

But I had the nightmare again. And again. And again.

By the fourth time, I knew this was no coincidence. I was dreaming this dream for a reason. I needed to meet with Tania to figure out what it meant.

We met at her house on a weekday morning, settling down side-by-side on her comfy couch like this was any other visit. She had asked me to write a paragraph about what happened in the dream. I wrote:

I wake up in my bedroom (but I am only dreaming about waking up) and I know immediately that someone is in my house. I see a strip of light under my bedroom door. Feeling uneasy, I get out of bed and open the door. Tim is standing there. Even though he doesn’t say anything, I can tell he is angry and I feel afraid. I try to flee past him, down the stairs, but he is blocking my way. Then I wake up, for real this time.

When I finished reading it aloud, Tania looked at me with compassion and concern in her eyes. I knew I made the right decision to share this dream with her.

“Have you talked to Tim recently?” she asked.

“No, not for months. Not since I moved back home.” Tim was my ex-fiancé; I had broken off our engagement earlier that spring for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was his temper.

“In the class I’m taking,” Tania explained, “we are taught that every person and item you see in your dream is representative of you. For example, when you see ‘Tim’ in your dream, it’s not actually Tim—it’s you. The emotions you feel and he feels in the dream all stem from your own psyche.”

I nodded, though I wasn’t sure I agreed. I mean, Tim had seemed so clear in my dream—and so clearly him.

Tania continued, “You have a recurring dream when your inner self is trying to work through something important. We unlock meaning by talking through the dream and making space for difficult conversations.”

She asked me to imagine the various items from my dream “sitting” with us in the room: me, Tim, my darkened bedroom, the sliver of light under the door, and the staircase. Next, she instructed me to have a conversation with each item, speaking about what emotions I felt in the dream. I was to start by sitting on the couch as myself, and then physically get up and move around the room to speak as each object.

At first, I balked. It seemed silly, and I wasn’t sure what to say. What emotions would my bedroom feel, for example? But with Tania’s gentle, guiding questions, I began to relax and embrace the activity. I decided that my room was comforting and dark, like a cocoon. The sliver of light under the door was hopeful and bright. The stairs were sturdy and optimistic.

“What do they want?” Tania asked.

The sliver of light wanted to flood the darkness away. I closed my eyes and imagined my bedroom filling with light. The stairs wanted to take me onto the next chapter of my life. I imagined walking past Tim, down the stairs, and away.

The turning point came not when I spoke to “Tim” as myself—describing my dread, confusion, and fear—but when I sat down in the place I had designated as “Tim” and spoke as him, in his voice. As Tim, I spoke about how devastated I felt about our break-up, and how frustrated and helpless the whole situation made me. “I don’t understand why you called off our engagement,” I said as Tim. “I am angry at you, Dallas, but I would never hurt you.”

Tania instructed me to get up and sit in my own designated spot again. “What do you want to say to Tim?” she asked me.

“I want to tell him that I’m sorry,” I said.

“So tell him that,” Tania urged.

Gazing at the empty chair that symbolized my ex-fiancé, I could clearly imagine him sitting there. “Tim, I want you to know that I’m sorry,” I said. “Even if you never understand my decision, I hope one day you can forgive me.” Tears streamed down my face as I choked out, “Goodbye.”

In real life, our break-up had been a complete mess. There had been so much rage and pain and fear that we had never talked like this. I hadn’t been able to tell Tim I was sorry. I hadn’t been able to say a real goodbye.

Still crying, I moved over to the chair and said as Tim, “It’s okay, Dallas. I forgive you.”

In that moment, a weight released inside me. I hadn’t even realized I was holding onto that weight until it was gone. I felt so much lighter.

That night, I had another dream featuring Tim. Only this dream was different. Instead of night, it was bright daylight. Instead of feeling afraid, I felt hopeful. I was walking down a long staircase, and Tim was walking up the staircase towards me. As we squeezed by each other, I smiled and he nodded hello. Then he continued on his way up the stairs, and I continued on my way down.

At the bottom of the staircase, there was a door. I opened it, and stepped outside into the fresh air of a sunny morning.

 

Dallas Woodburn, a recent Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, has published fiction and nonfiction in Fourth River, The Nashville Review, The Los Angeles Times, North Dakota Quarterly, Passages North, and Monkeybicycle, among others. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she won second place in the American Fiction Prize and her work appears in American Fiction Volume 13: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by American Writers (New Rivers Press). She blogs frequently at Daybydaymasterpiece.com and you can connect with her on Facebook @WriterDallas and on Twitter @DallasWoodburn. She is the founder of Write On! For Literacy, an organization that empowers young people through reading and writing endeavors: Writeonbooks.org.

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