When Waking Life Feels Like a Dream

By | October 3, 2020

Welcome. I’ve been thinking lately about the tension between dreams and waking life. So much of the recent months has felt uncharted, unreal — how many times have we compared what’s happening to the plot of a movie, to fiction? When a dream feels particularly “big” or poignant, I examine it, marveling at the creativity of my sleeping brain to traffic in metaphor, to make connections, to rifle through the contents of my subconscious and arrange it into something coherent. There’s clarity to be found, often, in observing what the brain is mulling over while the narrator is off duty.

When waking life seems particularly inscrutable or troubling or extraordinary, I have a wise friend whose first question is always, “How would you look at this if it were a dream?” It’s a useful tool, not for identifying evidence of “messages from the universe,” but for taking a step back from events that seem unwieldy and, for a moment, looking at them dispassionately. How are things connected? What is happening in the world, around me, right now, and what has my brain seized on as significant?”

I’ve heard from many people how their dreams are more vivid these past few months, about their first dreams in which masks made an appearance. One friend dreamed she was on her way to the airport, laden with a kayak under one arm, a pair of skis under the other, prepared to take the first plane to anywhere. Like living abroad and beginning to dream in a new language, we’re assimilating the new facts of our surroundings. It’s all grist for the dreaming brain.

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I looked up the quotation “Nothing is as boring as other people’s dreams,” and found it attributed to the author John Green, but something tells me he’s not the first to note this. So without telling us the plot of your dreams, tell us how they’ve changed in the past several months. Are they more vivid, or less? Do they seem like an escape from waking life, or a reflection of it? What do you notice? Tell us: athome@nytimes.com. Include your name, age and location. (And if you like hearing about others’s dreams, you can see a lovely depiction of some here.)

We’re At Home. We’ll read every letter sent. As always, more suggestions for leading a full life at home or near it appear below. See you next week.

  • Sufjan Stevens has a new album, “The Ascension,” and Jon Pareles has selected it as a Critic’s Pick. It’s a departure from Mr. Stevens’s acoustic records, and the lyrics of its synth-heavy songs “invoke heartache, malaise, wrath, ancient legends and the Bible; the music opens up cavernous expanses and also goes boom.” Have a listen.

  • It’s Banned Books Week. See how some of history’s most controversial novels, like “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath and Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” were covered in The Times.

  • And spend some time with the pandemic logbooks of other At Home readers.


Credit…Malik Bendjelloul/Sony Pictures Classics
  • We’ve rounded up Oscar-winning documentaries from the 21st century for your streaming pleasure this weekend. For a well-paced and mysterious story with great music, try “Searching for Sugar Man” from 2012. If you fancy a retreat into nature, try 2005’s “March of the Penguins.”

  • A documentary of more recent vintage, “American Murder: The Family Next Door” is about a Colorado resident who in 2018 pleaded guilty to murdering his pregnant wife and their two daughters. The critic Bilal Qureshi wrote: “The film’s power rests in the British filmmaker Jenny Popplewell’s decision to eschew the traditional form of the televised crime documentary — the datelines, the dramatic narrator and emotional interviews — to construct a narrative entirely out of archival footage.”

  • And we have four comedy specials that were recorded in March, just as we realized what the pandemic would mean.

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Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times
  • The New Age star Deepak Chopra is not surprised by the political polarization that characterizes this time, saying, “It’s been going on since the Stone Age.” But he’s worked for many years in conflict resolution and has tips for how to disagree better. Step 1? “Choose if you even want to engage.”

  • Instead of trying to rake every stray leaf from your yard this fall, think of your garden cleanup as an editing job. The columnist Margaret Roach spoke with an ornithologist and a plant pathologist about why leaf litter is important for burrowing insects like ground-nesting bees. The experts advise us to be a bit messier and less aggressive in removing debris.

  • And if you’ve been feeling down lately, try an “awe walk,” in which you consciously watch for the small wonders around you. (And then note those wonders in your pandemic logbook!)

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